I start by highlighting that while Accounting and Finance share a thin line, it has been argued that Finance is an element or a subset of Accounting. However, their ends are the same – provision of information and insights to enhance decision-making.

C-suite execs are appointed/selected based on academic and professional qualifications, exposure, and experience as well as other underlying considerations. This article underscores one of such considerations. The c-suite position of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is a high-level cadre with responsibility over the finances of an entity. Other c-suite positions include Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Chief Security Officer (CSO), Chief Operations Officer (COO) amongst others. A CFO may be highly professionally qualified but be overqualified for an entity, while another entity might consider a CFO professionally underqualified. The article delves into intricate character-specialty of CFOs and how to make an informed choice.

The CFO albeit has oversight over the accounting functions of an entity is not the Chief Accounting Officer – this is ascribed to the CEO who has overall oversight on the operations of an entity. The responsibilities of CFOs vary largely depending on size, ownership structure, and organisational culture amongst others.

In appointing a CFO, by statutory regulation, there are certain requirements for specific organisations especially public interest entities (PIEs) and significant public interest entities (SPIEs). However, generally, a CFO should hold both academic and professional qualifications. I must note that currently in Nigeria, professional qualifications by ACCA, CFA, ICAN – in alphabetical order – are highly sought after.

Beyond the professional qualification, is a significantly taken-for-granted phenomenon – “specialty competence”. Broadly, there are five (5) specialties in the Accounting and Finance profession – audit and assurance, performance management, taxation, financial reporting, and financial management. These specialities find relevance in both public and private sectors as well in both local and international markets. A (potential) CFO cannot be “jack of all trade”. Each (potential) CFO by interest, exposure, experience, and training aligns with a specialty and this is the question I address.

Who does a business need as their CFO?

An auditor? A tax expert? A financial management expert? A reporter? A performance manager?

All five specialties are most assuredly represented in all organisations, while some are outsourced. Who should lead the team since we can only have one at the helms at a time. My take is this and quite subjectively – each business should review their peculiar needs and make their choice. This does not resound like a solution, but please follow on. Contingency theory helps us to understand that there is no best approach to a situation especially in different contexts, hence my escapist approach to the question of who should lead.

Quickly, I will highlight few significant strengths and weaknesses of each specialty and I hope this should help businesses understand the behaviours of their CFOs too.

1. An auditor is prepped as a compliance officer and is wired for due diligence. As a CFO, they will “over scrutinise” communications that pass through their office. It is likely that the CEO and other management staff will have “issues” with them, and the major complaint will be – “don’t you trust me?”. Funnily, when an auditor hears this, it is a red flag to dig deeper. They tend to be quieter, “very” observant, a good listener and slow to act. They are critics, hence quickly identify errors. Businesses that want to develop their organisational structure will find them helpful in navigating thorny strategic issues. Additionally, given their grasp of regulations, they can ensure compliance, which is significant for businesses to thrive.

2. A tax expert is focused on maximising value for their organisation with respect to taxes. They have very good manoeuvring skills, and they use their skill to help in detecting loopholes in tax legislations and taking advantage of such loopholes. They are skilled planners, very calculative and quickly form relationships. Tax experts have the capacity to be manipulative and argumentative as well. A tax-inclined CFO will help businesses with planning, budgeting, forecasting and value. They understand the importance of value and help significantly in that regard.

3. Performance managers are tactical and strategic; always working towards value maximisation, optimisation, and realisation. They are more interested in results than process. Due to their high computational skills, ability for sensitivity analysis and tact, they are more vulnerable to quantitative results. Hence such a person as a CFO may not ordinarily consider qualitative factors that influence performance. They stick heavily to the numbers and always say that “numbers don’t lie”. A performance-based CFO is more suitable for established businesses. In a new business, they can drive performance but there is evidence that their driving force may be aggressive and inconsiderate.

4. Reporters are very versed, because of the awareness of all transactions and events in an organisation. They are not ordinarily involved in the approval process, but they are the dumping ground for all financial transactions and events. They also understand the implications of a transaction on the outlook of an organisation. It is believed that when an entity winds up, it is likely that a reporter would have resigned earlier. They know about the organisation and understand its financial position. Financial reporters are diligent and have eyes for error detection. They talk less and are confidential. The presentational skills of reporters are top-notch, and they also can be manipulative by presenting outcomes of similar transactions and events differently to different users. Reporters can help businesses to understand the implications of a transaction or event even before they occur. This helps planning and decision making.  

5. Finally, but not the least are financial managers in charge of treasury. Their goal is how to raise funds and maximise value. As a CFO, they are more likely to be preoccupied with portfolio (investment) drives. Ordinarily, they are stingy and want justification for each spend. They are highly motivated and are not emotional spenders. A downside about them is their inability to see beyond financial gain. For new businesses, they are useful in raising funds, as well as helping existing businesses to raise funds for expansion.

A person can combine characteristics of all five specialties, but there is usually a dominant feature, and it is imperative that when choosing a CFO, businesses should be reminded that each potential candidate has a dominant feature, which should be considered in line with organisational need at the time.