Michael Burwell’s Tools of the Trade: CFOs and the Finance Team


Tasked with keeping cash flow and cash reserves in a healthy position, successful CFOs like Michael Burwell have a singular vantage point within the corporate structure. While they may not be called to craft and recraft an organization’s mission and vision, CFOs keep the mission and vision sustained so that the organization can meet the needs of clients and continue to grow in response to real-time and evolving trends in the marketplace. CFOs recognize that globalization is here to stay, and therefore are always prepared to tweak an organization’s fiscal management for “lean running” in a competitive, internationally-complex environment. So, what makes the Michael Burwell’s of the world standout for deft financial analysis and management? In a nutshell, the most successful CFOs ask the right questions, build the right team, and collaborate with other professionals within the organization to make the right recommendations and decisions.


Ask the Right Questions


CFOs who bring value to their organizations ask important questions about the innerworkings of department budgeting, cash outlay, and overall financial management. Howard Ungerleider of Dow Chemical believes that asking the right questions helps the CFO build fiscal accountability. “In this more volatile macroeconomic environment, finance organizations hold a significant leadership role in developing true value-based cultures. It begins with a strong accountability focus within the organization — a clear understanding of value drivers, coupled with scorecards based on common financial metrics. In this way, the finance organization elevates from the transactional and becomes a true ‘co-pilot’ in driving business strategy for attractive, sustainable growth.”[1]


For CFOs like Michael Burwell, accountability across the organization begins with the CFOs willingness to move among the departments of the organization to obtain a sense of their tasks, and the measures that are in place to complete the tasks in an efficient and effective manner. A CFO may want to develop a “common metric” for use in the organization, and use the tool to determine if team members are working within budget parameters or helping the rest of the organization manage costs and help the “bottom line.” CFOs cannot do their work in a vacuum. Asking important questions to those managing departments is vital to get a firm understanding of the cash management practices and priorities within an organization. Further, a confident CFO is not afraid to address others on the management team about the potential impacts of new or restructured mission initiatives.


Brad Halverson of Caterpillar calls asking questions part of the CFOs obligation to get his or hands dirty. Good questioning leads to appropriate resource allocation. “An important responsibility of a CFO is resource allocation — where the company is investing its time and money. “To do this well, the CFO needs to first get their hands dirty in the field by gaining an understanding of where and how the company is positioned to compete for business by adding value to customers. Second, have a granular understanding of the business — where you create and destroy value — using Operating Profit after Capital Charge (OPACC) as a lens. Finally, drive disciplined execution of the OPACC improvement agenda. Investors aren’t interested in activities; they want results.”[2]

Building the Right Team 

With Michael Burwell and other notable CFOs add analysts to the financial team, they are looking for professionals who bring insight to the table, that is, a willingness to question, challenge and push the team and the rest of the organization to make the little decisions that lead to bigtime success. This so-called “Insight-led Culture” is extremely valuable in an organization. “Having a framework is a good way to accelerate the insight process. In the insight-led companies, this framework is embedded into the beliefs of their people, which is demonstrated every day in their behaviors. This level of engagement with the principles of the framework allows these companies to accelerate insight generation…”[3] Indeed, financial analysts who cultivate and model an insight approach for the rest of the time are positively reshaping the entire organization.



Michael Burwell and other well-regarded CFOs understand that even the wisest CFO is going to be stumped by an issue or question from time to time. Inasmuch, it is vital that the savvy, self-aware CFO surrounds herself with a cohort of organizational professionals who provide “expertise coverage” for issues and areas beyond the CFO’s expertise. George Pissides of CFOInnovation believes that this sort of collaboration is a win-win for the CFO and the larger organization. “In my experience, those who seek help from someone who knows the particular area of operations well deliver the best insights. They could be a call-center agent or warehouse manager, for example.

Share what you are trying to do with them and ask their opinion. Their support can come in many forms. They may share their experiences of the topic being analyzed, may highlight obvious pitfalls, or simply confirm that what you are doing is on the right track.”[4]


There is no “magic pill” or DNA sequence that will ensure that you are at the top of your game as CFO. Instead, successful CFOs like Michael Burwell recognize that asking the right questions and sharing the work with talented colleagues and valued experts moves the organization forward.

[1] Extracted from: http://www.businessinsider.com/cfos-share-best-financial-advice-2015-9#howard-ungerleider-the-cfo-of-dow-chemical-says-you-need-to-have-strong-accountability-focus-within-the-organization-7

[2] Ibid.

[3] Extracted from: https://www.cfoinnovation.com/story/14285/tips-cfos-ten-ways-generate-and-deliver-great-insights


[4] Ibid.


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