Charting the ascent of the futurist CFO fixated on opportunity – not just risk

Armed with an expanding arsenal of AI, cloud analytics and process automation, CFOs are increasingly attaining chief executive roles. But finance chiefs can consolidate power ethically by spotlighting upskilling and championing inclusiveness.

By Oliver Pickup, Award-winning Writer, Pickup Media


smartCFO vol 4

The rapid ascent of BP’s Murray Auchincloss exemplifies a career pathway traversed by modern finance chiefs, who are excellent with numbers and – in a departure from tradition – strategically strong, and increasingly visionary. 

Armed with numerical nous, as expected, and also smart with technology and data, these pioneering, “futurist CFOs” are more focused on opportunity, in addition to risk. Little wonder such canny, multifaceted performers appeal to boards, employees, and customers alike, especially in these uncertain times.

Auchincloss, appointed BP CFO in July 2020, might have had power thrust upon him – the Canadian former tax analyst told friends he had only 20 minutes’ notice before taking charge as interim CEO in September, following the abrupt resignation of Bernard Looney – but few were surprised when he was confirmed as permanent CEO in January.

“He has an ability to answer any numerical question with data, without sidestepping, without being political,” Oswald Clint, an oil and gas analyst at Bernstein Research, told the Financial Times. “You don’t get that with every CFO.”

Auchincloss’s acceleration to BP’s top post continues a trend that saw 24% of outgoing S&P 500 CFOs land CEO or president roles last year, up from 8.8% in 2021, according to executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA). The spike reflects finance heads’ tightening grip on corporate strategy and their expanding ability to navigate disruption over the short- and – more crucially – longer-term.

“Over the last 18 to 24 months, we have seen a real shift away from CFOs with capital-markets expertise to favouring those instead with a strong operational bias,” Jenna Fisher, Managing Director and head of the CFO practice at RRA, said to Fortune.

“Over the last 18 to 24 months, we have seen a real shift away from CFOs with capital-markets expertise to favouring those instead with a strong operational bias” 


Jenna Fisher Managing Director and head of the CFO practice at RRA

Forward-thinking CFOs can unlock business insights their peers miss by canvassing threats more expansively and funnelling data into cutting-edge analytics engines. By embracing process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence optimisation (AI) and cloud analytics earlier than laggard functions, they elevate enterprise agility amid swirling complexity.

CFOs’ widening technology lens

Further, because finance interacts with all commercial operations, numbering-crunching chiefs boast a uniquely panoramic view of an organisation’s data flows and digital infrastructure. This privileged insight allows tech-smart CFOs to speed up core processes using RPA and AI, while shrinking period-end reporting cycles, enabling business-critical agility and innovation, and driving strategy.

In a recent webinar hosted by Workday, titled From Scorekeeper to Value Creator, Scott Schwaitzberg, an Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company’s New York office, observed that the responsibilities asked of CFOs have grown to encompass domains not historically managed by finance chiefs. 

“We’re seeing CFOs play a much larger role in digital alongside the more traditional areas like budget, risk and planning,” he said. “There’s more on their plate than ever, but the North Star of ‘I’m the CFO, and I’m responsible for driving value creation’ is no different.”

“We’re seeing CFOs play a much larger role in digital alongside the more traditional areas like budget, risk and planning”


Scott Schwaitzberg Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company

Indeed, by presenting real-time data visualisations rather than static Excel slides, progressive CFOs have begun democratising data literacy across operating units, empowering stakeholders to course-correct quickly during economic volatility.

Equally, clued-up finance figures can overcome biases rooted in backwards-looking figures by appending internal data feeds with alternative third-party sources. For example, at Jiffy Lube franchise Team Car Care, a Workday customer, supplementing financial metrics with weather reports helps to right-size labour scheduling and inventory planning. The business tweaks sales projections to optimise per-site profitability and adjusts the number of staff by factoring pending storms into its econometric models.

Rethinking leadership models

While the leap from bean counter to chief executive initially seems an uncomfortable stretch for a role traditionally preoccupied with stewarding ledgers, the trend echoes leadership configurations catalysed by sweeping technological change previously.

For instance, Donaldson Brown’s appointment to the executive board of General Motors in 1924 – three years after becoming the company’s treasurer – came amid total reinvention, as mass-produced automobiles reshaped transport, trade and mobility.

A decade earlier, the American had developed the return-on-investment (ROI) measure, known as the DuPont formula. At the time, the ROI method for assessing the efficiency of business operations was revolutionary. Brown’s financial principles – his focus on ROI and a decentralised management system – became foundational to modern corporate financial practices. His innovative approach to economic analysis and management helped shape how businesses operate, emphasising the importance of financial metrics in strategic decision-making.

A century later, AI and cloud analytics are again recasting competitive advantage at unprecedented speed. As data complexity compounds commercial uncertainty, boards are responding by empowering – if not elevating – a new breed of tech-enabled, opportunity-fixated finance chiefs to sharpen enterprise agility.

Therefore, it is no surprise that today’s boards increasingly promote technologically literate finance figures to underline bold and visionary leadership in challenging macroeconomic terrain. 

As intuitive algorithms crunch datasets too bulky for legacy analytics, the fusion of finance and technology leadership promises to unlock optimal decisions using predictive insights. By melding AI and cultural change, rather than crude headcount culls, wise CFOs can positively disrupt operating models in tune with the unprecedented pace of change.

However, as technology rewrites leadership conventions, CFOs should not alienate employees unaccustomed to automation-assisted hierarchy. These prospective CEOs must maintain psychological contracts between staff and employers to earn lasting authority and rebuild trust.

Curating an upskilling culture

“Rebuilding trust” was the theme of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in January. CFOs and the rest of the C-suite have a role to play here. With only 61% of the 32,000+ global respondents trusting business leaders to tell the truth – 2% lower than government leaders – according to Edelman’s 2024 Trust Barometer, highly paid CEOs parachuted in from the finance department could further disenfranchise workers, especially if new chiefs prioritise targets over culture, severing implicit understanding between staff and employers. 

Moreover, inclusive CFOs-turned-CEOs can foster a shared identity between leadership and employees by curbing astronomical executive rewards. It’s worth considering High Pay Centre research, published in early January, that shows median FTSE 100 CEO pay, excluding pension, currently stands at £3.81 million – 109 times the median full-time worker’s pay of £34,963, and a 10% increase since last March.

Despite expansive commercial outlooks, CFOs must recognise that improving enterprise collaboration and nurturing corporate culture consolidates power more sustainably in the long term than fixating on short-term gains, and personal bank-balance boosting.

“There is a shift within leadership development that emphasises stewardship: an understanding that the ultimate success of an enterprise requires leaders to focus on how they can set up the business to succeed beyond their tenures as CEO or CFO,” says Sasha Young, a development coach for leaders in financial markets. “The crucial question for the futurist CFO is: ‘How can I leave this enterprise – the business and its culture – in the best shape possible for future success?’”

“There is a shift within leadership development that emphasises stewardship: an understanding that the ultimate success of an enterprise requires leaders to focus on how they can set up the business to succeed beyond their tenures as CEO or CFO” 


Sasha Young Development coach for leaders in financial markets

To sustain authority ethically, futurist CFOs should spotlight upskilling initiatives preparing talent at all levels for AI, quantum computing, and other nascent technologies.

Proactive finance figures can continually reskill workforces using responsible AI techniques to prevent skill gaps from widening as automation intensifies. For instance, Workday’s Closing the AI Trust Gap, published earlier this year, highlights the symbiosis between predictive technologies and humans. 

The research shows that while 62% of leaders welcome AI, only 52% of employees feel the same. Further, 70% of leaders say AI should be developed in a way that easily allows for human review and intervention, but 42% of employees believe their company doesn’t clearly understand what systems should be fully automated and which require human intervention.

“While the tools, technology and data available to leaders are evolving dramatically, open, trusting, symbiotic communication between leaders and employees will continue to be essential for enterprises to thrive,” adds Young. 

“If the futurist CFO can resonate with this cultural dynamic while bringing their financial, operational and strategic nous to the board table, they will truly be setting the example of leadership for today and tomorrow.”

Posted in:  smartCFO Magazine, Vol 04

More Reading