The Evolving Job Description (and Requirements) of a CFO

Chief financial officers used to be concerned with just balancing the books. But today’s CFOs have taken on a higher role.
by | February 2016
Before becoming Chicago's CFO in May, Carole Brown, left, had chaired the city’s transit authority board for seven years. (FlickrCC/Metropolitan Planning Council)

Kenneth Rust is a key player in redeveloping an old post office in downtown Portland, Ore. Denise Olson is pushing new technology to save Phoenix money on procurement. Jim Beard figured out how to update and expand Atlanta’s water and sewer systems while avoiding a scheduled rate hike.

These tasks require different kinds of know-how, but Rust, Olson and Beard all have the same job title: chief financial officer. It’s a position that has morphed in recent decades. Where CFOs were once primarily in charge of numbers -- making sure the books were balanced, bills paid and audits clean -- they now are called on to be strategists with an eye to developing the city’s economy. And where CFOs came to the job touting experience in a local or state finance department (and perhaps a stint as city controller as well), they now hail from more varied backgrounds. Just as in the private sector, many public enterprises are looking for CFOs with talents that include creative thinking, communication skills and long-range planning -- and for good reason. Today, just about everything a municipality does is either under the CFO’s purview or at least under his or her watchful eye. “Almost every major decision the city makes,” Beard says, “I get to be in the room.”

One of the first signs of change in the role of the local CFO came in the early 2000s when the Government Finance Officers Association established a standing committee on economic development. This was a reflection of a burgeoning reality: More and more, city finance officers were being pulled into negotiations on development projects. A decade later, University of Chicago professor Paula Worthington and then-Chicago CFO Lois Scott established the Municipal CFO Forum, a gathering of finance officers to discuss topics from pension negotiations to public-private partnerships to tax incentives. In fact, as it has become increasingly vital for the country’s top municipal CFOs to tackle new topics, they have begun building all kinds of networking groups to discuss best practices and grapple with issues outside the typical job description.

Beard, who worked in the private sector before he came to Atlanta, notes that his background was key when he helped the city negotiate its pension reform plan, new sports stadium agreement and water-sewer financing. “Dealing with Wall Street and local bankers,” he says, “they know I know the process from beginning to end and I know the questions to ask.”

Clearly economic development is only the beginning of the expansion of the CFO role beyond its usual expertise. Some of the new skills come naturally to a person with an accounting background; some take CFOs beyond their usual comfort zones. For cities, though, the emerging profile of the CFO can bolster local leadership, even as it poses unexpected challenges.

While the financing of economic development, handling pensions and the fiscal impact of tax changes might be seen as a natural extension of a CFO’s traditional expertise, the one area that is more of a divergence is communications. CFOs, normally backroom operatives, are being called on to deal with the public and the media when money issues are in the news. This role grew out of the 2008 recession and fears the downturn raised about cities being able to meet their obligations. Public pension plan liabilities and possible credit rating downgrades were headline news and pushed finance officers into the spotlight. In many cities, it is now part of the CFO’s job to keep the public informed and calm about financial issues.

Facing an often suspicious press is not an aspect of the job for which most financial officers are prepared. “When you were the CFO in 1980, you were the bean counter of the place, and you were never likely going to have to be in front of the camera,” says Jeff DeWitt, CFO for Washington, D.C. Today, DeWitt says, he not only has to speak at both official and impromptu press conferences, but the press -- cameras, microphones and notebooks in hand -- follow him at will. “I can get ambushed at any meeting I come out of.”

For a newcomer, communicating with the media can be unnerving. When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel named investment banker Carole Brown as the city’s new CFO in May, it was, as Brown puts it, “a crazy time.” The city’s credit rating had just been downgraded, and a Cook County judge was expected to rule against the city on a pension reform plan that would have given Chicago more budgetary leeway. Without the reform, city leaders were facing up to a $1 billion budget deficit for the coming year.

Brown was well-known in Chicago. She had chaired the city’s transit authority board for seven years in the 2000s and had spoken to the press countless times in that role. Now she would be called on to speak for the city on a variety of issues and before a press corps that was exceptionally knowledgeable about the ins and outs of Chicago’s financial problems. After little more than a month on the job, Brown was center stage with the press. “I was used to it,” she says of fielding questions on the fly in front of cameras. “But if you’re not, it would be terrifying.”

In larger cities -- particularly those with a history of financial turmoil -- it is important that financial communication with the public be straightforward and use simple language to convey complicated situations. Quotable sound bites take second place to an awareness of how what the CFO says will be shaped by the media. With many financial experts untrained in public relations, larger cities have stepped in to help out with this aspect of the job. They are building up communications departments to accommodate demand for more access to the finance chief. Some have a separate press liaison for the finance department.

Reframing the arcane language of public finance into something the local media can digest and use is just one aspect of the CFO’s role as a communicator. Finance officers also must present financial information, particularly the long-term effects of financial decisions, to their mayors, city managers and city councils.

When Portland’s development commission was looking into the post office redevelopment project, its CFO, Rust, evaluated the financing plan for the 14-acre site, which involved the risky business of extending the city’s line of credit. Rust’s role was to translate into meaningful terms the risks and rewards of the project. Late last year, before the city development commission voted on the financing plan, one of the commissioners told Rust, “If I vote for this, it’s because of you.” The commission, and later the city council, approved the plan unanimously.

As Rust’s experience suggests, communication for CFOs is a delicate dance. Their allegiance is to the numbers, but as the role becomes more prominent, politics are inevitably part of it. “They have to really know their city’s political dynamic,” says University of Chicago’s Worthington, “and what that environment’s going to be like.”

For Phoenix’s Olson, communication skills have been taking on another aspect. She uses them to stay in frequent touch with department heads to find out what their needs are and how she can help. One issue she learned about through her back-and-forth with those officials was how inefficient the procurement system was. With her 360-degree view of what the city agencies were buying and how, she pushed for a new e-procurement system that could take advantage of economies of scale and force departments to follow the same purchasing procedures -- a system that should eventually save the city money.

With their growing expertise in so many areas of governance, CFOs today are following another private-sector trend: making the leap to top executive leadership. City managers from Lakewood, Wash.; Cincinnati; and Alexandria, Va., for instance, are former CFOs. In this shift, the recession has played a key role as city councils and other public figures are putting a premium on long-term financial health. CFOs who helped their cities survive the recession and thrive afterward had to get creative and step up their leadership role -- words often associated with chief executive officers.

Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black, who previously was the CFO for Baltimore, says his experience guiding Baltimore through the recession and helping it become more financially nimble with outcome-based budgeting groomed him for the next level. As CEO in Cincinnati, he’s installed many of the financial management tactics he honed in Baltimore. But the “beauty” of being a city manager, he adds, is getting to expand those practices to other areas of government. Only now he can “move faster, and with greater focus,” Black says. “I don’t think I could have been more prepared to be city manager.”