Liz Fisher, journalist

The role of a modern-day CFO has changed and continues to evolve. As ACCA has examined in its research on the need for professionals to focus on value creation, today’s CFO faces complex, multidimensional problems that require a combination of technical, professional and interpersonal skills. To meet the demands of the role, argues a new ACCA report, CFOs must display ‘integrative-thinking capabilities’.

‘CFOs need to change their mode of operation’

Integrative thinking: the guide to becoming a value-added CFO makes the point that many of the capabilities that form integrative thinking are already in the CFO’s toolkit. The aim of the report is to help CFOs develop their skills by exploring what constitute integrative-thinking capabilities and describing the underpinning skills, behaviours and mindset required, and by examining development approaches.

Beyond the financials

Businesses around the world are working to achieve a fair balance between stakeholders and the proper use of resources, and their CFOs are on the front line. ‘CFOs are accountable for well-informed decision-making in their organisations, therefore are key to successfully navigating these problems,’ says the report. ‘To fulfil this responsibility in today’s fast-changing and complex world, CFOs need to change their mode of operation.’

In his foreword to the report, Raymond Jack, ACCA’s executive director – finance and operations, sets out an example of these challenges as he helps ACCA implement the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and net-zero targets.

‘The capabilities crucial to this task relate very much to my ability to think in an integrative way, going beyond just the financials, and to appreciate the different perspectives of ACCA’s stakeholders,’ he says. ‘The UN’s SDGs place a greater emphasis on multi-capitals thinking, including climate and nature, brand and reputation, and employees. All this is against a backdrop of the curveballs to which all organisations have to respond, such as geopolitical or economic circumstances well beyond our control.’

Accountants will see the return on their investment in their ability to navigate problems

Balancing priorities

In today’s world, CFOs may need to make judgments based on incomplete, complex, uncertain or ambiguous information. Integrative thinking is an approach to making these difficult choices.

It is a concept that is closely related to the International Integrated Reporting Council’s integrated thinking (defined as ‘the active consideration by an organisation of the relationships between its various operating and functional units and the capitals that the organisation uses or affects’), but encompasses additional philosophies including elements of design thinking (a problem-solving approach based on iterative improvements), systems thinking (consideration of the broader system or problem rather than individual components), and open innovation (purposively managed knowledge flows across organisational boundaries).

The report, based on a combination of desk-based research and roundtables with senior finance professionals and talent developers, identifies five integrative-thinking capabilities that are relevant to value-adding CFOs.

The report says that there is ‘no magic formula for acquiring the optimum combination and balance of these skills, behaviours and mindsets. Nonetheless, some of these capabilities are more frequently required and some can be developed with greater sufficiency than others.’

Expose yourself to different experiences that expand your integrative-thinking capabilities

Participants in the roundtable events that informed the report were keen to stress that the way that many CFOs approach their work today is becoming unsustainable, and that a fundamental change is needed to the way CFOs work and learn. The key takeaways for CFOs were to:

  • Understand your innovating and problem-solving capabilities.
  • Challenge the organisation’s cultural ecosystem and the profession’s culture. If you understand the culture you can influence future perceptions and drive productive engagement.
  • Embark on shared learning – connect with others in sharing knowledge and co-creation.
  • Explore your capabilities with immersive and challenging exercises. Take yourself out of your comfort zone through exposure to different experiences that expand your integrative-thinking capabilities.
  • Carve out time for reflection. Reflect on events and identify insights before you move onto the next task.
  • Engage in development programmes – learn what integrative thinking means in the context of your role.

As with all professional development, it is up to the individual to take ownership in developing their integrative-thinking skills, although the report adds that organisations also have responsibilities, including creating environments for knowledge sharing. But in a complex world, professional accountants will see the return on their investment in their enhanced ability to navigate multi-dimensional problems.

Learn more at conference

Watch out for the session ‘Become a value-adding CFO with integrative thinking’ in ACCA’s annual conference, ‘Accounting for the future’, which runs from 21-23 November. More details will be available in September.