The evolution of the CFO’s role is effecting a shift in the audit committee’s expectations for the working relationship between the two. By considering their response to seven commonly held expectations audit committees have of CFOs, CFOs can begin to lay the groundwork for a more effective working relationship with their organization’s audit committee.
Typically, CFOs play four key roles within their organizations, but the amount of time CFOs allocate to each role is changing rapidly. “For CFOs high integrity of work, accuracy, and timely financial reporting are table stakes, but increasingly they are being expected to be Strategists and Catalysts in their organization,” says Ajit Kambil, global research director for Deloitte’s CFO Program. “In fact, our research indicates that CFOs are spending about 60% to 70% of their time in those roles, and that shift is both reflecting and driving higher expectations from the CEO as well as the board.”
As in any relationship, a degree of trust between CFOs and audit committee chairs serves as a foundation to an effective communication on critical issues. “In high-functioning relationships between CFOs and audit committee chairs, trust and dialogue are critical. Challenges can occur if a CFO comes to an audit committee meeting unprepared or presents a surprising conclusion to the audit committee without having sought the audit committee chair’s opinion, leaving the audit committee chair without the ability to influence that conclusion,” says Henry Phillips, vice chairman and national managing partner, Center for Board Effectiveness, Deloitte & Touche LLP.
Common Expectations Audit Committee Have of CFOs
Following are seven key expectations audit committees have of CFOs for both new and established CFOs to bear in mind.
(1) No Surprises:
Audit committees do not welcome any surprises. Or, if surprises occur, the audit committee will want to be apprised of the issue very quickly. Surprises may be inevitable, but the audit committee expects CFOs to take precautions against known issues and to manage the avoidable ones and to inform them very early on when something unexpected occurs. In order to do this well, it is important for the CFO and the audit committee chair — perhaps some of the other board members — to set a regular cadence of meetings, so that they have a relationship and a context within which to work together when challenging issues arise. Don’t leave these meetings to chance. “If the audit committee chair or committee members are hearing about something of significance for the first time in a meeting, that’s problematic. Rather, the CFO should be apprising the audit committee chair as much in advance of a committee meeting as possible and talk through the issues so the audit committee chair is not surprised in the meeting,” says Phillips.
(2) Strong partnering with the CEO and other leaders:
Audit committees want to see the CFO as an effective partner with the CEO, as well as with their peer executives. “The audit committee is carefully observing the CFO and how he or she interacts across the C-suite. At the same time, the audit committee also wants the CFO to be objective and to provide to the board independent perspectives on financial and business issues and not be a ‘yes’ person,” says Deb DeHaas, vice chair and national managing partner, Center for Board Effectiveness at Deloitte. A key for the CFO is to proactively manage CEO and peer relations — especially if there are challenging issues that may be brought up to the board. In that case, the CFO should be prepared to take a clear position on what the board needs to hear from management.
(3) Confidence in finance organization talent:
Audit committees want visibility into the finance organization to ensure that it has the appropriate skills and experience. They also are looking to ensure that the finance organization will be stable over time, that there will be solid succession plans in place and that talent is being developed to create the strongest possible finance organization. CFOs might consider approaching these goals in several ways. One way is to provide key finance team members an opportunity to brief the audit committee on a special topic, for example, a significant accounting policy, a special analysis or another topic that’s on the board agenda. “While I encourage CFOs to give their team members an opportunity to present to the committee, it’s critical to make sure they’re well prepared and ready to address questions,” Phillips notes.
‘An outside-in view from audit committee members can bring significant value to the CFO — and to the organization.’
(4) Command of key accounting, finance and business issues:
Audit committees want CFOs to have a strong command of the key accounting issues that might be facing the organization, and given that many CFOs are not CPAs, such command is even more critical for the CFO to demonstrate. Toward that end, steps the CFO can take might include scheduling deep dives with management, the independent auditor, the chief accounting officer and others to receive briefings in order to better understand the organization’s critical issues from an accounting perspective, as well as to get trained up on those issues. In addition, CFOs should demonstrate a deep understanding of the business issues that the organization is confronting. There again, CFOs can leverage both internal and external resources to help them master these issues. Industry briefings are also important, particularly for CFOs who are new to an industry.
(5) Insightful forecasting and earnings guidance:
Forecasts and earnings guidance will likely not always be precise. However, audit committees expect CFOs to not only deliver reliable forecasts, but also to articulate the underlying drivers of the company’s future performance, as well as how those drivers might impact outcomes. When CFOs lack a thorough understanding of critical assumptions and drivers, they can begin to lose support of key audit committee members. For that reason, it is important that CFOs have an experienced FP&A group to support them. In addition,audit committees and boards want to deeply understand the guidance that is being put forward, the ranges, and confidence levels. As audit committee members read earnings releases and other information in the public domain, they tend to focus on whether the information merely meets the letter of the law in terms of disclosures, or does it tell investors what they need to know to make informed decisions. This is where an outside-in view from audit committee members can bring significant value to the CFO — and to the organization. Moreover, audit committees are increasingly interested in the broader macroeconomic issues that can impact the organization, such as interest rates, oil prices, and geographic instability.
(6) Effective risk management:
CFOs are increasingly held accountable for risk management, even when there is a chief risk officer. Further, audit committees want CFOs to provide leadership not only on traditional financial accounting and compliance risk matters, but also on some of the enterprise operational macro-risk issues — and to show how that might impact the financial statement. It is important for CFOs to set the tone at the top for compliance and ethics, oversee the control environment and ensure that from a compensation perspective, the appropriate incentives and structures are in place to mitigate risk. A key to the CFO’s effectiveness at this level is to find time to have strategic risk conversations at the highest level of management, as well as with the board.
(7) Clear and concise stakeholder communications:
Audit committees want CFOs to be very effective on how they communicate with key stakeholders, which extend beyond the board and the audit committees. They want CFOs to be able to articulate the story behind the numbers and provide insights and future trends around the business, and to effectively communicate to the Street. CFOs can expect board members to listen to earnings calls and to observe how they interact with the CEOs, demonstrate mastery of the company’s financial and business issues, and communicate those to the Street. Moreover, a CFO who is very capable from an accounting and finance perspective should exercise the communication skills that are necessary to be effective with different stakeholders.
“Communication is the cornerstone for a strong CFO-audit committee chair relationship,” notes DeHaas. “Although the CFO might be doing other things very well, if there is not effective communication and a trusting relationship with the audit committee, the CFO will likely not be as effective.”