How to shatter the CFO stereotype

Although the role of CFO has evolved significantly in recent years, many of the stereotypes associated with financial leaders have not.

Like many other members of the C-suite, there is a CFO mold. The financial leader blueprint typically includes an MBA degree as well as CPA designations. Add in progressing through hospital and health system finance departments to create the traditional CFO formula.

Although CFOs are accountants, their role entails far more than just crunching numbers. However, hospital and health system financial leaders must make a serious effort to be seen as more than just "bean counters" by other members of the C-suite and the public.

The modern CFO

In the past, the financial leader role may have been described as a supporting position to the CEO rather than its own leadership position, but those days are gone. CFOs are now agents of change within their organizations. Many are deeply involved in strategic decisions and also have knowledge about the day-to-day operations of the business that no other member of the C-suite possesses.

The shift in the CFO role is clear, with 52 percent of CFOs, including those from hospitals and health systems, spending more time on strategic issues, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2015 CFO Outlook survey.

That shift is propelled by a number of factors, including the industry's increased focus on improving quality of care while cutting costs and CEOs who expect financial leaders to be strategic business partners.

There are several things CFOs can do today to live up to that expectation and break out of the traditional financial leader role.

Step away from the desk

To be seen as leaders, CFOs must step out of their comfort zones and show they have a combination of analytical skills and people skills.

Daniel Morissette, CFO of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Stanford Health Care, recently shared his thoughts on what's holding some financial leaders back from branching out and taking on a more significant role at their organizations.

"Broad, customer-focused perspective is important for the assessment and implementation of a successful strategy," he said. "Learning the customer's preferences requires active engagement in the issues facing the health systems. Many CFOs do no take the time or effort to be a significant strategic business partner, and as a result, are not called upon for broader strategic roles."

To effectively identify the issues facing their organizations, CFOs cannot be afraid to be seen, says Jared Stimpson, CFO of Torrington (Wyo.) Community Hospital, part of Phoenix-based Banner Health.

To break out of the traditional CFO mold, Mr. Stimpson says hospital financial leaders need to step away from their computers and "establish relationships with the employees and physicians that have their boots on the ground." This is a strategy Mr. Stimpson uses, and he advises other CFOs to not be afraid to do something productive away from their desks.

Deb Mohesky also believes financial leaders need to leave their desks more often to engage with colleagues and staff, and she has developed strategies for doing so. She has served as CFO at the hospital or network level at organizations across the nation for the last 24 years. She most recently served as CFO of Carondelet Health Network in Tucson, Ariz., and she currently serves as vice president of operations at Quorum Health Resources.

"When I meet with anyone in the organization, I meet with them in their office — not mine," says Ms. Mohesky. "This is especially important when meeting with clinical leaders — I meet them in the OR, ICU or ED — whatever is most convenient for them."

Making an effort to engage with employees and physicians not only helps CFOs develop a better understanding of the issues those groups are facing, but it also builds trust, and "people follow who they trust," says Mr. Stimpson.

Build relationships inside and outside of the organization

Breaking the CFO stereotype takes internal support from other C-suite members, employees and physicians as well as developing relationships outside of the hospital walls.

To take on a broader role, CFOs must also be "constant learners," according to Mr. Morissette. Colleagues can provide valuable insights into aspects of the business outside of finance. Being a "professional sponge" with colleagues allows financial leaders to better understand their fellow C-suite members and build a support team that will back them in the future.

Additionally, asking for another C-suiter's insights can prevent functional fixedness and improve strategic thinking, just as consulting with someone outside of the organization can, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article by Hermina Ibarra, the Cora chaired professor of leadership and learning at Insead and the author of "Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader."

Building outside relationships is important for CFOs. This can involve anything from informal exchanges with members of the community to developing strategic contacts. According to Ms. Ibarra, these external contacts can offer insight into the larger context in which the organization functions. That is a valuable asset to CFOs in making informed, strategic decisions.

Be a good coach and promote a strong culture

Breaking out of the traditional CFO mold also involves an organization's culture. Strategic financial leaders use their influence to "instill a high-performance culture," according to a recent strategy+business article. This is achieved by CFOs using performance and management processes, such as strategy development and annual budgeting, "as opportunities to set and reinforce behaviors consistent with the company's stated strategy and performance expectations," according to the article.

Developing a strong culture also requires CFOs to lead by example and act as figures of integrity. For Mr. Stimpson, this means being a good coach.

"My leadership approach is very similar to the way I viewed my athletics coaches growing up. If I had a coach that I hated or was rude and unapproachable, it made practice miserable," he says. However, when there is mutual respect between players and the coach, it makes players work harder, enjoy what they're doing and look forward to practice. That same simple approach can be applied to relationships CFOs have with employees and physicians, according to Mr. Stimpson.

Don't forget what's most important

The role of hospital and health system CFO is a complex one. These financial leaders are being asked to have their hand in finance, billing, operations and strategy, among other areas of the business, and that can seem like an insurmountable task.

With the myriad of issues facing CFOs, it's important they don't lose sight of what is most important — the patient.

Ms. Mohesky says entering the hospital through the ED was something she did for a daily reminder to keep the patient "front and center" when making financial decisions as a CFO.

Focusing on what is best for the patient can help CFOs break through the dust and keep their eye on the ball, whether they're sitting behind their desk crunching numbers or powering through a transformation to shatter the CFO mold.

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