How to Be a Better Strategic Partner

TransUnion’s David McIsaac shows us six ways a CFO can become essential to the business and its CEO

Photo by Sheila Barabad

David McIsaac is a frequent speaker on the evolution of the CFO role in corporate Canada. He recently moved from Northern Trust Canada to the CFO role at TransUnion Canada—one of two large credit-reporting agencies in Canada. McIsaac is a big proponent of the value-added CFO, one who looks for opportunities for growth and thinks beyond the title. Here are his six partnership tips. 

1. Build a strong, sustainable foundation.

David McIsaac was recently asked to deliver a presentation to a Toronto conference filled with finance-minded individuals about how a CFO becomes a strategic partner to a CEO. To support his presentation and provide practical insights from those doing the job day in and day out, he was fortunate to be able to interview more than 30 CEOs, CFOs, and leading executive recruiters.

“CEOs said that, first and foremost, CFOs must ensure the foundation is constantly strong,” he says. “CFOs need to ‘get the basics right,’ build a solid, sustainable foundation that enables the CFO to do more strategic work while giving the CEO comfort that the numbers, reporting, and financial accountabilities are A-plus-plus. Keeping the nuts and bolts going is precisely what enables the CEO to trust the CFO to do other more strategic things. The CEO would be up at night if they thought their CFO was off leading strategy at the expense of accurate accounting and reporting.”

2. Put yourself in your CEO’s shoes.

Strong, positive working relationships matter—and the relationship between a CFO and CEO is no exception. In fact, every CFO needs to develop a strong working relationship with the company’s CEO. 

“CFOs need to serve as the CEO’s right-hand,” McIsaac says. “Understand how they think, know their critical issues, adapt to their style, share a common vision, and put yourself in their shoes. Be a sounding board and advisor while learning from their knowledge of markets and trends. Cover their back by filling in for blind spots and make them look good.”

During his interviews, one executive recruiter said to McIsaac, “the role of the CFO is to make the CEO successful.” A successful CFO also needs a strong CEO partner who encourages the expansion of their role and is supportive.

3. Make time for value-added strategic work.

Automating processes, streamlining workflow, and simplifying tasks are key techniques that can help a CFO do their job better in order to focus on the value-added strategic work that is the foundation of a business.

“Eliminate things that do not demonstrate a clear business need,” McIsaac says. “If you stopped producing a report or two, I suspect many in your businesses would not say anything. Think about outsourcing certain operational functions to free up internal staff time. New and different technology and greater automation could help speed up processes, eliminate manual errors, and reduce operational risks.”

Information is a powerful thing and TransUnion realizes this. They are dedicated to finding innovative ways information can be used to help individuals make better and smarter decisions.

“We help uncover unique stories, trends, and insights behind each data point, using historical information as well as alternative data sources,” McIsaac says. This allows a variety of markets and businesses to better manage risk and consumers to better manage their credit, personal information, and identity.


4. Surround yourself with an ultra-capable team.

McIsaac says it’s imperative to work hard to attract, build, leverage, and keep a solid finance team to allow you to focus on strategic work. Rotate people on your team through the business to gain broader understanding of operations.

“You may even want to locate and/or embed finance staff within the business to improve finance’s relationship with the operations,” McIsaac says. “This builds more trust and puts greater focus on business needs. At TransUnion, we introduced a Finance Business Partner model as a way to provide greater value, insights, and alignment between finance and the business.”

5. Take initiative, be curious, and invest time.

A CFO that wants to be a “strategic advisor” needs to have a broad understanding of the business, its strategy, customers, and market dynamics. 

“During my interviews, this was rated as either important or very important in all cases,” McIsaac says. “Listening and spending time with the business is key and ultimately builds trust.”

McIsaac recommends a CFO start with internal networking—arrange coffee or lunch with your business peers, marketing, or members of your sales team. Visit the storefront, ask to participate in activities undertaken by operations like a delivery run, or be a customer of your services. And, support this with literature on your industry, your company’s strategy, products, and services.

6. Network and be visible.

Be seen as a supportive partner who helps execute with the leadership team, not the “bean counter” who says it’s not in budget.

As McIsaac explains, today’s successful CFO is visible, inside and outside the organization. Visibility takes hard work and can enable powerful results.

“You are not networking for a job, but collaborating with peers to further your company and industry,” McIsaac says.

According to McIsaac its about meeting one’s C-level peers and helping enable introductions and opening doors. Where possible attend client meetings and join organizations. There are a number of professional organizations worth joining that have both a networking element and an educational element.

“In the end,” McIsaac says, “the test to know if all this is working is the extent to which the business seeks you out or consults with you and your team for support and advice.”