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The Value of the CSCA for a Strategic CFO

By Mario Lara, CMA, CSCA, CPA
November 1, 2018
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The CSCA provides a strong framework for CFOs looking to fulfill the vital strategic role needed in today’s business world.

 

There has been a plethora of research addressing the new paradigm that companies need to adopt in these volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times. Companies must adapt quickly and continue to add value or risk going out of business. The pace of change in business has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow in the future.

 

At the same time, the CFO’s role has expanded into every corner of the company. In most companies, the CFO is second in influence only to the CEO. Whenever a turnaround, business transformation, digital transformation, strategic pivot, or any other major corporate initiative occurs, chances are that the CFO will have a central role in it. Who else can track progress and advise on any necessary course corrections?

 

In many companies, however, the expectation is that the CFO also has a high degree of involvement in setting strategy. The CFO’s traditional roles of steward, operator, and catalyst now include a large dose of strategy as well. The traditional CFO role that focuses on core competencies such as accounting, tax management, financial reporting, internal controls, budgeting and forecasting, fraud awareness and prevention, risk management, and corporate governance is no longer sufficient. To progress along their desired career path, CFOs must move up the value chain from being stewards of compliance to becoming strategic executives.

 

How does a CFO close that competency gap? I’ve had a challenging and rewarding finance career, but I’ve still struggled with this conundrum. When I transitioned from public accounting and auditing to finance, I researched appropriate credentials for CFOs and opted for the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant). It helped me see both sides of challenges or problems and understand complex topics. Subsequently, I was searching for a way to further cultivate my strategic decision-making abilities and found that the CSCA® (Certified in Strategy and Competitive Analysis) credential has given my skill set a boost and enhanced my professional credibility. But getting to this point definitely wasn’t straightforward.

 

MY JOURNEY

 

I earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in accounting, both from top-10 accounting universities. I started my career in public accounting, which many consider one of the best training grounds for careers in finance and business. I then held internal audit positions at Fortune 100 companies. From there, I entered the then-brand-new world of Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance, became a controller, and finally landed a CFO position within the ever-changing advertising industry, which gave me exposure to myriad other industries. I witnessed firsthand the need for strategic CFOs at my clients’ organizations and within my own industry. In the pursuit of becoming more strategically literate, I completed an executive management program at an Ivy League school.

 

That experience armed me with the mind-set and many of the skills that I needed to succeed in this environment. The strategy courses were world-class and gave me a taste for the breadth of strategic tools and options out there. I devoured case studies, books, research, and training sessions on strategy. I kept in touch with my strategy professors and subscribed to strategy publications. Yet all those nuggets of wisdom kept swirling around my head without a clear platform to anchor them. I was able to bring a lot of that knowledge into my job, and my career took a different path because I became more strategically oriented. Senior executives across the company contacted me more frequently to use me as a strategic sounding board.

 

THE PATH FORWARD

 

Yet I learned the hard way that I still had a lot to learn. My business unit held a strategic retreat prompted in large part by me. The objective was to figure out exactly what our current strategy was, decide where we wanted to go, and figure out how we would get there. We spent three intense days having fantastic conversations with the business’s top executives. It wasn’t hard to reach the conclusion that we were being disrupted. It was relatively easy to figure out where we wanted to be, but figuring out how to get there had us spinning our wheels.

 

We all agreed that we needed to do a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis. We all disagreed about what to do with our mission, vision, and values. We knew we wanted to review our business model, but we tabled that discussion for another time. As the CFO, I wanted us to focus on developing a balanced scorecard. We knew that we would need strong change management to implement the plan that we were formulating. We ended up implementing some of the things we talked about, but there was no follow-through, which was disappointing. I felt I needed something more to get to the next level.

 

ENHANCING STRATEGY COMPETENCIES

 

As a CMA, I closely follow what IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) does and was excited to hear about the new CSCA exam. It was a dream come true for a bona fide strategic CFO. I saw the positive feedback from the first cohort that took it, and I decided to take the plunge.

 

Initially, I was skeptical that a certification would provide me with the platform that I was eagerly seeking, but the CSCA study material pleasantly surprised me. The concise, high-level framework allowed me to understand strategic management systems. The different modules focused on strategic planning, implementation, and evaluation, all geared toward creating a sustainable competitive advantage. The material emphasizes the dire need for feedback loops to thrive in a volatile, complex world. The focus of the didactic material is on how the process needs to filter down from the global organization to the corporate leadership to the business to the functional level and the finance executive’s role within it.

 

SEAT AT THE TABLE

 

Now that I’m a CMA and CSCA, I feel confident to sit at the table with any executive team or board, knowing that I have a strong strategic framework to work with. These credentials enable me to persuasively assert that I am a strategic CFO. I recently attended a graduate school reunion, and my fellow alumni had nothing but compliments about my strategic acumen. Opportunities for new business, networking, and future career prospects are now at another level for me. I wish I could have had access to IMA’s fantastic resources when I was beginning my career.

 

Just as companies need to innovate to avoid obsolescence, CFOs need to reinvent themselves or they will disappear. If nobody misses you at strategic meetings, then you aren’t adding the value and insight needed in these dynamic times. Do you see this as a threat or an opportunity? If you view this as an opportunity, then I encourage you to explore the CSCA certification, which is designed for finance professionals like you. With so much expected of CFOs and with so many changes going on around us, this certification could be just what your résumé is missing.

 

Mario Lara, CMA, CSCA, CPA, is the CFO of MullenLowe Latin America in São Paulo, Brazil. He also is a member of IMA. You can contact him at mario.antonio.lara@gmail.com.
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