Economics & Finances

Why is REF so committed to Financial Executive Forums and what is the ROI: Return on Investment?

8 Minutes read

Discover REF's commitment to CFOs: Insights, alliances, and ROI in Financial Executive Forums for strategic leadership success.

When I was a CEO, I knew I needed co-pilots around my executive table. Piloting a business in an environment of increasingly fast-paced turbulence, with such high stakes decision making and so many strategy, execution, and leadership challenges, requires Collective Intelligence in the cockpit. I was running high technology aerospace hardware and software companies, serving global airframe manufacturers, airlines, and militaries with innovative integrated systems and meeting exacting regulatory standards. All very entrepreneurial endeavors in a public corporation and share-price sensitive environment.

CFO as Co-Pilot #1

Consequently, the #1 co-pilot I needed was my CFO or senior financial executive. I needed more than just a financial executive leading a “vertical” function. I needed an executive co-pilot to thought-partner the “horizontal” challenge of innovation, going to market with new offerings and winning new business. All while balancing the risks and rewards of translating strategy and execution into traction on our desired trajectory of profitable growth, all with the organizational agility required!

Of my CFO I needed…

  • Improving soft skills as a catalyst of strategic thinking, change leadership, teamwork and communication
  • Greater insights into potential gains for organization wide productivity, financial performance and cashflow improvement
  • Strengthening enterprise relationship building skills with strategic alliances and our supply-chain and value-chain partners.

Overall, I needed an increasing level of curiosity about where there was potential for more impact: Expert Insights Webinar – CFO: Curious Financial Officer.

An Underserved Pillar of Leadership

Unfortunately, there are few places where financial executives can readily and genuinely develop that curiosity and those skills and insights. For the last 20 years, I have been in the field of peer forums and the collective intelligence that can flow from them. Over recent decades, the concept of peer-advisory-boards has emerged as a new category of leadership development that has gone mainstream. CEOs and executives across all functions can benefit from diverse peer forums, as do thousands of REF members globally. It is typically unlike anything else they have experienced before.

Back in 2013, one of my peer forum CEO members was Mark Neilson. Mark had recently made the transition from being a career financial executive and CFO. We found ourselves evolving a conversation about CFOs needing to be the #1 co-pilot in their businesses, for all the reasons I outline above. In addition, of course, not least of all because CFOs are a major natural source of future CEOs. We felt that the financial executive pillar of leadership was underserved with leadership development generally and peer forum experiences specifically, tailored to their unique role and succession potential in the business. We resolved to change that.

Irreplaceably Invaluable

We jointly launched a peer forum specifically for financial executives/CFOs. It was very successful. The CFOs/financial executives loved it and I sensed that their CEOs loved it even more! Some of their CEOs were in my other forums and told us so. Not surprisingly, they stayed for many years because it became invaluable and irreplaceable.

Bill McDonough was a good friend of Mark’s in Indiana and a REF partner and forum leader. With Mark’s encouragement, Bill also started a forum for financial executives/CFOs soon thereafter and was also very successful.

Hear more in The Peering Podcast with Mark Neilson & Bill McDonough

Mark was so committed to this path that he also became a REF partner and we are now scaling out Financial Executive Forums nationally, and soon to follow we will also doing so internationally. REF is unique in leading the way with its dedication to serving this underserved pillar of leadership. To that end…

  • We focus on helping our financial executive members develop and leverage their holistic leadership skills and presence for greater influence, impact and succession potential. Read more at The New CFO
  • We formed a strategic alliance with ERA: Expense Reduction Analysts, who are also world leaders in serving financial executives. We help our financial executive members tap into ERA’s strategic cost analysis expertise to surface productivity, performance, and cashflow opportunities
  • We facilitate ROI: Return-On-Investment review sessions with our financial executive members to help make sure they are getting a payback multiple on their membership investment.

So Little to Lose, So Much to Gain

This dedication is one of my biggest passions with REF. I never regretted the investments I made in developing my CFO to be my #1 co-pilot and I suspect you won’t either. Especially when there is so little to lose (there are no long-term membership commitments) and so much to gain, which our financial executive members speak so highly of. Of course prospective members have very common concerns:

I’m too busy/don’t have time

Of course, this is the most common concern we hear. Until members have been in a forum for a few months. At which point it becomes the most common reason why they stay. Indeed, one of my favorite stories to tell is about Mark Neilson himself. The day after he came to his first meeting, he called me saying he thought he had made a terrible mistake and didn’t have time to be in a forum. I asked him to be open minded for just a few months to see whether being in a forum was a part of his time management problem or his time management solution. He agreed and not only did he stay for a few months, he stayed for 12 years! Not only did he become one of the biggest advocates of how it changed his time management but also the trajectory of his business, career and life, so much so, that he became a REF partner as mentioned above. When I encounter a prospective CFO member saying “I’m too busy/don’t have time” (or their CEO is saying that on their behalf), I ask them, “are you really going to try to make the case that you have more on your plate than our member CFOs? I would love to hear you try saying that in one of our Financial Executive forums!”

Now is not a good time/let’s wait until things slow down

This is another common one. Of course, the likely reality is that there is never going to be a good time. Because the likelihood is that things never slow down. Because there is always the next phase of evolution, revolution, and growth to be leading and managing, with the increasing complexity of scale and scope. In my work around agility, I assert to audiences that things are only going to get worse. When I encounter a prospective CFO member saying “Now is not a good time/let’s wait until things slow down”, I add to what I ask them above, “Are you really going to try to make the case that you are in a crazier busy phase than our member CFOs? I would love to hear you try saying that in one of our Financial Executive forums!”

How do I know I will get an ROI?

Of course, we love this one. Our members are just like you. They vote with their wallets and their feet. If they weren’t getting a strong payback on their time and money investment, then they wouldn’t stay. Yet they typically stay for a long time. Why? Of course, because the ROI happens naturally and organically as a part of our forum process, with a little extra help from us. Not least of all, the CEO-CFO relationship is worth investing in. Read more at Investing in the CEO-CFO Relationship

Expressing Regret

Over the 20 years that I have been involved in peer forums, I have onboarded more than 200 members into my different groups. At the end of their first meeting, we would turn to the new member and ask them how their experience was. In their own words, they would typically say something like, “Wow, I had no idea something like this existed, I feel like I have known you all for so long already as we are all working through similar stuff”. Then 3 to 6 months later, as they have progressively compounded the benefits, they so often express regret about why they waited so long and wish they had joined ages ago. Because they have arrived at realizing how irreplaceably invaluable their forum is, unlike anything else they have likely experienced before.

Here are some related resources:

Expert Insights Webinar – CFO: Curious Financial Officer

With Mark Neilson, Bill McDonough and myself, exploring a new paradigm of CFO fueled by curiosity.


The Peering Podcast – Mark Neilson & Bill McDonough

We explore their experiences of how financial executives value their Forum experiences and how the benefits flow to their financial performance, organizational leadership and careers.


The New CFO

A combination of research sources articulating the rapidly evolving role of the CFO and asking the question, where are you (if you are a CFO/senior financial executive) or where is your CFO/senior financial executive (if you are a CEO/President/General Manager) going to learn how to truly become a better co-pilot?


Investing in the CEO-CFO Relationship

A combination of sources articulating how important it is to invest in the CEO-CFO relationship, with 87% of CFOs saying the CEO relationship drives retention.

In addition, of course, we offer peer forum experiences specifically for other functional pillars to fully develop more co-pilots around your executive table. We are dedicated to evolving leaders powered by Collective Intelligence.