CFOs are now expected to master the art of double-tasking. They are responsible not only for overseeing day-to-day operations and capital structure, but also providing sound advice and leadership to drive the strategy of the entire business as well as individual organizations. Very quickly, CFOs have acquired intimate knowledge of what every stakeholder, executive, partner, and customer is thinking, as well as the ability to predict what’s on the horizon in the economy.

Such keen insight brings great responsibility. “If you’re not on the business-winning side and don’t understand how you can drive more value out of your portfolio, you’re not influencing the future [or] the share price,” said Julian Whitehead, CFO of Airbus Defence and Space.

Julian’s observation, as quoted in the Oxford Economics’ report “How Finance Leadership Pays Off,” sponsored by SAP, signifies a heavy burden. Yet CFOs realize that this expectation opens up an opportunity to guide the business towards a higher purpose that goes beyond just making money. In fact, most high-performing finance leaders have been encouraged to take this path after Nielsen reported that 66% of consumers worldwide will pay more for sustainable brands and 62% prefer to buy from brands they trust.

Delivering purpose-driven expectations requires an appreciation of digital capabilities

Considering that CFOs are stepping up their game to become influential strategic leaders, it should come as no surprise that top companies such as Spirit Airlines, Cardinal Health, and Expedia have promoted their top finance leaders to the CEO position. Increasingly, CFOs are expected to understand operational risks and market opportunities, and demonstrate the financial acumen and talent to help their teams turn massive volumes of data into a competitive insight. They can then set the direction that enables their companies to optimize profitability, innovate groundbreaking business models, and guide all operating and administrative departments to support the new road map.

Perhaps more critical is the adoption of emerging technology. Now, this doesn’t mean that CFOs must understand the inner workings of IT systems, algorithms, and high-speed processing. But they still should know how to leverage the technology in a way that improves and accelerates everyday finance and operational processes, business activities, and executive decision-making.

Using digital capabilities to draw conclusions from Big Data, CFOs, and their supporting teams can help the company run more sustainable practices and deliver a level of transparency that earns consumer trust. Consider predictive analytics that leverage machine learning and data residing in a central ERP system with embedded value chain networks. Most functions use only the data that is directly relevant to them; however, the finance area pulls together every piece of financial and non-financial data and analyzes it. This approach allows CFOs to determine how one organization impacts not only the performance of another, but also its potential impact on the environment, social stability, and economic growth.

The use of the technology allows CFOs, for example, to direct HR to hire new salespeople to cover a specific region after reviewing marketing leads, customer service tickets and feedback, social media interactions, sales projections, and production orders in a predicted forecast. Meanwhile, they can make connections between procurement orders, manufacturing quality checks, and returned inventory to investigate areas that could benefit from greater energy efficiency, the removal of suppliers with unethical practices, and environmentally safe product design or formulation.

Digitalization matters because purposeful actions matter

Purpose has emerged as a top business priority that requires tangible action, not lip service. CFOs must understand this new reality and provide consistent leadership and adaptive strategies that will successfully address the needs of a rapidly, ever-changing marketplace while ensuring that revenue generation and purpose always complement each other. Take a look at the leading “integrated report“ that will show that exact correlation between sustainability and performance.

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