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CFO leadership: what makes an exceptional CFO?

Elizabeth Dulcich
Elizabeth Dulcich CFO Connect

The role of the CFO has evolved. Nowadays, CFOs are tasked with strategic decision-making responsibilities, acting as the CEO’s right arm in all financial matters internally and externally. 

In light of this evolution, the CFO has naturally stepped into a leadership role within the company. However, this exciting new facet of the role may require some personal and professional development. 

Luckily, we were able to hear from experienced finance leaders about CFO leadership and qualities that distinguish good CFOs from exceptional ones.

CFO Connect Summit

At this year’s CFO Connect Summit, the CFO Connect community had the pleasure of hearing from the following industry experts on the question of CFO leadership:

They brought an impressive depth of experience and insight about CFO leadership to their panel “Beyond the Numbers: How Great CFOs Lead Exceptional Teams.”

Watch the full panel session here, and continue reading for excerpts from the discussion about the top qualities for exceptional CFO leadership.

Key to CFO leadership: flexibility

Julian Lange

CFO, Upvest

The name of the game is being flexible while remembering your priorities.

When asked about particular qualities that make a CFO great, flexibility was at the top of the list for the expert panel. Whether it’s for finance-related tasks like budgeting and forecasting, or for overall finance or business strategy, a great CFO will remain flexible. From one day to the next, you may need to adapt your plans should an unexpected situation arise.

Flexibility during crises

Max Gärtner

Head of Finance, Doctolib

 A CFO has to keep in mind what the market needs right now.

The importance of flexibility is especially striking during uncertain economic or social periods. For example, Max Gärtner from Doctolib mentioned that his company had to throw out their entire strategy when COVID hit.


They had to assess the situation and prioritize. This meant dropping projects and adapting quickly to the changing situation. The strategies that were sacrificed made way for a new priority: facilitating vaccine appointments. 

In order to support the government’s efforts to vaccinate the population against COVID, the company had to scrap their finance and tech roadmaps for 2020. Thanks to the team’s flexible attitude, Doctolib adapted their platform to facilitate millions of vaccine appointments throughout France and Germany. 

Doctolib’s adaptability was crucial to the company’s success during that chaotic period. The CFO must remain open to any and all possibilities when disaster strikes. 

Lead with emotional intelligence 

Landon Cortenbach


Today, exceptional CFOs have to tap into emotional intelligence

Exceptional CFOs are those who utilize emotional intelligence to understand the needs of the organization. And more specifically: its people. 

Because CFOs bear so much responsibility when it comes to decisions that affect the future of the company, they must first and foremost understand its people.

Max agrees: good solutions within the finance function don’t always translate into other areas of the business. You have to explain the when, the why, the root cause, the goals, etc. CFOs need to communicate effectively in order to get buy-in from other teams. To do this, emotional intelligence is absolutely paramount.

And within the team, the CFO should be exercising empathy. Leaders must check in with their teams; make the time for chats in which employees can express themselves and the CFO can communicate goals and share important information. 

Continuous learning

CFOs who are open to growing and learning beyond their original skills and scope will go far. And this is an essential part of emotional intelligence! The more you learn, the more open you’ll be to other ideas and opportunities for yourself, your team, and the business.

And the same goes for encouraging learning within the team. Self-development within the team, especially given the fight for talent out there, could entice candidates who are interested in growing in their roles and careers. 

CFOs should ensure that their team has plenty of resources available for continuous learning. 

Be deliberate about building your team

Max Gärtner

Head of Finance, Doctolib

Talent is not just what is on paper or a CV

To build a great team, Max suggests opening your horizons. Consider hiring for mindset rather than relying only on hard skills to determine a candidate’s value. 

A finance background isn’t strictly necessary when looking for new members of the finance team. Some skill with numbers and Excel knowledge is expected, but many things can be taught on the job.  

Another tip from Max: lean on your Talent Acquisition team, who knows the market and is already working on the front lines. 

Be clear and honest from the get-go with candidates; some finance tasks are repetitive and tedious by nature. If candidates know this and their expectations are managed, their entire experience will be better.

Julian suggests taking a lot of time to interview, and being deliberate in the interview process. Crucially, he says you must give every candidate an assignment or case study to work on, no matter how senior they are. You’d be surprised how many people fail these assignments!

Stay organized

Peter McKenzie 

General Manager, Anticipa Real Estate

We have the choice: either we let email and Slack control us, or we block off time.

Simple but true! Organization is a key to great CFO leadership. CFOs cannot lead effectively if they are constantly distracted or let themselves get pulled into issues that should be delegated to other team members.

Some practical advice? Julian says you must protect your best working hours by blocking off time in your calendar–for absolutely everything! Even routine tasks that appear weekly or monthly should be blocked off. And give yourself enough time to do them.

Peter agrees; spend your time wisely because it’s your most precious resource.

Final thoughts

Thank you to Landon, Max, Julian, and Peter for their excellent insights into what makes a great CFO. The subject of CFO leadership is not just a flash in the pan; the evolving role of the CFO, from bookkeeper to strategic business partner, means that leadership should be top of mind for every finance executive.

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