by Lisa Yoon

Confirmed At Last: CFOs Can’t Do it All

Sep 29, 20117 mins
IT Leadership

Peter Bregman's book on selectively "getting the right things done" could offer a salve in the face of endless challenges.

Between striving to contribute strategic value to the company and running an efficient finance department, the finance chief is the Sisyphus of the C-suite. Just about every company activity involves finance, after all, which can make it seem as if a CFO’s work indeed is never done.

That’s why time management is so critically important in finance — trying to balance the many demands and still be effective as a leader, while stuck in a chain of meetings, obligations, and unfocused activity.

Actually, trying to get it all done is a misguided and impossible exercise, according to Peter Bregman, whose New York-based consultancy Bregman Partners advises C-level executives on leadership issues. (He also blogs for Harvard Business Review.)

In an interview with CFOworld, he offers some advice on determining the right work to get done, based on his new book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done (Business Plus, September 2011).

The title of your book refers to your three-step plan for managing one’s day: Plan, refocus throughout the day, and review how the day went. How did you arrive at this strategy?

Because I was finding my days frustrating; I wasn’t getting done the things I considered to be most important. And in fact, when I thought about it, I realized I didn’t really know what the most important things were. I just had a bunch of things I needed to get done, and I was just going down my list, and I found at the end of the day, I hadn’t made as much advance in my work as I would have liked to have done. The idea of relying on willpower to get things done is a mistake, because our willpower weakens as the day goes on. I needed a system, some way to make it more likely that I’ll get the right things done than less likely.

I looked at a lot of time management books, and I found that most other books on time management are about organizing work, not actually managing time.

It’s interesting that you ask the reader to spend time — albeit only 18 minutes — in order to manage time. It’s the investment of that time that informs one’s approach to managing the rest of one’s time.

You know what it is: We so resist taking that time that we end up just doing whatever we can get done, and we think we’re being efficient.

I’m asking people to take time in order to manage their time better — and to be explicit about it. We’re often not explicit about it, and as a result we think we can get everything done. We think we don’t need to be explicit about it. Why waste time managing my time when I’m just going to get everything done.

That’s another mistake I think a lot of time management books make: the idea that if you just organize your work well enough, nothing will fall through the cracks. I believe things should fall through the cracks — indeed, they should be pushed through the cracks strategically.

I would like to decide specifically to ignore certain things so that I can get other things done, because I admit to myself that I will not be able to get everything done. And when you admit that to yourself, it’s a profound moment. It means you have an opportunity to be strategic about what you’re going to get done and what you’re not going to get done.

You’re going to lose certain things anyway. Why not choose the right things to ignore? It opens up a world of possibilities and lets you be in control.

Let’s talk about saying No. CFOs feel a pressure to deliver functional excellence on one hand and big-picture business leadership on the other. How can CFOs get comfortable saying No, given this dual expectation?

CFOs need to be very clear about what they want to spend their time on. That’s the most strategic decision they can possibly make. And as C-level executives, CFOs have the opportunity and the authority to delegate. If I have a really good team and I’m really strategic about where I’m going to spend my time, then I’m going to have the time to work on company strategy.

Handing off the details to the team can be hard for CFOs — detail-oriented financial analysis is in large part how they became CFOs. So now we’re telling them, “You have to let go of handling these details” — and that’s very counterintuitive for a CFO. So it’s important for CFOs to schedule check-ins with the team members they delegate to, at long enough intervals to allow the team to make meaningful progress. This way CFOs aren’t micromanaging, but they can still feel they have control and can intervene if they need to.

Incidentally, with many CFOs I know, they either micromanage or they delegate everything and completely remove themselves from a project. To be successful as a CFO you need that middle ground so that you’re neither micromanaging nor taking yourself completely out of the loop.

You have a chapter on avoiding tunnel vision. What practical tips do you offer for finance leaders who want to keep their vision for finance fresh?

In the book I talk about the five areas [where you should focus] 95% of your time. Determine those five areas to fit your vision for finance, together with the CEO so that you’re both on the same page. It’s tremendously helpful in keeping sight of your vision and in making the tough decisions not to do things that don’t support your vision.

You advise people how to get “the right work done.” For finance chiefs, this is both an individual goal and a goal for the finance departments they lead. What are some strategies for applying your advice to the organizational level?

A structured to-do list is a simple solution to this. It organizes your to-do list in categories based on the areas of focus we just discussed. When your areas of focus are transparent within finance, you can make sure your employees are focused on the right five things.

If the employees use that format for their to-do lists, you can look at and understand exactly what the employees are doing and how it’s fitting in with the five areas of focus to move the organization forward. This also gives the employee some leverage to remind you when ask them to perform tasks that fall outside the areas of focus that you chose for finance. And if you find this conversation happens often, it will be an indication that finance is going off course and spending too much time on the wrong things.

What’s the value of imperfection? Is there room for getting things half-right in corporate-finance leadership?

The upside of imperfection is productivity. Of course, you don’t want to be half-right in financial reporting. In corporate financial leadership the key is recognizing what’s worth pursuing perfection in, and what isn’t. As CFO, you want the people who report to you to be accurate in the detail-oriented work they do. But at the most senior level the same level of attention to detail can be a detriment to a CFO.