Three qualities of the best finance leaders

By Brian B. Sanderson and Warren E. Beck
| 1/26/2021
Three qualities of the best finance leaders

Because the life of a hospital CFO is one of constant change, that person’s ability to respond to these changes is critical to an organization’s success. The CFO must be a strategic partner to many operational leaders within the enterprise and must be ready to bring financial perspective to decision-making. In addition, the CFO is expected to be highly skilled in accounting and finance and to have high business intelligence. However, many other qualities differentiate the top CFOs from the rest. Valuable attributes include good communication skills, strong analytical thinking, timely decision-making, and good mentorship skills. Three other especially important qualities are integrity, collaboration, and – one that might be surprising – empathy. When others see these traits in action, it can help increase performance and efficiency, contribute to improved governance, and heighten awareness of risk management and compliance.


Integrity can be difficult to see or quantify, but it seems obvious when integrity is not evident. In the continually evolving healthcare industry, particularly with new entrants and pressures, situations where integrity is missing from leaders’ actions might include cases of theft, billing fraud, prescription drug fraud, and false credentials. And while society has a tendency to focus on extremes, individuals interact with many good people every day in their personal and professional lives who display integrity in everything they do. These are three important components of integrity:

  • Being honest. Honesty is valued by supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Individuals with integrity are truthful, and their actions are based on doing the right thing and not trying to rationalize an action that they know is not in the best interests of the team or the organization. In addition, if a CFO or the CFO’s team makes a mistake, the CFO should admit the mistake and take responsibility without singling out any single individual.
  • Living up to commitments. Leaders should do what they say they will do. CFOs are accountable to a lot of people with many responsibilities to their own teams and organizational customers. High levels of frustration result when individuals or teams commit to actions or deliverables by certain dates but fail to meet those commitments. A leader with integrity does everything possible to meet commitments, yet is also quick to identify overcommitments and renegotiate timelines.
  • Treating everyone with kindness and respect. The CFO typically works with a team with diverse skills, religions, cultures, and ages, and many members of the team will become leaders. A CFO with integrity recognizes team diversity and acknowledges these differences in order to make team members feel appreciated and demonstrate that diversity is a pathway – rather than a hindrance – to success.
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Collaboration is the process of multiple parties banding together to accomplish a goal. An organization’s CFO cannot isolate in the finance department and expect to effectively manage the finance, accounting, and revenue cycle teams. The CFO must develop strong bonds and working relationships with the C-suite team, physicians, nursing leaders, and – when possible – department heads and staff. The CFO needs to be viewed as interested in clinical operations and should gain as much knowledge as possible of clinical processes that affect financial performance. These actions establish comradery with the clinical teams and create approachability for collaborative problem-solving.

During the past 10 years, the development of different reimbursement models has created a significant shift in focus from volume of services to value achieved. The result is emphasis on quality measures, patient experience, and patient safety. The collaborative CFO understands these implications and engages as an active partner of a multidisciplinary team working to optimize performance and move toward long-term sustainability.


Another quality of the best finance leaders is empathy – the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing or the capacity to place oneself in another's position. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how healthcare systems and their workers are affected by these unpredictable circumstances and why empathy is important to sustain an organization’s culture. The pandemic has affected almost everyone in the United States. Some families have suffered more than others because of sickness and death caused by virus. Others have experienced an increase in addiction and mental health issues attributed to stay-at-home orders, job losses, isolation from family members, or lack of simple pleasures like having a meal in a restaurant or attending a little league baseball game.

Healthcare workers have experienced many of these hardships, and their burden is compounded every day by the responsibility of taking care of those most affected by the virus. Many workers are in secluded units wearing isolation gowns, N95 filtering face mask respirators, goggles, shields, and gloves – all the while trying to offer compassion to families and help ease their pain. Most physicians, clinical workers, and other essential hospital personnel are physically fatigued and mentally burned out. The best CFOs have empathy for the plight of these critical members of the healthcare team and are doing everything they can to support these groups while staying connected to the clinical, operational, and financial implications of running a healthcare enterprise. They make a conscious effort to show a calm demeanor and express kindness and consideration so that the team can function as efficiently as possible under such difficult circumstances.

Fostering a positive work environment

Effective finance leaders help set the organization’s vision and create the pathway that achieves the vision, but they also make a difference in the lives and the livelihood of the people they lead. For the CFO, technical proficiency is important in leadership, but the most adept leaders fully understand goals and objectives, exhibit behavioral and personal skills that create a positive and supportive work environment, and contribute to the organization’s success with integrity, collaboration, and empathy.

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Brian B. Sanderson