CFOs of the future are learning to tell the finance story

Webinar looks at how CFOs can tell their financial stories by empowering themselves with the right tools.

To meet the new demands brought on by Covid-19 disruptions, finance leaders need to become digital transformation and storytelling experts – visionaries who can turn data into compelling narratives that articulate the future of their businesses with clarity and foresight as they are tasked with steering businesses through market change, uncertainty and unpredictability.

“Finance leaders not only need to understand the numbers of the business, but need to be able to tell a fuller and richer story so more insightful decisions can be made,” said CA and academic Chuma Mjali.

Sage Africa, Middle East and Asia Pacific vice president of finance Jordaan Burger explained that the first time he heard about financial storytelling was while he was doing a management development course at Henley and one of the presenters asked him what he does for a living.

“I told her what my job title was and what I do for the company, but she said no, and asked the question again. I then explained what we do as finance professionals in a CFO or FD role, and again she said no, she wants to know what my biggest responsibility is. So I went into the practicalities of the day-to-day job, and that’s when she corrected me,” he said. “She told me that my responsibility is to tell the story of the numbers in order for the business to know what actions it needs to take. That really hit hard.”

Since that day, Jordaan added, he has been passionate about financial storytelling. “It’s something we need to focus on very well, and depending on how well you have that ability to tell the story of the numbers, the more you can play the role of being a strategic ally within the business.”

Re-starting from the beginning
To be expert storytellers, finance leaders need accurate, relevant, and reliable insights that highlight opportunities and mitigate risks. Some of the professional bodies have started seeing this and curricula have started to change and shift to enable finance professionals to understand and deliver these insights.

“The future of a CA in 2025 and the skills they will possess will be very different and we see that the shift has moved towards storytelling, where the emphasis is on the data plus the digitally empowered aspects,” explained Chuma. “Finance professionals need to learn to use these two things together to come up with meaningful insights and to focus more on strategy.”

She added that one of the significant shifts in the new curricula is the introduction of a whole new digital acumen. “In response to automation and AI, accountants have been told that basically most of their roles are repeatable and that number crunching roles could become irrelevant,” Chuma said. “Therefore, we need to understand how to strategically be able to tell the story.”

She added that the key to being able to tell this story is a mindset shift for finance professionals. “In our profession, we often speak about continuous development and growth, and keeping up to date in order to remain relevant. It’s a very important part of the finance profession.”

Finance professionals have understood that this mindset shift has to happen earlier on in the value chain, and universities have started to teach and speak about cloud-based softwares. “I don’t think there's a greater mindset shift that says ‘we are moving into this space and we are here to stay’ more than some of the changes that we’re already seeing professionally,” Chuma said.

Changing the baseline
Award-winning tech entrepreneur Nobukhosi Dlamini explained that, in order to build that narrative around financial performance, finance professionals need in-depth financial data and advanced reporting tools. “That’s the enabler of the storytelling,” she said. “For CFOs to understand what’s going on in the business, they need to have that baseline of technology which enables everything.”

Jordaan said that finance professionals today are working with an awful lot more than they used to. “If I think about my study days, we already had the data digitised because we had things like Pastel accounting and Excel as part of our curriculum. The focus then shifted to building those analytical skills, for us to have the ability to take that digitised date, make the analysis and then try to see some pictures from there. And then, where it’s moving to now is the automation and systemisation of that analytical capability.”

He added that, rather than CFOs trying to figure out what the data says, they now have tools and systems that can help them automate the analytics. “It’s going to be more about how we interpret the analytics and how we apply them to our actions.”

Data-driven insights for finance leaders are going to become critical, not only to support the capabilities of the finance team, but that of the entire business, to make the right decisions. “I had a call with my team this week and we had to illustrate our rolling forecast to someone on group level,” Jordaan said. “We had to explain to them that it’s not just the finance team’s rolling forecast, but the whole business’s, and that we need to engage with all the relevant stakeholders to pull all of that together.”

He explained that cloud technology is what enables them to do this, because it enables you to integrate a lot easier with other systems. “Historically, we had developers of ERP platforms that tried to do everything for a single business. But the cloud arena that we’re going into is a lot more focused on building an ecosystem of ‘ best of breed’ systems for each and every application.”

Chuma echoed Nobukhosi, saying the base of storytelling is data, plus the correct tools. “If you don’t have the correct tools, you are not going to be as empowered as you want to be in order to have the insight you need to be able to tell the story.”

This, she concluded, might mean that finance professionals will have to rethink and reinvent some of their roles in businesses in order to empower themselves to understand and have access to real-time data in order to tell a better financial story.