Posted: Mar 1st, 2010

It’s not easy being a CFO these days. Senior financial officers have been hit with a one-two punch: first was the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 with its stricter accounting requirements; more recently, the economic downturn has significantly increased pressure to meet investor expectations. Not surprisingly, many CFOs have headed for the door. Others, however, have risen to the challenge by assuming a newly important role in their company—that of a trusted advisor to the CEO

This new breed of CFO has more ability than ever to influence company strategy, often called upon to assess growth opportunities and mergers and acquisitions before, not after, they occur. In companies like Oracle, Southwest Airlines, Hewlett-Packard, and Boeing, the position has even been a steppingstone to CEO or chairman. “The best CFOs do not limit their influence or their perspective to traditional financial issues,” says Al Castino, retired chief financial officer and board member of Autodesk. “They need to think about an enterprise in an integrated fashion.”

There’s only one problem: Raised on the certainty of numbers, many financial officers often lack the subtle communication and leadership skills necessary to negotiate and direct strategy. While some companies have experimented with rotating financial officers through managerial positions to develop that confidence, Tuck Executive Education has pioneered another solution: the Strategic Financial Leadership Program. Designed specifically for financial officers, the program launches May 10–14 and is open to individual participants or teams involved in developing, communicating, and leading strategy.

Program faculty director Robert Howell says Tuck developed the program in response to requests from CFOs themselves. “CEOs are demanding more of CFOs and asking for more help and guidance. That necessitates some new additional skills that many don’t have,” says Howell, a professor of accounting and finance at Tuck. “The spots are opening up and yet the pool of candidates is not necessarily prepared.”

“They have the technical skills, but generally don’t have the operating skills,” adds Colleen Cunningham, former chief accounting officer at AT&T who is now global managing director, finance and accounting at Resources Global Professionals. At the same time, says Cunningham, those skills are even more necessary both to explain financial reporting for newly skittish boards, and to weigh in—and even push back—on management decisions. “It’s knowing that your opinion is requested at the table and having the confidence to get your point across,” she says.

The program is evenly balanced between finance, strategy, communication, and leadership. Highlights include an opening session led by Howell on the role of financial leadership and value creation. A session on strategy by Tuck management professor Sydney Finkelstein follows, in which he analyzes in-depth why companies fail or succeed. Next, the director of Tuck’s new Center for Leadership, Pino Audia, will teach a session on leadership for both individuals and groups. Professor of corporate communication Paul Argenti will follow up with a session on how CFOs can use corporate communication to enhance reputation and connect strategy to internal and external constituents. Finally, Howell weighs in with a session focused on reading financial statements in a new way that emphasizes risk management.

These topics will all be grounded in an “action-learning project” of direct relevance to the participant’s sponsoring company—for example, a proposal to restructure company financing, or an analysis of the costs and benefits of entering a new area of business. “The idea of putting theory into practice as quickly as possible cements the theory,” says Howell. Done the right way, he adds, it can also have a cost-saving effect. “If it has significant value, they can pay for the price of the program and then some,” he says. That’s good for a company’s overall strategy—and its bottom line.