Sleepless in the C-suite: What matters keep CFOs/CEOs up at night?

20 March 2024 - Luke Morris

In today’s dynamic and interconnected global economy, the roles of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) are increasingly complex and multifaceted. As stewards of their organisations’ success, they are tasked with navigating through challenges while capitalising on opportunities for growth and sustainability. As part of a Nexia thought leadership paper, Luke Morris, Corporate Finance Partner explores the topic of economic and market volatility.


The very best executives we work with clearly understand that their role is fundamentally strategic – what needs to be done to achieve the long-term aims and objectives of the business. Excellent CEOs are all about ownership and communication of the strategy. All about getting buy-in from everyone on the direction of travel. An ability to communicate is the fundamental CEO skill. Excellent CFOs are those who bring personal credibility for, and a track-record of, shaping and measuring value-creation under the strategy. An ability to plan carefully is the fundamental CFO skill.

Strategically minded CEOs and CFOs are important: I once heard someone comment that “tactics without strategy is like trying to cultivate a garden in the jungle”. That expression stuck with me. The jungle here is economic and market volatility, and it is that creeping jungle (and the wild animals that live there) which keeps executives up at night.

How to Handle Volatility

The first thing to say is that volatility appears to be here to stay: some economists even talk of “perma-crisis”. The Brexit vote, the US election, geopolitical tensions, the pandemic and after-effect of fiscally questionable government spending and concurrent lockdowns of populations, the ensuing inflation, an energy price shock, the Central European conflict, recent events in the Middle East… need one say more?

The issue, in basic business terms, is that if you are going to make a 10-year investment during a perma-crisis then how do you avoid sleepless nights? You need some comfort that you will get a return on your investment. Fortunately, the issue is addressed by those fundamental CEO and CFO skills: communication and careful planning. CFOs need to build a wide range of different scenarios into their business planning, and to think through contingencies so that they are flexible should those scenarios arise. This is about dollars and cents: the income and expenditure that attaches to those possible scenarios. Where are you most vulnerable to inflation or the supply chain? How can the overhead be managed? How elastic is your customer pricing? How flexible are your supplier terms?

CEOs need to be able to take this careful planning and effectively communicate it to the organisation’s wider stakeholders in a way that works. That is a personal art and a skill developed over a lifetime. There are no templates (Steve Jobs was an extrovert, Richard Branson is painfully shy, but both are incredible communicators). Stakeholders include the investors, but also include customers, suppliers, employees, government, Non Executive Directors and the like. A business is a confused and organic mass of diverse parties with different personal interests and aims. Financial gobbledegook may be fine for the investors, but it will not cut it with the employees or the customers. Somehow, they all need to be kept engaged and together.

Sleep Tight…

Don’t forget that volatility means a swing in either direction. Positive as well as negative. Those organisations most able to weather volatility, and perhaps even benefit from the perma-crisis, are those which do not abandon their strategy. If the CEO is constantly communicating it effectively, and if the CFO is taking an active approach to business planning, then the business will be in a pretty good place to survive the troughs and exploit the peaks. You can be assured that not all of your competitors will be considering this stuff, and in the jungle you don’t need to be the fastest, you only need to be faster than your predators.

You can download the full thought leadership paper Sleepless in the C-suite: What matters keep CFOs / CEOs up at night? here.

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