March 27, 2024

What does a great CEO-CFO relationship look like? 10 Tips


As a CFO, you’re the CEO’s right hand person. The company hinges on your working relationship—so here’s how to strengthen it.

Miranda Gabbott

To drive a company to success, you need a brilliant CEO, a brilliant CFO and a productive relationship between the two. The company’s fortunes rest on these leaders’ ability to bring out the best in each other—to provide a united front for the board and employees, and to act as strategy debate partners in private.

As a CFO, the more junior of the partnership, it may feel like the responsibility for nurturing this relationship falls unevenly on your shoulders. Yet between managing a team, approving budgets, planning for financial scenarios and attending a thousand meetings per day, it can feel almost impossible to be in constant touch with anyone else—let alone someone even busier than you are.

With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of the main characteristics of a thriving CEO-CFO relationship—and some hints as to what you can do, as a CFO, to foster them. 

CEO or CFO: Which is Higher Status? 

The CEO is undeniably at the top of the corporate hierarchy, with their CFO often considered second-in-command. Conventionally speaking, CEOs are responsible for the mission and overall direction of the company, where CFOs must create a financial strategy to support these goals. 

This said, rising to the rank of CFO arguably requires a more definite set of hard skills. With enough ambition, delegation and authority in their niche, someone from virtually any professional background can become a CEO. The journey to become a CFO, meanwhile, typically involves mastering accountancy, cybersecurity, budgeting, financial planning and analysis and team management. CFOs often take many professional certifications to climb the finance team ladder, and in many cases, have more letters after their name than their bosses. Whilst plenty of CFOs go on to become CEOs, most CEOs aren’t qualified to become CFOs. 

Yet it would be a mistake for any CFO to presume to have higher status than their CEO. Even in rare cases where it seems possible the board might fire your Chief Executive, you should avoid conspiring to encourage this. For better or worse, the fate of a CFO is tied to their CEO, and disrespecting the chain of command reflects poorly on you both. 

10 behaviors a successful CEO-CFO relationship relies upon  

Here are some selected observations about qualities most productive CEO-CFO relationships have in common, and some ideas for how to bring them to your dynamic. 

1. Setting clear roles and expectations 

The exact balance of responsibilities and power between a CEO and their CFO will depend largely on how the CEO works best. Hopefully, by the time you’ve been selected for this post, you’ll have a sense of whether you’re expected to be a more old-school CFO, crunching the numbers behind the scenes and saying “no” to expensive ideas—or a co-creator who can spitball strategy. 

Once you’ve established the foundations of the dynamic, you must find your rhythm for working together on a daily basis. It’s fair to say that CEOs are often mavericks—they’re usually ambitious, independent thinkers with a high risk appetite, and according to some studies, are even more likely to be neurodivergent

Chances are, you’re collaborating with an unusual individual—it may take some time to figure out how you fit together as personalities.  

2. Creating time for communication 

As a CFO, your calendar is probably booked out for weeks. Between all of these meetings, you must find time to keep in step with your CEO. 

The health of your working relationship depends on making time to stay on the same page however you can
, whether via a really hot WhatsApp thread or a regular breakfast meeting before anyone else hits the office.  

Remember to think in terms of breadth as well as depth—you must have some sense of each others’ day-to-day activities (breadth) and also make time to go over elements of the company’s financial strategy and prepare for important meetings together in more detail (depth). 

3. Making data digestible   

A CFO must be their CEO’s data translator. Thanks to the rise of financial software, today’s CFOs are not expected to crunch numbers, but to select the relevant numbers, and tell stories around them. You must have a birds’ eye view of your company’s fiscal information, identify which patterns the CEO should be aware of, and let them know—in the correct amount of detail. After all, the quality of their leadership depends on their understanding of relevant opportunities and challenges. 

According to Chris Pass, CFO of John Muir Health, you should be telling stories with data not just to your CEO, but to the whole company

"CFOs are challenged with turning the numbers into something meaningful. You need to be able to derive insights and deliver information to the rest of the organization." 

4. Working transparently 

There are no (work-related) secrets in a solid CEO-CFO relationship. Your time is one of the company’s most vital resources, so you must find ways to make your work visible. When your CEO has an idea of where your energy is going, they’re better placed to understand your decisions. 

This doesn’t need to be a task that creates additional admin—in many cases, the right tools can make your work visible with no extra documentation. For example, say you’re planning to reduce the amount your company spends on software. A software management tool like Cledara can make this process far more transparent—not to mention efficient. 

Cledara shows you every piece of software you pay for, how much you’re paying for it, and—crucially—how much your team is using it
. With all this information available from a centralized dashboard, you will be able to make budget cuts, and clearly demonstrate to your CEO why these cuts were logical. 

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5. Developing stellar prioritization skills 

Whilst a good CEO-CFO relationship involves a huge amount of communication, you shouldn’t be telling your CEO everything. Another art of the job is to understand what not to bother them about. You should be acting as your CEO’s filter, so that they’re not sweating the small stuff related to finance—or even, necessarily, the medium-sized stuff, if your team has it under control.In the words of Charles Holley, a retired CFO of Walmart: 

"CEOs often have more on their plates than they can handle. Companies need to transform themselves and change direction quickly, so CFOs need to help the CEO focus on the biggest priorities."

6. Having each other’s backs 

Appearances aren’t everything, but a good CEO-CFO relationship should look stable from the outside. You should both be working to make each other look good. When you’re facing the board, you’re in it together, a united front. When you’re in a room full of potential investors, you’re both telling the same, convincing story about the company’s potential. 

Oftentimes, the difference between a good CFO and a great one is a little charisma, and a willingness to go beyond their role to support the CEO in public. As an anonymous CEO of a public company told a Forbes journalist:

"I did not know how much I needed my CFO to be a great communicator until I hired my current one...I can’t be having my finance chief speak to Wall Street about debits and credits, though that is part of it. Having somebody who articulates our value and vision to the investor community in a credible manner is invaluable."

7. Establishing your individual credibility 

For the CEO and CFO to seem like a strong pairing to the board and employees, they must both establish their individual authority. It’s essential for both of you to reliably deliver good work, admit to mistakes immediately, behave with integrity—and there are a few extra characteristics to consider per role.  Traditionally speaking, a CEO builds gravitas by having an exciting but believable vision and the charisma to convince others they can deliver it.

A CFO, on the other hand, derives credibility from their financial expertise. 
Whilst a CEO might be excused a typo here or there—they are a visionary after all—CFOs must be detail-oriented and strive not to make small mistakes when presenting financial information. When both parties nurture their personal brands, the CEO and their CFO are better placed to look like a power couple.

8. Trusting each other enough to disagree 

As any business leader worth their MBA knows, surrounding yourself with yes-men is a recipe for failure. In a healthy CFO-CEO relationship, there’s space—perhaps even a lot of space—for disagreement and debate. In the words of one anonymous CEO of a recently-acquired startup,

"I want the CFO to support me in public and challenge me in private."

It requires bravery to push back on your boss’s ideas—the ideas of a very determined and ambitious person, who you depend on to pay your bills. But a good CEO will encourage you to challenge them. After all, you are the only person close enough to the business’ inner financial workings to give them a considered opinion. The key point is to share concerns behind closed doors, at an appropriate time. 

9. Liking and respecting each other 

Perhaps it goes without saying, but a good CEO-CFO relationship is warm and friendly—even if you don’t share time together outside of work. According to Shatish Dasani, CFO of Forterra:

"The CEO and the CFO don’t necessarily need to be the best of friends, but they must work well together and be able to have a bit of a joke during stressful times, as both jobs can be quite grueling."

A bit of interpersonal chemistry goes a long way during those long nights at the office. There will be times when you’re under pressure and in conflict. If you like each other enough to look for the positive intent behind the other’s harsh words, you’re more likely to be able to keep in step. 

10. Strategizing together 

In traditional business culture, the CFO’s role in the CEO-CFO dynamic was essentially reactive: to be a financial advisor, and say ‘no’ when their bosses’ blue-sky thinking got out of hand. The CEO would set out the business’ ‘what’ and ‘why’, the CFO would run the numbers to figure out the ‘how’. But today, the hierarchy is usually flatter than this. 

Oftentimes, there’s breathing space for the CFO to bring their vision for the company’s future—even their creativity. In the words of Bill Tobia, LLR Partners’ Managing Director of Strategic Finance: 

"Today’s CFOs must break away from the number-cruncher stereotype and think of themselves as more of a strategic player in the company."

A great CFO is a CEO’s biggest asset 

Having a great professional relationship with your CEO, as any important relationship, takes work. Though there’s some value in reflecting on what qualities indicate a perfect pairing, in practice, it’s best not to overengineer it. If there’s chemistry and some degree of friendship between you and your CEO, most of these indicators will naturally fall into place.

After all, being in the c-suite can be isolating. You’ll have too much power over most of your teammates to feel camaraderie with them. In the absence of the opportunity for other work friends, it’s important that the CEO and CFO can support each other. 

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Stop wasting time tracking expenses and start making informed decisions.

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Miranda Gabbott

Miranda is a writer and content marketer with over five years’ experience writing about software, predominantly for SaaS companies such as Hotjar, Typeform and Preply. She’s interested in ethical and cultural considerations around new technologies and is currently studying for an MA in Design for Responsible AI.

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