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Public Sector CFOs: new skills for new era

Public Sector CFOs

New skills for a challenging new era

by Linda Nitschke

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The CFOs skill set has never been more critical to the strategy and success of the Australian Public Service. CFOs are now expected to do far more...

The chief financial officer’s (CFO’s) skill set has never been more critical to the strategy and success of the Australian Public Service (APS). CFOs are now expected to do far more than ensure their agencies’ financial transactions are well managed and accurate; they also need to be leaders in financial transformation, business partnering, data analytics, problem solving and more.

At a time when the need for experienced CFOs is greater than ever, the service needs to be developing future CFOs who are ready to move into the Senior Executive Service (SES) and have the breadth of skills required to fulfil this increasingly diverse role. So, what does the APS senior leadership expect at this level of the finance function, and what skills are required to succeed as a public sector CFO?

Core skills

As stewards of some of the biggest budgets in the country, managing nearly $500 billion in annual expenditure - public sector CFOs’ core responsibilities remain the same. They must still lead and develop the skills of the finance teams that will provide strategic and operational support to their organisations to deliver against its corporate plan. They must provide financial governance, manage public money and participate in the strategic leadership of their organisation. They need to balance short-term concerns – setting and reporting on performance against annual budgets, as well as realising efficiency dividends – with their organisation’s long-term vision and maintain overall sustainability.

CFOs must also communicate and collaborate to build and retain stakeholder trust and confidence. At all times, they must demonstrate ethical leadership and business integrity. But the list doesn’t stop there.

Rising expectations

PwC recently interviewed a number of senior APS leaders who said that as the financial landscape becomes more challenging, more is expected of CFOs especially those at the SES level. They identified a clear gap in expectations and responsibilities between those in the lower Executive Level (EL) tiers and those of SES.

As the financial landscape becomes more challenging, more is expected of CFOs

For example, CFOs have traditionally been heavily involved in re-engineering business processes to enable agencies to ‘do more with less’. Currently this involves a whole-of-government approach, outsourcing transactional finance work to shared service centres and streamlining operations to achieve efficiencies. This has created new and complex challenges for CFOs. In addition to maintaining high-quality service delivery and overseeing operational improvements, they must also transform the finance functions, redesign members’ career pathways and partner with industry through  outsourcing arrangements.

Looking ahead, senior leaders expect CFOs to drive further change and innovation in their agencies. This includes learning how to exploit technologies to automate and optimise processes, while establishing different and rewarding careers for staff members affected by this change. These new career paths will require value-adding skills – such as the ability to manage outsourcing and technology arrangements, and expertise in funds stewardship, data analytics and business partnering.

Required attributes

As CFOs move further away from managing financial transactions, the required skill set focuses more on the softer skills. CFOs – and increasingly their teams – need high-level communication, leadership, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. They not only need to be across the financial and budget framework and able to advise on it; they must also fully engage with this framework to drive outcomes that support the agency and the Government. They must be able to anticipate and serve evolving needs, synthesise intelligence into insights, integrate solutions and collaborate. 

As CFOs move further away from managing financial transactions, the required skill set focuses more on the softer skills.

The senior leaders we spoke with identified a number of softer skills they believe the APS requires of CFOs if they are to successfully meet the challenges of the role. Although technical accounting skills are essential, it is also a given that at the SES level CFO’s have these skills. 

Strategic stakeholder management and engagement skills

To be effective, CFOs must be able to build and manage relationships within the finance function – with peers, deputies and agency heads within the organisation, and across external agencies such as the Department of Finance, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of the Treasury and the Australian National Audit Office. They must also increase the time they spend with business unit leaders, building partnerships to deliver benefits that align with agency and government priorities. 

Furthermore, CFOs who wish to build confidence must be able to present in an engaging way, and move seamlessly between the roles of technical adviser and trusted business partner. 

As CFOs’ responsibilities expand, there is a greater need for value-adding strategic focus. CFOs must be able to understand context, employ higher-level analytical skills and communicate with impact. Whether they are discussing how the APS reform agenda might affect the finance function or the implications of a set of financial figures, CFOs must be able to craft a narrative from technical analysis and clearly communicate what it means for business outcomes. 

In other words, CFOs need to go beyond providing numbers and information to instead deliver insights on performance and the factors affecting it. They must also be able to say ‘no’ and still maintain their influence and relationships. 

Leadership and workforce management capabilities

Senior CFOs should be able to lead and manage a team, build the capability of a team and to provide principles-based guidance to coach EL2s, to be leaders. CFO’s also need to support their staff to forge new career pathways, ones that focus more on the softer skills as well and can work alongside and complement the developments in technology in the finance function.  

Decision Support and Control 

As a number of interviewees said, the APS has some “wicked problems” to solve. Some of those are financial, which means CFOs require high-level problem solving skills to work within their agency and across agencies to help find solutions to complex issues.  This is particularly relevant when assisting an agency navigate the federal government budget process. CFOs are expected to have the knowledge, strategic thinking and communication skills to attend meetings with the Secretary and the Minister to discuss the agencies budget proposals. 

Global context

These challenges are not isolated to the APS. The need to upskill executives in soft skills and the ability to harness and work alongside technology is prevalent throughout the global workforce.

PwC’s recent publication Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 2030 highlighted just how much technology, automation and artificial intelligence will shape the way we work. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has also forecast high demand for human-centric, soft skills even as technology becomes dominant. In its Jobs of Tomorrow: Mapping Opportunity in the New Economy report, the WEF identifies complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordination, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility as soft skills of growing importance. These will be required to complement and enable people to work alongside rapidly growing technology systems.


The external market forces described above and the ongoing reform of the Australian Government is reinventing the role of senior finance personnel across the APS – especially CFOs and those looking to step up from EL positions to the SES. As important agents of change, finance leaders must complement their technical competence in core financial operations with a flair for analysis and insight, and skills in communication, complex problem solving and relationship building.

In turn, public sector agencies must recognise that their needs are changing and take this opportunity to invest in building the capability of their finance staff and leaders. By acknowledging these changing needs and developing the right capabilities, agencies and the APS as a whole will be in a much stronger position to realise the service’s reform agenda.

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Amanda McIntyre

Partner, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 407 966 264

Linda Nitschke

Partner, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 428 227 188

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