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The CFO: A Cultural Change Agent?



Published on February 6, 2018

The transformation of corporate culture has meant more than just remote access, open spaces and a move away from the corner office. Physical spaces are not the only things that have changed—employee expectations are different as well. The things that drove their predecessors do not motivate millennial employees. This is definitely not your parents’ workplace. Employees expect productive, engaging, and enjoyable work that focuses on providing a meaningful experience. According to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends, 80% of executives rated the employee experience as very important (42%) or important (38%), but only 22% reported that their companies were excellent at building a differentiated employee experience. Corporate culture, then, loosely defined as “the way we do things around here,” inextricably links to the employee experience.

Understanding and improving the employee experience is non-negotiable. Success requires not only a shift away from traditional mindsets, but leadership from the top: senior executives and key management officials across the entire C-suite. The CFO is the dark-horse candidate best positioned to champion cultural change. 

An effective CFO must establish a 360-degree view of the organization, covering each individual line of business without bias. The CFO also holds the key to an enormous amount of data, which grants them the unique ability to identify areas of concern well before their peers. It is their role to establish strong management, resourcing, business development, and budget-forecasting processes—each of which affects cultural priorities. In fact, Deloitte’s CFO Signals survey found that CFOs aspire to spend roughly 60% of their time as a catalyst for change in their organizations. 

However, the report also found that the majority of CFOs are often ill equipped to go beyond just crunching the numbers and driving organization-wide change initiatives, due partly to the cultural legacies of their predecessors.

How can CFOs take the necessary steps to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility and at the same time mold corporate culture to create a fulfilling work environment for their employees. CFOs can engender cultural change through a four-step process:

1. Diagnose the culture

The first step calls on the CFO to reflect on the organization’s current state and diagnose what changes are of the utmost importance. CFOs must reflect on the organizations’ ‘culture fit’ and single out unsatisfactory outcomes, the behaviours that caused them, and most importantly, the underlying beliefs that support them.  

2. Reframe the existing narrative

The second step involves acquiring organizational buy-in. This calls on the CFO to unfreeze existing beliefs and illustrate why cultural change is unavoidable. Here, it is important for the CFO to note that the pre-existing beliefs may have served a valuable purpose at one time. It is important to tread carefully when exposing the pitfalls and potential consequences of entrenched beliefs. As a result, the CFO can take advantage of the data at their disposal to reframe the narrative and quantify why change may be in the best interests of employees and their workplace.

3. Replace existing belief patterns

Getting people to accept a new narrative may be challenging, but replacing existing behaviours is a completely different story. CFOs should expect to exercise their political acumen and strike a balance between exhibiting traits of both a diplomat and a disrupter in order to achieve success. As a diplomat, the CFO must actively model the desired behaviours in the new environment. This means walking the talk and leading by example. Without displaying and communicating expectations, it is misguided to expect others to carry the weight of change on their shoulders. Unfortunately, the aforementioned is sometimes not enough to push the needle forward. As a disruptor, the CFO may be forced to shake up their talent, recruit new leaders and replace those who are unwilling to adapt to the new culture.

4. Reinforce desired behaviours and outcomes

In this fourth and final step, the CFO must refreeze cultural beliefs in their organization to ensure that the new cultural environment is sustainable over the long term. At this point, the CFO needs to break down silos and solidify relationships with key business partners in order to institutionalize the cultural changes. The objective for them is to demonstrate that change is descending from the top. To support reinforcement, levers like revisiting compensation, advancement, and performance structures can also be anchored to build trust and win the hearts and minds of employees.

Cultural change does not just happen. It takes concerted effort and substantial work. Yet because CFOs are so deeply entrenched in every aspect of the business, they have not only an ability but a responsibility to guide their followers toward cultural change. They cannot ignore this leadership role; instead, they must help their organization prove value by reinvigorating culture to deliver results. Never underestimate the power of a dark horse. When the money is split between the favourites, go with the longshot. They will generally surprise you.




Catherine Parsons Dhamija Catherine Parsons Dhamija

Catherine is a Consulting Partner in our Human Capital service line, the people side of business.  Her expertise lies in helping organizations achieve their results through leadership alignment, strategic planning, and team effectiveness.  She has spent most of her career in the Toronto marketplace, recently moving to the Burlington office to drive growth in the Halton, Hamilton, Niagara corridor.



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