Les Clifford, Accountancy Age, Thursday 5 August 2010 at 00:30:00

Many CFOs and FDs still struggle with the ?softer skills? involved in being the face of company performance

In today?s modern world of mass communication, the management of a company?s financial news flow has never been more important.

The ever increasing speed and reach with which corporate events, results and rumours can be shared is a challenging area for any board and investor relations team. However, for those companies in which there is a public interest, there is always going to be heightened sensitivity about getting the message right.

As many companies have either restructured, reorganised or embraced the opportunities provided ? or forced on them ? by the recent economic climate, boards now have to communicate in real time with new and existing stakeholder groups.

But the sophisticated communication skills required to build and maintain trust among stakeholders are often assumed ? many board members are experienced in dealing with investors and analysts, but not at dealing with media, regulators, public interest groups and campaigners.

The role of the CFO in this context has also changed, and continues to expand as commentators and stakeholders seek to understand the financial consequences of current and future events. In a recent study we conducted among top CFOs around the world, almost two-thirds said they were increasingly required to act as the face of the company on issues related to overall financial performance. A similar proportion agreed that, following the recent economic crisis, one of their top priorities was to increase stakeholder trust in the financial health of their business.

However, in my discussions with CFOs it is clear that many find relationships with investors, analysts and the media to be one of the more challenging aspects of their role. Indeed, many have confessed difficulty in mastering so-called ?softer skills?. CFOs pointed to communication and influencing as the most important area for improvement, with less than half of respondents saying their relationship with investors is good or excellent, and just 25% giving a similar rating to their relationship with the media.

As the profession moves to more ?lean and agile? business models, it is increasingly important that we invest time in providing future finance leaders with the right skills and experiences to meet all the demands of their role.

Les Clifford is partner and CFO programme chair at Ernst & Young.