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Presenting to the CFO: Why Executive Presence Matters

  • By Andrew Deichler
  • Published: 9/13/2017

When delivering a presentation to senior leadership, FP&A professionals need to demonstrate executive presence. In an upcoming FP&A Guide, underwritten by Workiva, AFP provides practitioners with the tools they need to present to CFOs, CEOs and boards of directors.

According to a study of 268 senior executives by the Center for Talent Innovation, executive presence is largely considered to be one’s ability to display confidence, composure under pressure and decisiveness. Communication and appearance play key roles; it is not uncommon to rehearse your presentation, or even have someone play the role of the executive.

Many FP&A practitioners aspire to one day be the CFO, and more broadly, the FP&A function wants to feel like it truly has a voice in the strategic role of the company, even if it does not yet have a presence in the C-suite. But for either of those things to eventually happen, FP&A professionals must be able to speak to the CEO, CFO, etc. on their level. Communications expert Karen Friedman told Forbes that people who exhibit executive presence typically use strong and clear language, communicate with passion and energy, and display positive body language.

Renee Garin, CTP, FP&A, manager of investments, pensions and finance for Talen Energy and chair of the AFP Emerging Leaders Task Force, sees FP&A as senior leadership’s eyes into the business. It’s the function’s job then, to gather all the information it can from the individual business lines and summarize that at an executive level. “You need to bring that information up to the board and the senior leadership team in a way that is meaningful to them, without bogging them down in all the details and whatnot,” she said. “I think that the way you gain credibility with them—even though you’re not quite on their level—is by being prepared. Know your materials, and know the analysis that led to the results that you’re about to present to them, because they’re going to ask you questions. So be prepared to give good answers.”

This can be tricky in that you probably aren’t going to have every answer to their questions, no matter how much prep work you’ve done. But as long as you can explain your reasoning for the conclusions you’ve made and follow-up on the questions you can’t answer, you should be fine. “You may need to say, ‘Here’s why I think this, and I’ll get back to you,’” Garin said. “And then you need to make good on those promises to get back to them. But if you’re stumbling over any question that is asked and you can’t support or adequately explain the results that you’re providing at that upper level, you’re going to lose your audience very quickly.”

Bryan Lapidus, FP&A, CFO Advisory for Allegiance Advisory Group, sees this as an opportunity to display executive presence. “Don’t shrink away if you don’t know an answer; be direct and say that you will follow up afterwards,” he said. “Don’t try to fake knowledge, fudge an answer, or conjecture beyond what you know. And if you say you will follow-up, be sure to do so quickly.”

It is important to note that a presenter doesn’t have to be overly formal to exude executive presence. It’s far more important to be confident in the information you are providing. Travis Lockhart, CTP, FP&A, finance manager for CALIBRE Systems, has typically starts the meeting quickly and then cuts to the chase. “Executive presence comes off in the knowledge that I have or in the detail and the depth of what I’m presenting,” he said. “If someone asks me a question that is fairly technical in nature, I’m the expert on the analysis that I’m providing. I’ve looked at it; I know the answer. I can answer their question in more detail and with more backup and visual support than they probably expected.”

Watch for AFP’s latest FP&A Guide on developing effective presentations, coming later this month.

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