Saying NO to the CEO!

An Expert Insight by Jonathan Yudelowitz, Joint Managing Director of YSA (Pty) Limited, Author of Smart Leadership and a well-known Leadership Expert and Executive Coach.

"It takes more than intelligence for an intelligent person to behave intelligently," Dostoevsky astutely observed. What this means for a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or Financial Director (FD) is that to be effective, he or she must develop self-awareness and become fully comfortable with the non-rational in himself or herself, others and the world.

I was recently coaching a FD, who soon after being appointed was being pressured to circumvent procurement rules and give a contract to one of the Chief Executive Officer's (CEO's) political connections. Incidentally, this was a company where politics matters a great deal.

As FD, she had a fiduciary responsibility to refuse to do as he demanded and to make sure that the procurement policy was properly followed. At the same time, she was well aware that she needed to build a working-relationship with the CEO, and so wanted to avoid any hostility in her relationship with him. She felt very troubled by this dilemma and imagined that if she were more experienced or perhaps if she were a man, she would somehow know how to handle the situation.

As the pressure for her to accede to her boss's demand grew, she felt more and more like an imposter: her inner conflict causing her to become paralysed in analysis. She began to second-guess both her conscience and professional judgment. She sensed that she was 'losing her grip' and began to question whether she was the right person for the job. By doubting herself and not taking firm action, she would be failing to fulfil her mandate, which would have meant that her assumption about not being good enough would have become self-fulfilling. When she acknowledged just how she was setting herself up, she stopped blaming herself and became more comfortable with her authority as well as firmer in her resolve to stand her ground.

She also came to appreciate that although the dilemma was difficult for her, it was not an examination or personal test; even though this is exactly how it felt. By gaining such perspective she was able to set about garnering others' advice and support.

Through the experience the FD gained invaluable perspective on her tendency to doubt herself when questioned by an authority figure and to over-analyse and want to solve the resulting problem alone. Consequently, she was able to handle the issue in a way that was right for herself, as well as the company. She will no doubt encounter such quandaries again; but by being aware of her default reactions, she has begun to establish a frame-of-reference appropriate to her authority as an FD - to help counter her default coping patterns.

Assumptions are essential when dealing with the uncertainty implicit in the future or other people's perceptions. To be useful and constructive they must become working hypotheses, which get tested against reality. The dangerous default is that they come to be treated as fact.

For example, people who assume they should cope alone give the impression that they neither want nor need support. In fact, other people are likely to turn to them for help, resulting in their feeling very much alone as well as unsupported and burdened. This reinforces a deeper belief that they must always be strong and self-reliant. In a similar vein, if one assumes that it's one's duty to please others, one will be unlikely to express or assert one's own needs. The inevitable consequence is that everyone else gets priority and the project of pleasing others becomes the story of one's life.

Whilst the fiduciary and executive responsibilities of a CFO or FD may be defined, the real-time process of exercising judgment; of taking not only the rational, but the potential political and emotional realities into account when one applies professional knowledge and skill, is more art than science. It cannot be codified or programmed.

Hence, the FD role demands responsibility. It demands that one becomes aware of one's assumptions and the way they make essentially uncertain circumstances seem predictable or controllable. Self-awareness on the other hand helps one see things as they really are - to notice the full range of possibilities that are around one, as well as the dangers that actually exist ? and choose one's actions accordingly. This forms the basis of true authority, necessary to really shape one's circumstances. To fulfil the mandate of providing effective financial leadership, you must be able to sometimes say no to the CEO.

If you also would like to share your ideas with the CFO community, you want to be part of the leading CFO South Africa Community or you want to know more about hosting a CFO South Africa event, you are most welcome to get in touch with CFO SA. Please contact Jurriën Morsch at [email protected]

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