The Modern CFO: A Careful Balancing Act in an AI-Driven World

By Karen Williams, Chief Financial Officer of Amex GBT

In today’s world, a Chief Financial Officer has to perform a finely honed balancing act.  We’re no longer just responsible for crunching the numbers and balancing the books. We must help drive efficiency and innovation in a time where artificial intelligence (AI) is starting to transform finance – while having a rigorous understanding of the risk landscape created by this evolution. And so much more besides: the traditional CFO role has wider touchpoints, from corporate strategy and culture, to deal activity, data analytics and future growth. As a CFO, my job often has two key dimensions: overseeing the finance function to ensure smooth sailing and ensuring the high performance of Amex GBT as a whole.  At a time of geopolitical and economic uncertainty, the global landscape demands a far more multifaceted leader than ever before.

I’ve witnessed this evolution first hand throughout my career. Year-end tasks, once a time-consuming maze of numbers, are now streamlined with AI systems and processes. AI has become the golden thread for managing complex finances and understanding great swathes of financial data. And it’s about challenging the whole business to collaborate and allocate resources towards AI and helping bridge gaps, not just in the finance department.

I’ve also learnt how to bring down barriers in a male-dominated field. Just 12% of CFOs in Fortune 500 companies are female. In the UK’s FTSE 100, we’re seeing somewhat of an improvement, with female CFOs in 24% of the companies. I’ve experienced these challenges in finance first hand. But it’s all about having faith and confidence in yourself, staying true to your passions, and importantly being authentic – being true to yourself is good for your performance, your career and your wellbeing.

How AI impacts the CFO role

As a CFO, you can’t tick every box. But you can be responsible for the people leadership element of the modern finance function, and part of that is making sure your people are digitally savvy. Today, AI and smart tech support our finance department at Amex GBT in a much broader way than it did, say, five years ago. We are working together to make our processes, from tracking expenses, to presenting end of year financial reports, more efficient.

AI can analyse vast amounts of data to identify trends in the competitive landscape we operate in, predict future trends, and importantly, monitor for potential risk and threats – before they materialise.  In general, I find AI is augmenting my role as a CFO – but the human and personal element of leadership will always remain critical for strategic communications and speaking to stakeholders.

Breaking barriers in a male-dominated field

Success in the finance industry is not about conforming to stereotypes. You don’t have to fit into a mould of what you think people expect. It’s about embracing your individual skills and giving your team a vision. Maximising your team’s strengths and passions. For many CFOs, including myself, it’s a learning curve – just like at any other point of your career. Many of the same skills we need to be effective in any role also apply to the C-suite position – strategic thinking, but also ‘people leader’ skills, such as communication, emotional intelligence.

Mentoring colleagues, from younger graduates stepping into their first role to those at a senior leadership level, means I’m on a constant path of growth and learning. For example, throughout my CFO journey, Linda Zukauckas (https://www.linkedin.com/in/lindazukauckas/)  has been instrumental for advice and guidance. She’s not only a fellow finance leader but someone I deeply admire and respect.

I’m currently on the CFO Board of WiHTL, expanding my reach across the travel sector. We are committed to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in finance. Through this community, I also act as a role model and mentor for the Global Women Leaders Program. The program is a dedicated group, helping female leaders to take on further global responsibility, and reach higher leadership roles.

I urge other women in the field to have the confidence to pursue leadership roles, even if they feel they aren’t an expert in every single area of the remit – nobody is. I’m passionate about the power of connection – perhaps why I have been so drawn to working in the travel industry. Travel is about connecting people, which enables trust, engagement, understanding – all vital to successfully leading a great team.

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