by Jerry Gregoire

How to Play Your CFO Like a Fiddle

Jan 01, 20024 mins
IT Leadership

According to the handbook Karma For Dummies, a CIO who has been evil, cowardly or prone to signing outsourcing agreements in this life is condemned to spend the next as a bean counter. Justice indeed. In all, life as a CIO is better than a zero-sum game. The upsides do outnumber the downsides, good times are more memorable than the bad, and no matter how bad things get, you have the satisfaction of knowing that at least you’re not a CFO?a knee-jerk pessimist, skinflint, spoiler.

Of the three large corporations I’ve worked for, PepsiCo was my favorite. It makes great products, aggressively develops talent, does its best to eliminate the hopeless jerks, and maintains a well-mannered and respectful workplace. I worked there for more than 10 years; my last gig was as the CIO of its largest and most profitable division, Pepsi-Cola Co. For better or worse, PepsiCo’s traditional culture extended to its organization chart, so I reported to the CFO, my team buried (it seemed to me) in the finance department, a layer (and light years) away from where the real strategic decisions were being made. It drove me nuts.

I resigned in 1996 to take the CIO position at Dell Computer, in large part because Michael Dell agreed to move IT out from under finance and give me a seat on his senior team. Here, I thought, was a chance for IT to play a key role in strategic decision making, a place in the inner circle, a chance to spread the message of technology’s bountiful goodness without having it filtered by some tight-fisted luddite. Hurrah!

Things don’t always work out as planned. A CFO with no IT responsibility is just another dissatisfied department head, with lots to say about your budget and little compunction about chartering IT projects using outside resources. Even though I was no longer reporting to the CFO, nothing really changed, so I had to fall back on old skills and even older tricks to get the situation and my soon-to-be best friend under control.

Now, it would be too dull and pointless to replay for you the dos and don’ts of managing up, especially since they don’t generally work with CFOs. The most effective method, known to only a few and shared with you at considerable personal risk, is a reversal on the Stockholm Syndrome?wherein the hostage identifies with his captor, except in this case the CFO identifies with you, sees in you a soul mate, a fellow bulwark, a CFO in the making. It’s a touchy process and won’t come naturally to most CIOs, but here are a few tips to help you get started.

Exude an air of pessimism. Keep in mind that most CFOs started out as accountants because they didn’t have the charisma to become undertakers. Wear a look of grave concern when considering any issue or problem, no matter how insignificant. Openly bemoan the burden of IT spending while constantly reinforcing the price of inaction. Underpromise when you have to; don’t promise when you can get away with it. Grimly shake your head and whisper to the person next to you when other department heads make budget presentations. And for heaven’s sake, stop smiling so much and lose that tiresome sense of humor.

Define your own shortcomings. Face it, there’s something wrong with you. There must be. And no matter what it is, how much you work on it, or even if it isn’t true, that flaw will show up on your “personal development checklist” every year. So, the question is, Do you pick your development issues or take a chance and let someone else pick ones that might make you seem untrustworthy to a CFO? For example, “Needs to Develop Business Savvy” will frighten the CFO, while “Needs to Improve Work/Life Balance” will make you downright lovable. You can ensure that this makes your list by sleeping in your office a couple nights a week or by getting a divorce.

Undercommunicate. When it comes to the CFO, communications concerning projects, people or service levels should be regularly scheduled, as infrequent as you can get away with and, by all means, short. The questions, issues and small fires you handle every day and never give a second thought to would, if shared in detail, unhinge your CFO. When things are going well, say so (being careful not to violate the first tip), and when things aren’t going well, just remember that there isn’t a damn thing the CFO can do to help.

Finally, be boring. Remember that CFOs are easily frightened and confused by change. Try wearing the same clothes every day.

Good luck.