Why Both Technology and Soft Skills Are Now Crucial for CFOs

The evolving role of the CFO means that rising finance leaders must now be fluent in technology and human relationships. Panelists at a Fortune virtual conversation shared their unique approaches to leadership.

Image placeholder

The future won’t look like the past. 

An exclusive focus on finance, accounting, and profitability alone no longer fully describes the skill set a CFO must master. Instead, finance leaders today must also be comfortable with so-called soft skills as well as next-generation technology solutions.

“I don’t think in terms of ladders. I think in terms of experiences and collecting experiences across your career.”

Kristina Salen Chief Financial Officer WWE

At a recent Fortune CFO Collaborative event, a group of panelists described their varied paths to leadership positions in the finance function—and they shared how their companies think about meeting emerging trends.

Unconventional Paths to the CFO Role

Asked to define their unique paths to the CFO role, the panelists detailed a broad range of backgrounds that all helped to inform their focus, their management styles, and their approaches.

“I was raised by an accountant and an artist,” said Tania Secor, global chief financial officer, R/GA. And despite her degree in art history, Secor has spent the bulk of her career in the software-as-a-service industry. “I bring my software experience as a CFO to this very human and professional service organization, but it's with an appreciation for the unpredictability and the organicness of that creative process, and that's really what ultimately will be driving … profitable growth for our agency.

“As a CFO, you need to have a broad wingspan and technical skills.”

Kristina Salen, chief financial officer, WWE, noted that she was a technology investor for nearly 20 years before becoming a CFO—a perspective that has provided her with a sort of sixth sense. “You're looking at hundreds of companies and meeting with CEOs and CFOs over the years, to kind of have pattern recognition of what some of those problems and opportunities might be,” she said. 

Salen added, “I don’t think in terms of ladders. I think in terms of experiences and collecting experiences across your career.”

Harmit Singh, executive vice president and CFO, Levi Strauss & Co., recounted a career that spanned five industries. “I worked in private companies and public companies. I spent 50% of my professional life overseas. And I've never done the same job I've done before, other than this job,” he said. 

Singh said one element he focused on was nurturing employees: “I think it's important that you bet on talent to develop talent.”

Tammy Romo, executive vice president and CFO, Southwest Airlines, with three decades at the U.S. airline, said that leaders’ willingness to develop talent presented her with opportunities. “I was always very fortunate in that I had leaders who believed in me, and that gave me the confidence to step into those new roles,” she said, adding that supporting talent is something she fosters with her leadership team. 

Romo also extolled the virtues of pushing one’s boundaries. “Really believe in yourself and be willing to step into that new role, and maybe learn to be open to learning new things that are outside of what you grew up doing,” she said. 

The Growing Importance of Technology 

When the topic turned to technology, the CFOs emphasized the importance of smart automation, skilled staff, and robust integration tailored to their organization’s unique needs.

Singh described a good working relationship with the CIO, a role that has reported to him for the past two decades. “One plus one is actually equal to three,” he said. “It helps drive commercially driven, technology-driven decisions.” Singh also noted that technology is changing quickly, and even established companies such as Levi Strauss must adapt. “The company has been around 160-plus years, but the world's evolving, and we are spending two-thirds of our capital on technology,” he added.

R/GA’s Secor said, “Our economy has changed, and especially with the pandemic, we at R/GA believe that technology is complementary to and a facilitator to a more human future.” She described a close collaboration with her company’s COO to drive efficiency—and job satisfaction—for its employees. 

Technology is ubiquitous, Salen said. “Maybe 20 years ago, it was a department in the corner. It now permeates every aspect of your business and every aspect of the finance function, so there's lots of opportunities to learn,” Salen said, adding that while at Etsy, she enrolled in a SQL class to better understand the engineering function.

"Automation has helped free up staff resources to focus on other priorities, such as environmental, social, and governance efforts."

Tammy Romo Chief Financial Officer Southwest Airlines

An Emphasis on Enhancing Skills  

On the topic of skills training for employees, Barbara Larson, senior vice president, accounting, tax, and treasury, Workday, asked the panelists, “How do you think about preparing your teams to have these kinds of [technology skills] going forward?”

Singh said automation has helped free up time for employees to learn skills that could be used in more analytical roles. To help the process move forward, Levi Strauss partners with an outsourced technology firm for certain advanced technologies like robotic process automation. To ensure his team has the skills necessary for today’s finance organizations, Singh said he started small and provided assurances that they wouldn’t simply be replaced. “I said to everybody, ‘We are not replacing jobs, but we will help upskill you and we will test our way into it.’”

At Southwest, Romo took a similar slow and deliberate approach that began with ensuring the organization had the right leaders, communicating throughout the process, and demonstrating the benefits of automation. The approach has freed up staff resources enough to be able to focus on other priorities, such as environmental, social, and governance efforts, she added.

“I’m really excited about where we're taking this, but we want to do it in a way that is methodical and that is really, truly bringing value, because that's the only way that it's going to be successful over the long term,” Romo said.

Salen described the challenge of moving past silos. “I think one of the things that finance teams struggle with is insularity,” she said. To help counter that tendency, she encourages her team to innovate by creating their own networks and bringing their best ideas forward. 

Yet Salen also emphasized the importance of interpersonal skills, highlighting the fact that she took on the role of CFO at WWE during a pandemic. “I literally have not met 90% of my team in person, and soft skills have been just primarily the most important thing I can do to be effective in the organization,” she added. “I can't dazzle folks with my finance acumen if I can't get a feeling of connection through the screen.” 

Successful finance leaders who have weathered the pandemic likely did so in part by strengthening their connection to the broader organization, Salen added. “We’re in the business of people,” she said.

Learn more about the CFO Collaborative events and gain insights from some of the world’s top business leaders, including former CFOs-turned-CEOs, about the evolving CFO role.

More Reading