I was recently in a discussion with an acquaintance who asked, “As a CFO, what do you spend most of your time doing?” Reflecting a moment, I responded “I seem to spend a lot of my time either (1) persuading people to do something that they’d rather not do, or (2) persuading people not to do something that they want to do.”

Reflecting on that discussion, I’ve been thinking about a CFO’s role as an influencer – within the C-suite, at the Board level and internally with company teams. At its core, “influence” is the ability to direct, or alter, behavior or outcomes either for good (or for bad). But you need to learn how to influence. It is a skill (and to some extent an art) which can be observed and learned.

Over the course of my 40+ year career as a CFO, I have learned several lessons when it comes to being a better influencer:

  • The most successful influencers share 4 key attributes.
  • Earning trust and respect are the prerequisites for influence.
  • Being the “Expert” does not always equate to being the most influential.
  • You don’t always have to be loud and visible to influence.

Let’s examine each of these.

The 4 Attributes of a Successful Influencer 

While not everyone may agree with this point, I believe that not everyone is cut out to be an influencer. Why do I say this? To successfully influence others, you need to be perceived by others and clearly viewed by all as having several important attributes. First, you need to be seen as objective, fair and empathetic. Then, you need to be viewed as having responded  consistently with your behavior and reactions to different situations, especially when it comes to problem solving and within the managing team.

Being objective, fair and empathetic demonstrates that you do not pursue  a personal  agenda, do not have an “axe to grind” or are otherwise biased in your behavior; if your peers sense a lack of impartiality, they  will ultimately tune you out . But when your peers observe you to be consistently objective, fair and empathetic,  you will earn their trust. Conversely, when they cannot see a transparent, consistent approach with appropriate follow through from you, over time, they will stop trusting you.

An Influencer’s Superpower: Earning Trust and Respect 

Trust is everything when it comes to being influential. Early on in my career, I was hired at a manufacturing company where the CEO/Chair needed a public company savvy CFO to step in and provide the management team with a more experienced point of view regarding the company’s financial risks and opportunities. The company intended to prepare for an IPO. The existing CFO had been asked to step aside but remained employed by the company in a reduced role. Out of loyalty to the previous CFO, the rest of management team (except for the CEO) was initially skeptical of my credibility and value-add as the new CFO. I needed to earn their trust, and fast.

I jumped into gear with our Finance team and was quickly able to complete a margin analysis pointing out a fundamental flaw in the company’s current business strategy. The company had historically earned  a high manufacturing gross profit by selling products with a high value-add labor component versus those with a lower profit derived from a markup on parts/products. But over the past year or so, their mix of business had changed. Now they were adding new business and manufacturing revenue which consisted of a  larger percentage from parts/products than from higher value labor; consequently the company’s manufacturing gross profit and margin were suffering. Concurrently, they had been aggressively hiring in anticipation of going public, which was increasing their fixed expenses. Essentially, they were adding fixed expenses at a rate much faster than they were generating additional gross profit from their incremental, new revenue.

I was able to show the management team the projected financial consequences of these two challenges supported by data and clear explanations. This dramatically changed the management team’s perception of both the company’s operations and of my own skills and synergistic potential. Afterwards, the Finance team and I were able to identify errors in their use of their manufacturing standard cost system, deepening the reputation of our Finance team as collaborative leaders.

Why Being “Expert” is Insufficient (Alone) to Influence Successfully 

As an interim CFO, I am often asked to be the “expert” consultant parachuting into challenging company situations to solve problems and recenter a company’s financial strategy and operations. Financial and economic knowledge are absolutely fundamental for a capable CFO, but in complex situations may not be solely adequate to succeed. Beyond competent analyses, success requires thoughtful people skills. You need to be able to both read the room and understand your audience, especially the specific individuals you need to persuade.

“People skills” become especially critical for influencers when parties disagree.

Earlier in my consulting career, I was engaged by a client that  had to restate and re-audit their annual financial statements, causing a serious delay in timely filing with the SEC. As a  result, Nasdaq notified the company of its imminent de-listing. Consequently, the company was in a compelling rush to complete the annual audit. After a week of intense review and discussion, it was clear that, while the deadline remained fixed, the audit firm would not give assurance it would complete its work on time. I called a meeting with the CEO, Audit Committee Chairman and the independent audit firm. After sincere and intense discussion, we remained at a stalemate. The deadline could not be moved, yet the audit firm concluded they were unable to make a reasonable commitment to  meet the deadline. Reading the room and the clear impasse we had reached, I concluded that it was time to objectively  “agree to disagree” and propose a solution. We negotiated a reasonable and amicable  parting of ways with the company’s existing audit firm and efficiently engaged  another audit firm who was able to commit to meeting our deadline. Consequently, the company successfully filed and prevented the Nasdaq delisting – albeit with little time to spare.

The Best Influencers Aren’t Always the Most Visible 

One final lesson around influencing. Sometimes, the best influencers are invisible ones. Earlier in my consulting career, I was CFO at a large professional services firm in which the internal culture was highly political. The management team hosted formal, monthly meetings in which the discussions often got passionate and contentious with opposing points of view. Over time, I noticed that one of the VPs stayed consistently out of “the fray” during these battles.  I also noticed that this guy, despite rarely publicly advocating for his positions, almost always got the outcome that I knew he wanted – from budgets, to policies, to resources. As it turned out, he was a master at relationship development. He had carefully cultivated a very strong relationship  with the CEO through regular one-on-one meetings where he was able to gradually establish trust and credibility and where he could present his needs, solutions, and rationales in an uncluttered (an unobstructed) environment. Brilliant. And it worked almost every time. Lesson learned? You don’t always have to be the loudest or most dramatic voice to get your way.

If you are a CEO with a CFO or other key hire who is challenged with successfully influencing, do reach out. Our experienced partners at FLG are masters at coaching and mentoring and we truly enjoy that role. We’d love to help.









Jonathan Wolter

Jon joined FLG in 2004 and is an experienced financial executive with more than 45 years’ experience in finance and operations. His expertise ranges from raising equity and debt in both public and private markets, to building financial reporting and control systems, resolving complex accounting, and reporting issues, managing and…Read More