CFO time management Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

We have all sorts of gadgets to help manage time: laptops, BlackBerry devices, cell phones, PDAs, you name it. But despite technological advances designed to streamline workloads, chief financial officers still struggle to balance their schedules. According to a survey, nearly half (46 percent) of CFOs polled said “time management” is the greatest challenge for them today, up from 36 percent five years ago. “Keeping pace with technology” ranked second, with 22 percent of the response, versus 27 percent in 2001.

The survey, developed by Robert Half Management Resources, was conducted by an independent research firm and included responses from 1,400 CFOs from a random sample of U.S. companies with 20 or more employees.

“Not only does technology often make lives more complicated by creating a 24/7 work environment, many CFOs are facing the added burden of more operational responsibilities, board activities and compliance-related duties that take up their days,” says Rachel Caviness, division director for Robert Half Management Resources in Columbus.

Smart Business spoke with Caviness about the challenges financial executives face in today’s business world and what CFOs can do to help relieve some of the stress.

What does this survey tell us about financial executives and time management?

It’s a reflection of how much stress CFOs are under because of the additional demands being placed on their time. They are being called to do so much more these days because of new government regulations (such as Sarbanes-Oxley and FIN 48) that did not exist five years ago. In addition, the CFO is more heavily involved with the technology-related needs of his or her company, especially when it comes to implementing new accounting systems, report-writing packages and data warehouses.

The strong economic environment we’re experiencing today creates another element of demand on the CFO’s time. There is more merger and acquisition activity today than there was five years ago when the economy was extremely weak.

Are the technological advances that are supposed to save time making time management more of a challenge?

They can actually both save time and make time management more of a challenge. It saves time when technology is used efficiently. But technology, as we all know, can be a huge time-stealer. A person, for example, can access e-mail at any time or place through a BlackBerry. This can be good when an executive has some down-time and wants to get some work done, but it also can be a huge distraction from other work.

What can CFOs — and other businesspeople — do to help manage time?

Set aside blocks of time where you can answer e-mail messages — in the morning or immediately after lunch — and don’t feel the need to answer every single e-mail at once. You can certainly wait a few hours if an e-mail is not urgent. And some informational e-mails don’t require a response at all.

Also, choose the technology tools that truly are time saving, rather than all at your disposal. If you check your e-mail in-box every morning and afternoon, do you really need to have your BlackBerry at every meeting? Sometimes we add too much technology because it is there and not because it really helps.

Make sure that every meeting has a clear objective and an agenda that is followed. And find out if you have to be at a meeting at all. If there is a good note-taker who can send detailed minutes of the meeting, you might be able to capture the meeting’s essence in just five to 10 minutes of reading.

What can CFOs do to relieve the pressure of being asked to wear so many hats in this post-Sarbanes-Oxley environment?

They need to stay focused on their key roles in corporate governance and strategic initiatives and must be leery of taking on too much responsibility in other areas. Yes, they will be asked to oversee all financial projects and accounting department initiatives, but many responsibilities can be delegated to other staff members, and projects can be overseen by a consultant.

Finally, companies are encouraging executives and employees to work toward keeping a healthy work-life balance, which is probably the reason we did not see ‘achieving work-life balance’ rank high in our survey. More companies are encouraging overtaxed employees to take more vacation time or work flexible schedules in order to keep stress in check. The key for CFOs is to find a way to completely break away from e-mail and cell phones, so that they can recharge their batteries and work more efficiently when they do return to the office.

RACHEL CAVINESS is the Columbus division director for Robert Half Management Resources, which has more than 120 offices throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalfmr.com. Reach Caviness at (614) 224-1660 or Rachel.caviness@rhmr.com.