Top Four CFO Trends In 2021

Mar 10, 2021

Joe Olson, finance practice leader at ON Partners, shares learnings from 2020 and looks ahead to future trends of 2021 for the modern-day CFO


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Joe Olson, a partner in ON’s Finance practice who builds out modern finance organizations for high growth technology companies and large, public consumer-facing brands, shares his insights on how search is evolving in the world of finance, how he found his way into executive search, his most interesting engagements, and what he learned from 2020.

Notes Olson, “New opportunities have emerged post-pandemic. The versatile CFO who truly understands the business and is an approachable business partner can drive operational excellence and sometimes accelerated strategic investments that are game-changing. At the same time, the discipline and cadence around corporate reporting, resource allocation, and cash and financial enablement will continue to be essential.”

The following are the top four future strategic trends Olson has observed while collaborating with leading organizations and Chief Financial Officers thus far in 2021.

We are starting to see a greater demand for CFOs and finance leaders coming directly from investment banking. It’s interesting how cyclical the industry can be, but the rise of SPACs, direct listings, etc. has re-emphasized the need for strong capital markets experience in the CFO role.

In large public companies, robotic process automation (RPA) will be much more common. This means that the CFO and his/her team must be very tech-savvy, and it will also result in the elimination of many transactional finance roles (AR/AP/payroll, etc). This will lead to significant cost savings, but will also have an impact in global economies that are focused on shared service/cost centers (particularly India, Singapore, etc.) as they will need to transition that talent pool.

Risk management and facilities will have a much closer connection with Finance. Given COVID-19 and how CFOs have had to react, there needs to be a very thoughtful approach to people coming back to the office and how to manage a more remote company – particularly in very transactional roles like claims processing, etc that have been significantly affected outside of the office.

COVID-19 has exposed the massive gap between companies with strong finance leaders and those that have waited to build a proper set of controls. We are seeing a tremendous amount of activity within our private equity business and don’t expect this momentum to slow down anytime soon. Also, as businesses shift to a more distributed model, it’s opened up resource pools in other lower-cost geographies. The CFOs and leaders who have invested in other, non-traditional markets will have an advantage given their unique perspective on the continued evolution of a corporate workforce.

ON Partners consultants completed several high-level executive finance and accounting placements in 2020 for a wide range of organizations, including ARM Holdings, Crocs, Luminar TechnologiesPapa John’s, and Shake Shack, among others. Read more successful Chief Financial Officer placements in 2020 here.

Meet Joe Olson – Q&A Session


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How did you get into executive search?

My degree is in human resource development and organizational psychology and I was actually debating between a few different paths, one of which was to move to Houston for a human resource development job at a large Oil & Gas firm.

Funny story, I was supposed to intern for Marathon in Houston, but I forgot to pay for my summer tuition and I ended up needing to stay in College Station for another semester. I ultimately met my wife that semester and had a great internship working with the athletics department. Life has a way of working itself out!

The other option was to stay at Texas A&M and work on building a leadership development program with the athletics department. How do we identify leaders as incoming freshmen and give them the tools to be junior and senior captains?

Ultimately, this could have been very interesting and fulfilling work (I would have gotten my MBA), but it didn’t end up being my path.

During this time, I realized that I loved big picture ideas and the initial brainstorming, but I had very little patience for slow execution. We would go into meetings and it sometimes felt like the twilight zone where we would discuss deliverables, but nothing ever happened. I was talking to my dad and he recommended that I explore getting my MBA or going into recruiting. I interviewed with a few firms and I ran into the typical “Beer Friday” recruiting culture that I had no interest in, but it also opened up the idea of executive search.

I got a call from Kirk Harrell, a managing director at Taylor Winfield, and the rest is history.

What have been some of your favorite CFO engagements and why?

My all-time favorite assignment was doing the Airbnb CFO search. We ultimately placed Laurence Tosi, the CFO at Blackstone, but I had permission to call just about every “big” CFO on the planet and those connections have been very impactful as I’ve continued to grow in my career.

It was a very unique experience and it took us on a run where we began to work with Tesla, Amazon, Uber, Zenefits, Pinterest, and many of the most influential technology companies on the planet. This was also a turning point for the firm and we’ve seen massive growth in high-profile public companies across the board.

What did you learn in 2020?

2020 was quite a challenging year, but I learned that the market is incredibly resilient. We barely missed a beat in search execution once the world went fully remote, but I also learned how much I miss the human contact and connection you get when catching up with someone in person. I miss the energy of a city and the adrenaline you get going into a big meeting – it’s just impossible for Zoom/video to recreate this.

I was also reminded of how fortunate I am to spend this time with my wife, Alexa, and our new son, Shepard. I cannot imagine the stress that so many are dealing with right now around employment and putting food on the table, and we’ve been very active in our local community trying to help where we can.

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About ON Partners

Since 2006, ON Partners is the only pure-play executive search firm building diverse C-level and board leadership teams. We rebuilt the institution of executive search for the way you work. Our approach includes present partners who engage with their clients from the first brief to the final decision, individually crafted solutions that are unique to each client, and an easier experience all around. Named by Forbes as one of America’s Best Executive Recruiting Firms and to the Inc. 500/5000 Lists nine times, ON Partners is consistently ranked among the top 20 retained executive search firms in the U.S.

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