Marcus von Kapff
CFO of Commercial Banking
In the past, CFOs operated in their own sphere, functionally separate from other company leaders. But as the world of finance becomes increasingly digital and the role of CFO expands to cover a broader range of strategic responsibilities, including technology, this kind of separation isn’t viable. Today, a CFO poised for success is one who partners closely with the chief information officer (CIO) and learns to speak their language.
Marcus von Kapff
CFO of Commercial Banking
CIO of Commercial Banking
Meet Marcus von Kapff and Anish Bhimani
If you’re a CFO leaning into the challenge of taking on more tech responsibilities, you’re in good company. Our own finance and technology leaders successfully faced this transition together and emerged with lessons to share.
Like many companies, we have historically viewed technology as a part of our business strategy. As we began to push for digital transformation, Marcus von Kapff, CFO of Commercial Banking, knew he needed to push the organization to challenge that mindset.
When Anish Bhimani was elevated to his role as CIO of Commercial Banking, it sent a strong message about our evolving company priorities.
With the CIO at the table beside the CFO, it became more evident that technology is a critical driver of business. And as our strategic tech investments increased, Marcus recognized that the equally increasing costs meant he had to become familiar with the technology so that he could support and discuss the solutions Anish proposed. In essence, he had to learn to “speak CIO.”
As the relationship between Marcus and Anish has evolved in accord with their common interests and business objectives, they’ve worked more closely together and organically forged a true partnership. The experience challenged and inspired both of them, offering plenty of learnings along the way.
Lesson 1: Get engaged.
You can’t help to shape a conversation you never enter. As a CFO, you’re a strong strategic driver and partner to your CEO and the rest of the leadership team. It’s a responsibility that requires you to be engaged in everything of importance. That includes technology. Just making it clear to the CIO that you’re willing to educate yourself and get involved is the first step to future collaboration.
The way I see it, the CFO can’t afford to be passive when it comes to technology. If, as a company, we’re going to spend a lot of money on something, I have to be active in that discussion. That also means I have to understand enough to contribute at a high level.
There’s so much that Anish knows and that I am constantly learning. I have to be willing to dive in, engage and start asking questions: Why are we spending this money? What’s the return? What are the risks? What can go wrong? What are the key milestones? Who’s going to report out?
When I started getting in there and put myself into the conversation, I think Anish understood I was serious about becoming a partner and an ally.
The longstanding stereotype is that a CFO only wants to spend less and that the CIO and tech developers only care about building something cool. That kind of thinking puts the two sides in conflict. But when they make the decision to really engage with one another, it benefits both sides.
Ultimately, I think the more tech literate a CFO is, the better decisions they can make. And the more financially literate and business literate the technology organization is, the more we’re equipped to make better decisions too.
To me, engagement should be a priority for both the CFO and CIO, and it’s why I feel it’s important for the technology lead to have a seat at the strategy table.
"The CFO can’t afford to be passive."
TIP: Start the conversation. Even if your CIO is not yet at the strategy table, you can still engage them at that level. Start by setting up a regular time to talk with the CIO about the important, obvious questions, like those Marcus outlines above, and to give the CIO an opportunity to engage with you as a peer.
Lesson 2: Learn the language.
Both the finance and the technology fields tend to have their own ways of describing complex challenges and solutions. Sometimes that language itself can become a barrier to partnership. Taking the time to literally learn the language your CIO is steeped in can help you bridge the gap.
I have to do my job in concert with my CIO. And that means I have to learn Anish’s language—the language of his organization.
When he talks about “cloud,” I need to know what the cloud actually means, what it does. Why it’s an important strategy. How we execute on it. Where we’re operating now—on a scale of one to 10, are we at a three or a seven?
I need to know his people, know who’s good at what and gather informed opinions on the talent of our tech teams. If I don’t understand these things, I’m not doing my job.
For me, “speaking each other’s language” is as much about understanding the mindset differences as it is the vocabulary. For example, on the tech side, we tend to take an agile perspective and think in terms of products rather than projects. The continual investments that come with that mindset are very different from those in traditional project planning.
And there are many examples like that. Getting both tech and finance speaking the same language is hard—it can be hard for everybody. But it’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to understand where the other is coming from.
"[it's] as much about understanding the mindset differences as it is the vocabulary.”
TIP: Consider the world behind the words. When you run into unfamiliar jargon—and you will—dig a little deeper to think about the worldview and experience that created that vocabulary. Chances are, you’ll learn more about how your CIO sees things as you learn how they speak.
Lesson 3: Build trust.
The roles of CFO and CIO have long been viewed as opposing forces. Evolving the relationship to one of healthy interdependence means rewriting that stereotype with understanding and trust.
I always start by accepting that my world is not perfect and Anish’s world is not perfect either. To come to a place of collaboration, we need to understand each other’s issues, problems and concerns.
He needs to feel comfortable with me—not see me as Big Brother questioning him all the time, not trusting him. I really think that for a partnership to work, you need to believe that the other party is operating with transparency, candor, humility—and then model those qualities yourself. Trust breeds trust.
That’s the foundation you want to build on.
I’ve had a number of finance partners in my time at the firm and throughout my career. Generally, I’ve been able to categorize them into two types: those who believe their job is to police and those who believe their job is to enable.
The first kind of CFO believes, if left to his or her own devices, the CIO is going to spend all the money. That they have to stay constantly vigilant to prevent overspending by even a dollar. But that doesn’t demonstrate trust. In turn, the CIO in that scenario feels that the CFO is always going to dismiss their ideas because they cost too much money. It’s not healthy.
The second kind of CFO truly embraces their ability to enable and sell in what you’re trying to accomplish. Without a doubt, Marcus is this type of CFO—and that’s one of the reasons our relationship i You need to believe s so successful.
"You need to believe that the other party is operating with transparency, candor, humility."
TIP: Remember to look for common ground. When you start to feel polarity in mindset and goals, take a step back and revisit the business objectives that you share. Trust that your CIO is working toward the advancement of those objectives, and ask yourself what you can do to enable, to support, to be that second type of CFO.
Lesson 4: Stay curious.
The opposite of progress is stagnation, and staying curious might be one of the best ways to fight stagnation. It’s also how you’ll continue to grow your CFO-CIO relationship.
One of the benefits of my perch as CFO is the ability to call up anybody at the company and ask them, “Hey, will you come spend an hour with me, pull your off-the-shelf materials and teach me about something?” I love to do that. And I do it often! It’s how I gain deeper knowledge about subjects like the cloud or APIs.
I never know what I might need to know down the road. So I ask for tutorials and keep learning. It’s a big part of how I stay ready.
That’s the foundation you want to build on.
The number one quality I appreciate in Marcus is his curiosity. He’s always trying to learn more, to understand more. Always asking questions. Always the one to jump in with, “Hey, tell me how this works.”
His curiosity challenges me, and all of us, but in a very healthy way. He pushes us all to stay focused on the things that matter most and to really think through everything we need to do.
"The number one quality I appreciate in Marcus is his curiosity."
TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask. As a CFO, you likely have access to a wealth of avenues for insight and education from the experts already at your firm on your CIO’s team. Take the time to tap their expertise and sharpen your understanding of tech and trends that can help you step in as an even stronger ally.
A foundation to grow from
As with any transition, stable changes to your CFO-CIO relationship will happen over time, not overnight. By starting to make the effort now, you can begin to set yourself up for a future of productive collaboration. And as the industry continues to move toward the digital space, a CFO and CIO in lockstep will prove an invaluable asset.