Role of the CFO

IMA CFO Russ Porter: Finance is “about feedback and direction”

Aspiring to the CFO seat? Broaden your perspective
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Russ Porter

· 4 min read

Russ Porter had been a member of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) for more than 25 years before he became its CFO. He’s now held the role for close to two years. At the IMA23 Annual Accounting & Finance Conference in Minneapolis, he spoke with CFO Brew about the forces that are reshaping finance and the skills professionals will need to cultivate to stay successful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the top issues that will affect management accounting in the next three to five years?

I believe that, as a profession, we have not embraced technology to the extent we should and I think over the next couple of years we’re going to be rapidly adopting multiple technologies, everything from things like AP and AR automation to AI.

No. 2 is going to be ESG. Regulations are coming. Companies are behind in terms of what they want to do about it.

And No. 3 is: How are we going to address the perception of accounting in terms of the career path? In India and China, and in much of Asia, the numbers [of accounting students is] still climbing. But in the US and in Europe, the number of accountants is going down.

What skills will management accountants need to thrive in the future?

No. 1 is people skills. They’re going to need those interpersonal skills because, as we automate a lot of routine tasks, the need is going to move to the higher-level skills of prediction and prescription and influence.

A lot of people think accounting is all about numbers. It’s not. Management accounting, especially, is about feedback and direction. And when we cross over from numbers to people, we’ve got to not only be fact-based and objective, but we also have to be persuasive. And for the typical accountant, that’s not a soft skill that we’re taught effectively.

How can management accountants cultivate these skills?

It’s a process. It does start with that self-awareness. And self-awareness is hard. So we’ve got to go ask for feedback, go and talk to our managers, to our peers, and say, “Look, guys, what could I have done differently to be more effective?” And then it’s a question of finding the tools, whether they’re YouTube videos or podcasts or articles, to help you address those things which are hampering your effectiveness, and then practice, practice, practice.

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Has the move to remote work affected the development of soft skills?

I’m concerned about that for the profession because that can lead to insularity. And if we become insular, we lose those muscles of interaction and interpersonal communication. Now, that said, it’s a different world. The skill set is changing. This idea of you and I sitting in a room becomes a rarity. It’s much more about how to communicate over email, over Slack, over Zoom or Teams, but that interpersonal need, that need to be to be self-aware and to control one’s communication is still there.

What advice would you give to a management accountant who aspires to the CFO seat?

One of the things you don’t really appreciate until you’re a CFO is that, as CFO, you’ve got to have all of the parts working together and all aligned toward the betterment of the enterprise. Almost no one—except the CEO—has the breadth of vision across the enterprise that the CFO does.

But, you know, when you’re growing up and you’re in one of these specialties, you don’t always have that broad perspective. I advocate for that. I tell young finance managers and young accountants, first of all, do your job really, really well. Be excellent at your core mission. But always look upstream and downstream.

The third thing is make sure you know the value you bring. No 1: the value we bring to the table. No. 2: What is the enterprise bringing to our customers? What is that value proposition? If you understand that, then you’re going to make better decisions.

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.