COP26: Why freeing up CFO time to focus on ESG initiatives is key

A turbulent few years has highlighted the increasing importance of business agility, and the need to constantly assess challenges and priorities. The global pandemic, supply chain issues and the growing threat of cyber attacks are just some of the challenges UK businesses are facing, not to mention the continued and unchartered waters of Brexit. For CFOs and other finance leaders, this has meant new pressures on top of what is an already demanding position. In fact, latest research by Tipalti revealed nearly all (97%) UK CFOs believe their role has become more complex in the last two years – with sustainability being a main driver of complexity for the finance team.

COP26 brought together some of the world’s most powerful people to tackle the biggest threat our planet faces, and whilst leaders sign pledges and make commitments to meet lower emissions targets, attention will quickly turn to businesses to deliver upon promises. Increasingly, leaders of these businesses look to their colleagues in finance for solutions. In fact, CFOs ranked incorporating environmental, social and governance (ESG) and sustainability into the business and its operations as the greatest driver of complexity in their role (27%), above even the global pandemic (22%).

For business leaders, the urgency is two-fold. Yes, targets from government are being set and businesses will need to adapt in order to comply, but growth of the business itself will also be stunted if the issue is not made a priority. ESG ratings have become a tool for asset managers and investors to evaluate and compare current portfolio companies and future investment prospects. Considering more than a quarter (28%) of UK business leaders and 23% of their finance counterparts rate international growth as a top priority, a less than favourable ESG rating will quickly see expansion targets revised down.

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While the importance is clear, finding time to innovate for an already overworked finance department is no mean feat. Frustratingly, nearly a third (29%) of CFOs state they are having to deal with more manual finance operations, meaning that instead of being relieved of administrative duties, the department is being asked to do more of it. This disconnect between the CEO and finance leader will not just lead to a lack of innovation in ESG, and potentially result in missed targets, but will leave the business vulnerable to members of its finance team experiencing burnout, and ultimately, increased churn.

The number one most time-consuming function in finance today is accounts payable operations. Automation can alleviate the burden of managing these manual financial tasks and free up time for the tasks that matter. Whilst the pandemic triggered the start of digital transformations for many businesses, the journey will be by no means complete. Digital transformation should be a continuously evolving process, without a clear end. It’s crucial that businesses do not limit these transformations solely to IT and technology teams, but instead have input from all departments, including finance.

Following COP26, it’s clear that businesses will no longer be able to hide behind a curtain of sustainable naivety. Greenwashing tactics have become predictably transparent and businesses failing to measure their carbon output will only come under greater scrutiny until they do. Today, CFOs need to be more than financial controllers; provided they are given the opportunity to step back from the manual day-to-day processes that can be handled by AI and automation, and focus on strategic initiatives that help them survive and thrive whatever the challenge.

Written by Rob Israch, general manager, Europe at Tipalti

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