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Adobe CFO John Murphy on CFO role as digital transformation evangelist

The question for Adobe CFO John Murphy was how had digital transformation changed his job. Are there decisions you’re involved in today that would wouldn’t have been involved in 10 years ago? he was asked.

Murphy, who assumed the CFO role at Adobe in April, was being interviewed at the recent MIT Sloan CFO Summit before a large roomful of his peers. He had already talked about Adobe’s “leap of faith” transformation from a desktop software company to a hybrid cloud powerhouse — a turnaround described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Silicon Valley.”

Certainly, Adobe’s big bet on AI and machine learning as a key business differentiator means he’s involved in technology decisions that in the past would have been driven by the CIO or CTO, Murphy said.

CFOs are not the technology experts, Murphy said, and “they can’t pretend to be.” But they must “master the fundamentals of technology” in order to figure out how technology impacts the growth of the company and its customers,” he told his interviewer, MIT’s Hal Gregersen.

But here’s the aspect of his current CFO role that’s completely different from anything he’s done before in his career: He’s out there selling. “Now that Adobe has digital transformation as part of what we sell, I am able to tell our story to customers and show them how we measure that digital transformation. That’s actually new,” Murphy said.

Murphy said he usually starts client conversations by asking them to explain the problem they are trying to solve with a digital product and how they see their customers using the product, before getting into how they might monetize the investment.

Tips on making digital transformation part of the CFO role

Gregersen, the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, asked if Murphy had any advice for finance folks who might have “a bit of fear” about the CFO role in digital transformation.

One thing that helps, Murphy said, is to apply new technologies to their own finance function. At Adobe a tech/IT council was formed to identify bottlenecks in the workflow. “We asked open-ended questions,” he said, encouraging employees to identify where they were struggling and to describe the process changes they’d make if they were “completely unrestrained” by resources.

“What we ended up with was a flood of ideas from the middle ranks telling us where the problems were,” Murphy said. As a result, finance has deployed a number of software bots and other robotic process automation software that are “generating excitement.”

Murphy’s participation in cross-functional teams at Adobe has helped him see how people “thought about a business problem and what technologies they evaluated to figure out the solution.” Participating in groups like this can get CFOs up to speed quickly in the technologies available today.

The element that’s crucial to becoming a player in digital transformation is understanding the business.  On assuming the CFO role, Murphy said it was important to him to spend as much time as he could with business leaders to understand their pain points and how they expect the finance organization to serve them, he said.  That interaction is critical to making the shift from utility player to strategic player. Asked by Gregersen for pointers on how to intercalate oneself into the business, Murphy said by “being a pain the butt.”

“Sometimes you force yourself into meetings to really understand the business… so you can figure out a way to help,” he said, adding that it’s hard to say no to someone who says they want to help.

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