Five Ways CFOs Can Embrace Their Inner Rebel

An Insight from the 2019 CFO of the Future Summit

Part of a Series

This Insight is taken from the 2019 CFO of the Future Summit.

Having spent more than a decade studying rebels in unexpected places, Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School Francesca Gino joined the CFO Summit to share what she learned, applying it to the evolving role of the CFO. This article is inspired by and reflects some of the themes of her presentation.

What do the owner of the world’s best restaurant, a singing basketball coach and a kid putting food coloring in his milk have in common? As Francesca Gino tells it, they are all rebels.

Contrary to common wisdom about what makes a rebel, these people are not the sore thumbs, squeaky wheels or defiant troublemakers who make things difficult for everyone else. Quite the opposite. Gino’s thesis, which she has developed through years of research in organizations across industries, is that rebels’ willingness to push the boundaries has a positive influence on organizations’ ability to successfully drive change. In fact, she believes that every company should strive to have 100 percent of rebels on staff.

Gino’s thesis is extremely relevant for CFOs today even though it is incongruous with how people—and financial leaders themselves—think about who CFOs are and what makes them tick. In other words, being rebellious in the traditional sense is diametrically opposed to the fundamental traits and skills of CFOs who excel in their roles—from respect for rules and a strict compliance mindset to an extreme attention to detail.

The reality is that CFOs need to find their inner rebel to face the Herculean task of leading through uncertainty and delivering value to the finance organization, the business and stakeholders. Again, this is not a call for the CFO to become something out of Hell’s Angels. Instead, it is a keen recognition of the need for fresh mindsets and unconventional approaches in optimizing current business value, generating new business value and creating dynamic capabilities. Here are five ways CFOs can get in touch with their inner rebel.

1. Be willing to be vulnerable

Gino tells the story of how NBA Hall of Famer and former coach of the Portland Trail Blazers Maurice Cheeks stepped up to help a teenage girl who was struggling through the Star Spangled Banner in a packed arena. Cheeks’ willingness to be vulnerable—to sing live in front of thousands on the opponent’s home court—is a cornerstone of being a rebel in Gino’s definition. Although it can be (and is often) uncomfortable, vulnerability opens leaders up to seeing, thinking and acting differently.

2. Embrace novelty with enthusiasm

CFOs cannot keep leading as they have in the past and drive their organizations into the future. While it may run counter to the comfort zone of how things have always been done, CFOs need to explore the “New” without preconceived notions of what is good or bad about it. By seeing the opportunity in novelty, CFOs position themselves to take full advantage of new technologies, new ways to use data to drive corporate strategy, new ways to communicate priorities to business, and new ways to staff the finance department.

3. See—and seize—people’s strengths

Gino argues that it is human nature to dwell on—overinvest in—our weaknesses. From an organizational perspective, this has translated into a “fill the gap” mentality that looks at what is missing through a glass-half-empty lens. Rebels see the glass half full and build organizations from a position of strength. They think, “How can I make this better?,” instead of “What don’t I have?” Working from strengths is highly motivating to teams and can help CFOs be more authentic in their personal leadership styles.

4. Rediscover wonder and awe

As Gino points out, studies show that people’s curiosity peaks right around the time that they start school, and declines from there. Interestingly, she reports that it peaks again when people start a new job because they feel inspired and energized about all that is possible. Rebels, on the other hand, stay curious. CFOs who find a way to as well can create an environment that fosters innovation. Curiosity also provides the space for people to explore and solve problems in unconventional ways that would otherwise be shut down fast.

5. Give everyone permission to fail

Anywhere—and especially in the play-by-the-rules culture of traditional finance departments—failure is seen as a negative. It is unproductive. It is costly. It wastes time. However, Gino points out that rebels see the unique value in intelligent failure. This is failure that teaches lessons, and as such, is a useful means to a better end. It’s like Thomas Edison’s famous quote says, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” This view of failure is key for CFOs who want to support more agile ways of working.

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