How Can the CFO Change the CEO’s Mind?

If CFOs want to sway the opinion of their CEO, they need to understand their beliefs. These questions can help diagnose what drives a CEO's thinking.

“All CFOs have found themselves disagreeing with their CEO on an important issue at one point in their careers,” says Markus Hofbauer, Director, Research, Gartner. “Gartner’s advice is that targeting a strongly held belief directly is less likely to change someone’s mind than understanding and challenging the underlying foundation of a viewpoint.

When analyzing what makes a good CFO, Gartner identifies that leading CFOs try to understand CEO beliefs they wish to challenge in four dimensions: Experience, authority, assumption and emotional needs.

Increased understanding of how the CEO’s beliefs were formed enables the CFO’s arguments

Each area has a distinct set of questions to answer to help CFOs get to the core of what is driving a CEO’s belief. By answering these questions, CFOs can understand what is driving the beliefs held by their CEO — enabling them to better articulate their challenge to the CEO’s position.

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Experience

This dimension looks at how personal historical information can affect a person’s decision making, often in an illogical manner. A good way to surface issues with beliefs based on experience heuristics is to answer some or all of these questions:

  • How are internal conditions that led to earlier behavior similar to the current situation?
  • How does the context of previous similar decisions relate to the current situation?
  • How does the outcome of similar situations relate to the current situation?

For example, a CEO may have enjoyed success expanding into new geographies at a previous company. They used joint ventures to make expansion easier. Therefore, they might not account for the lack of this capability at their current company.

Authority

By examining this dimension, the CFO is trying to understand what sources are shaping the CEO’s decision making, shedding light on the drivers of strongly held CEO beliefs.

  • How are internal and external sources influencing the CEO?
  • How does the CEO perceive the influencer’s reputation?
  • How does the CEO use information to inform the current situation?

Sales professional and investors hoping for short-term growth might have louder voices than an internal research and design community pushing for investments to enable long-term growth. This could cause a CEO to focus too much on short-term gains.

Learn more: What makes a good CFO

Assumption

This dimension is about identifying what assumptions reinforce the belief the CFO wishes to challenge. Questions include:

  • How do implicit and explicit assumptions drive the current belief?
  • How do inter-dependencies between assumptions strengthen the current belief?
  • How do biases impact assumptions?

For CEOs, as for most executives, it is painful to cut when they are invested in an outcome

The “sunk cost fallacy” is an example of this and is a common trait of human decision making in general. For CEOs, as for most executives, it is painful to cut when they are invested in an outcome. They may understand that they are over-committing resources in an attempt to avoid the consequences of previous poor decisions. But despite this understanding, it’s still difficult for them to cut their losses.

Emotional needs

To what extent are emotions and needs influencing a CEO’s strongly held belief? Often our cognition is influenced by irrational emotional factors, but an objective counterargument can help us to reevaluate. Questions such as these help to isolate emotional factors in cognition.

  • Does the CEO’s perception of their personal brand affect the decision?
  • Do the CEO’s short- and long-term needs align with the current situation?

It’s possible that a CEO is trying to build their personal brand, for example as a turn-around specialist, to position themselves for a role at another company. This can lead to overambitious tactics and can cloud their decision-making clarity with ulterior motives.

CFOs can perform these mental exercises to increase their confidence when challenging strongly held CEO beliefs. Increased understanding of how the CEO’s beliefs were formed enables the CFO’s arguments to target elements that are foundational to the CEO’s opinion. They can reduce the strength of their CEO’s belief by chipping away at the foundations of that belief. This is a key aspect of personal effectiveness among top-performing CFOs.

This article is based on insights that are part of an in-depth collection of research, tools, templates and advice available to Gartner clients. Gartner for Finance Leader clients can read more in The CFO Relationship With the CEO: What Drives Effectiveness.

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