The CFO of the future: what will the role require in 2030?

Simon Davidson
business man
While today’s CFO is tasked with navigating a complex regulatory environment and emerging risks they're also increasingly expected to act as a strategic adviser. Simon Davidson shares the key findings from recent events and client conversations.

My colleagues and I recently brought together over 250 finance leaders for an event on ‘The CFO of the future’ to discuss what will stay the same, what skills and competencies will change by 2030 and beyond, and where you can focus on to prepare. We also held three dinners with CFOs in the North West, Yorkshire, and London to hear more.

How will the CFO's remit expand?

There's no doubt that the role will become more complex and diverse, increasingly covering areas traditionally outside of finance. There's already an expectation in many businesses that their CFO will play a role in and evaluate HR strategy, sustainability, tax strategy, the digital roadmap, data quality, the change agenda, and more.

Other attributes of the role that I anticipate will move from optional ‘nice to haves’ into ‘must haves’ in the future include insightful financial analysis, treasury expertise, leadership of the I&D agenda, and data-led best-informed decision making. While we do often speak with CFOs who already lead on some of these areas, an ability to do so is likely to become a core, expected part of the role for most by 2030 and beyond.

Even if CFOs don't take on all of these responsibilities themselves, they'll likely take an elevated role in supporting on them alongside CEOs – and to take this a step further, it seems likely we'll see the proportion of CFOs moving on to the CEO role increase over the next 10 years as their breadth and strategic influence continues to widen.

This view on the expansion of the role was mirrored by attendees during the event, with a poll finding that the majority (56%) anticipate ‘expansion into non-traditional CFO responsibilities’ will be the most significant change to the CFO role over the next five years.

This shift won’t only impact you in your role. It will also influence the skills and personalities needed to operate as a successful finance function, as you'll need to ensure you have the right team around you with the range of expertise needed to support you in areas you’re not as confident influencing.

This shift is already happening. A separate survey we carried out of 300 mid-market CFOs found that the top three skills CFOs are looking to hire into their finance function over the next 12 months are ESG strategy, automation expertise, and finance business partnering. As organisations look to their CFO and finance team more and more to generate value and deliver data-led insights, these non-conventional finance skills will become increasingly important.

The actions you'll need to take to secure these skills will also change. ‘Changing employee expectations, for example around hybrid working’ and ‘lack of internal progression opportunities’ were cited as the top two challenges CFOs are facing in attracting and retaining finance talent. CFOs will need to adapt their recruitment and retention strategies and review the learning and development opportunities they're providing if they want to not only attract, but also retain top talent.

A quarter say they're already offering flexible arrangements and using automation to reduce the manual burden on employees, freeing up their time to develop in other areas, and I anticipate this number will grow significantly over the next five years.

What will stay the same?

There are several non-negotiable skills that will remain integral to the CFO role in the long term –  particularly those relating to business protection and operational delivery.

Without strong financial acumen, effective compliance, and robust controls, it would be very difficult to lead any finance function. These are key competencies not only for securing a CFO role, but also for maintaining the trust of stakeholders and keeping your reputation intact throughout your tenure.

While these tend to be the areas that CFOs would like to spend less of their time on, it won't be possible for CFOs to focus on the increasingly important strategic aspects of the role if the ‘business as usual’ isn't running effectively – and in many cases, the list of areas the CFO needs to consider to make sure the business does run effectively and is protected against risk is growing. Controllership will remain a fundamental part of the role.

Beyond conventional tasks like closing the month-end and processing payroll, we’re seeing CFOs take on tax and ESG risk, cyber security, ensuring customer data is handled correctly, and navigating AI risk.

Where should CFOs focus?

To remain successful in the role, current CFOs will need to ensure they keep developing their skillsets, while those looking to be appointed for the first time will need to identify which areas to focus on to gain the necessary experience.

Leadership and executive presence

When asked which area CFOs would like more support or guidance on to ensure their skillset is aligned with future requirements, ‘leadership and executive presence’ took the top spot.

With the expectation to drive change initiatives, lead finance functions with increasingly diverse skillsets and roles, and foster collaboration with the rest of the business, CFOs recognise the need to effectively communicate and align with other executive leaders to drive strategic growth and navigate incoming risks – but this isn’t a skill that’s taught in accountancy training. 

Every individual will have their own authentic leadership style. While it may be evolution rather than revolution, modern leadership needs to focus on the ability to inspire, influence, and empower others, both within and outside their organisation.

“Authentic leadership is the best leadership, but there is no doubt more visibility at a CFO level - and that does come with an expectation in terms of being able to flex your communication style to engage a broader range of people.”
Maddie Blanks, Director, People Advisory, Grant Thornton

In our recent CFO Forum, Group Finance Director Philip Wilbraham emphasised the benefits he has personally experienced from proactively positioning himself as a partner to the business. Entering every interaction with stakeholders with a high level of curiosity and asking open questions, rather than wearing a more traditional ‘finance hat’ that may be perceived as more critical, can contribute to a shift from finance feeling shut out and isolated to included from the get-go.

Proactively positioning yourself as a partner to stakeholders rather than a ‘gatekeeper’ will lead to people being more open with you, letting you see and understand the business, and help you to build strong relationships around the decision-making table. This is only going to become increasingly important as CFOs look to spend more of their time on strategic initiatives and value creation.

Digital and automation

On the technology front, CFOs won't need to be the deep specialists and experts on digital and automation – however, with our recent research finding that 94% of businesses plan to implement digital transformation initiatives in their finance function over the next 12 months, it's certainly important to know enough of the art of the possible to help steer the direction, address risks and seize opportunities. 

“Technology is unavoidably going to become an increasingly important part of finance leaders' roles. A lot of recent opportunities around technology involve using it to drive efficiencies as well as growth - and that clearly involves investment. As a CFO, you need to understand what exactly you're investing in, and what benefits you're going to get.”
Christina Geary, Commercial Director, BJSS

Staying abreast of the trends in technology will impact every aspect of the CFO role, from managing AI risks to driving operational efficiencies, and failing to understand it will increasingly undermine any CFO’s chance of success.

The key takeaway

While the core tenants of the CFO role will remain the same, there's no doubt that the remit is expanding, and ‘softer skills’ such as increased emotional intelligence and an adaptable communication style will become necessities, not a ‘nice to have’. We've already started to see some clients and contacts relabel those 'soft skills' as 'alpha skills,' recognising their critical importance.

This increased scope will in many ways make the CFO's role more challenging. But, the panellists at our CFO Forum also shared that these challenges will also make the role more varied, important, and impactful. As Christina said at the end of the session, “when you can see that the decisions you’re making day-in day-out are actually driving the business forwards and making it successful, that’s an amazing feeling”.

For more insight and guidance, get in touch with Simon Davidson.tracking-pixel