What CFOs Can Learn from Product Managers

by Marc Linden

Vision-first planning can help you ensure your performance as a CFO maps to the long term vision that you have for the financial health of the business.


CFOs think a certain way. We're direct. We’re practical. We focus on the bottom line. That's our job. This mentality has made our companies and our careers successful. But, advances in technology are shifting the way we do business, and CFO performance is being evaluated against new criteria. 

The new table stakes: good stewardship and operational excellence. Successful CFOs are judged on their ability to streamline these processes and guide the organization on larger strategic and forward-thinking activities. Where do you go for advice on being successful in that respect, a fortune teller? There may be one group of colleagues who have just the right mindset for eager CFOs to tap into. 

Product managers are experts at balancing forward-thinking activities with real world constraints. While the job description shifts across companies and industries, product managers are typically responsible for overseeing every aspect of a product from ideation to R&D, marketing, mass-production, launch, iteration, and end of product life. They work with teams across departments with the primary purpose of creating a product or service that customers will love. They assess the needs and desires of the target customer and create an actionable plan for the development of a product that meets those needs, within the constraints of technology, timeline, and budget.

Much like the role of a CFO, a product manager manages a body that’s constantly in motion, a vision that’s large, constituents with specific needs, and all of the pieces in between.

This form of vision-first planning can help you ensure your performance as a CFO maps to the long term vision that you have for the financial health of the business. While CFOs focus on past and present data to make strategic plans for the future, product managers look to the future to design product roadmaps that extend far beyond the present. The external impression they give off indicates that they aren’t hampered by constraints like available resources when identifying disruptive opportunities. They spend their days scheming up the ideal, they then work backward to develop concrete action plans that connect the dots. Their process means they can consider the impact of new technologies on their product line, business, and industry – well before a product is greenlit or a foundational technology is ready for primetime. 

For example, consider the team that brought the first iPhone to market. The iPhone rose above any of the existing technologies of the time and couldn’t have been built simply by assessing how to “optimize” certain aspects of the flip-phone. The designers started by charting out the ideal portable technology, then identified the many technologies that they would need to make the phone possible. This included an operating system that could function on such a small device, a battery with enough power and life to support that, touch capabilities to ensure intuitive use, and a strong glass screen for durability, among other innovations. The Apple team brought all of these pieces to create a game-changing piece of technology that has become a staple of modern life.

Now imagine that you could restructure your finance department to have a transformative impact on the overall business. Successfully networking with a product manager could help a CFO operate the finance department similarly. By thinking more like a product manager, CFOs can elevate their strategic offerings, by engineering the streamlined cooperation of the department’s assets: people, data, and technology. By focusing on the needs of your company, and working backward to plan the ideal finance department that meets those needs, instead of simply enhancing everyday operations, you can transform your team to deliver the key insights and support that is needed.

How do you start?

If you’re now on the hunt to set a lunch with a product manager, ask yourself a few key questions to make that interaction as fruitful as possible: 

  • What is the service that you as a CFO are trying to provide to your company and CEO?
  • What future impact do you want to make?
  • What insights would help you meet these goals and what metrics would you draw upon to track progress?
  • What operational inefficiencies are simply considered part of the process for you?
  • What innovations would shift the way your department works? 
  • How do you manage a forward-thinking process for a team that’s still largely tied to crucial reporting?

With an idea of the direction you want to go, getting into the mindset of a product manager can help you sketch out the dream you’d like to build to, chart your capabilities at the present and plot the route between the two with a timeline and subgoals to help you along the way. A major benefit here is that product managers tend to have a great understanding for current and emerging technology – perhaps they can also offer suggestions on the tech that integrates into your plan. 

If your company doesn’t have product managers, try a local meetup or join one of the countless LinkedIn groups (Product Management and Creative Product Managers are two active groups I recommend). If you want to delve deeper, there are many books on product management that can help you break into the product manager mindset. You’ll find helpful thought exercises, practical strategies, and tools to help you map your vision to reality. A good book to start with is Product Leadership by Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson, and Nate Walkingshaw. Regardless of your company industry or size, speaking to a product manager can help a CFO develop strategies to make the finance department future ready – both with process and with technology.

Marc Linden is SVP, Head of Business Operations and Finance at Sage Intacct.