9 minute read 20 Dec 2023
Man watching a flock of birds

How can CFOs uncover the material among the immaterial

By Myles Corson

EY Global and Americas Strategy and Markets Leader, Financial Accounting Advisory Services

Supporter of finance leaders and functions of today and tomorrow. Global citizen. Podcast host. Curious mind. Father of two energetic boys.

9 minute read 20 Dec 2023

Corporate reporting on ESG is struggling to create a shared understanding between companies and investors.

In brief

  • Corporate reporting is struggling to convey how organizations are balancing short-term performance and long-term value.
  • Although ESG reporting has gone mainstream, many finance functions are not ready to play their part in an enhanced reporting model.
  • CFOs can drive the transformation required through a compelling vision and a new focus on finance culture change.

In the face of a challenging and uncertain macro-environment, CEOs and boards are looking to their CFOs to effectively balance trade-offs between short- and long-term priorities. This can be a difficult balancing act between two important business requirements:

  1. Driving cost efficiencies required to deliver against short-term financial performance expectations
  2. Tackling material ESG risks and opportunities that can be important to protecting and growing long-term value, while addressing environmental and societal challenges

However, CFOs face a significant challenge in articulating to stakeholders through their corporate reporting, how the organization is providing the short-term financial performance the market expects while driving long-term, sustainable value. The recent EY Global Corporate Reporting Survey research finds that CFOs and senior finance leaders believe there is still further to go in building an enhanced reporting model that encompasses financial and nonfinancial (ESG) reporting.

This article is part of the recent EY Global Corporate Reporting Survey research. You can view the related article here.

  • CFOs and finance leaders themselves are uncertain if today’s ESG reporting is communicating what is material. For example, just 51% of CFOs surveyed believe their company provides investors with relevant and material reporting insight on the company’s ESG risks and opportunities. Overall, CFOs and finance leaders identify two important challenges with sustainability reporting. First is “the lack of supporting evidence and assurance to provide trust in the information.” Second is “the disconnect between ESG reporting and mainstream financial information.”
  • At the same time, and perhaps linked to this point about materiality, there are doubts about whether investors understand the link between company priorities and long-term value. For example, fewer than half of financial controllers surveyed (48%) are convinced that “investors clearly understand the financial benefits of longer-term investments in sustainability.”

The disconnect between a company and its stakeholders was also a wider theme of the most recent EY Global Corporate Reporting and Institutional Investor Survey. The research canvassed the views of more than 1,000 CFOs and senior finance leaders at the companies issuing reporting and 320 investors as users of those disclosures. The research found that investors and companies are not aligned on the strategy for long-term sustainable value, or whether current reporting offers enough insight into the strategy.

This highlights a requirement to improve corporate sustainability narratives and how CFOs make the case for a company’s strategy for long-term, sustainable value. So how can CFOs and finance leaders and investors arrive at a better understanding of each other’s positions, and provide a new era for corporate reporting? Drawing exclusively on the views of the CFOs and senior finance leaders who took part in the survey, this research identified three important issues for the future of reporting and the finance function.

  • About the research

    In total, 1,040 CFOs, financial controllers and senior finance leaders of large organizations were surveyed from around the world. Among the respondents, 50% are CFOs (including 16% group CFOs) and 34% are financial controllers. Respondents were drawn from 25 jurisdictions across the Americas, Europe and Asia-Pacific, with 14 sectors represented, and 29% of the organizations had revenues of more than US$10b a year.

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Chapter 1

Providing ESG data

Finance teams are unsure their organization has the ability to provide meaningful ESG data.

For many CFOs and finance leaders, an enhanced model of reporting — encompassing both financial and ESG disclosures — is the standard. The research found that 89% of CFOs and finance leaders surveyed say they provide ESG disclosures or plan to do so, with 40% of respondents stating disclosures were part of a mandated regime and 49% of respondents saying they provide disclosures on a voluntary basis. Only 11% say, “we provide no external ESG reporting and have no plans to do so.”

However, while financial and ESG reporting can be seen as mainstream, few CFOs and finance leaders have complete confidence in the ability of their team to provide the required data. For example, when accessing meaningful data to support mandatory or voluntary ESG disclosures, only 26% of respondents say they “have access to all information required in a systematic, controlled reporting environment.” At the same time, a minority feel their finance functions have the robust capability to meet reporting expectations, including skills, systems and data, and controls.

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    Data shows those respondents who feel they have most or all of what they need to be prepared to respond to ESG reporting expectations across three areas. The right skills and human resources to deliver (42%), fit-for-purpose IT systems and data governance approach (39%); a robust controls environment (37%).

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Chapter 2

The future of finance and enhanced corporate reporting

A more compelling vision is required for the future of finance and reporting.

The reporting environment continues to evolve at pace, leading to the rapid transformation of the finance function and its operating model. For example, digital technologies can transform how finance works, accounting knowledge can be integrated into artificial intelligence (AI), and controls and compliance monitoring can be automated, with alerts triggered when risk metrics trend toward unacceptable tolerance levels.

When external factors change at an unprecedented scale and pace, and in unexpected ways, incremental changes to how finance works and operates may not suffice. A compelling vision for the future can be required, that can help finance teams to be proactive rather than reactive and master the disruption. The 2023 EY DNA of the CFO study found that finance leaders who drive bolder changes in finance teams can deliver better performance today and position themselves to outperform in the future:1

  • However, the research found that only 14% of finance leaders surveyed plan to pursue a bold transformation agenda in the next three years.
  • The 14% of finance leaders pursuing a bold agenda are 1.4 times more likely to believe they have an above-average or best-in-class finance function today (73% vs. 52%) and 1.7 times more likely to believe they will reach best-in-class status after transformation (47% vs. 27%).

A bold vision for the future can also galvanize and inspire finance teams, and motivate them when change can be difficult or when they hit barriers. Paying attention to the ‘emotional turbulence’ that people can experience during fundamental change in the finance function can be critical to success. More than three-quarters (77%) of CFOs surveyed in a recent research collaboration between the EY organization and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School say they experienced at least one underperforming transformation in the last five years.2 Yet many CFOs fail to provide sufficient support to address the psychological and emotional pressures caused by a transformation program. By prioritizing six key levers that place humans at the center of the change effort, CFOs can more than double the likelihood of transformation success from 28% to 73%.

Although each function’s vision will be unique, this research shows that there are three priorities to build on.

  1. Data-driven decision-making and reporting

    Companies can face significant data challenges when meeting fast-changing reporting requirements. For example, the financial controller respondents are primarily concerned that their organization lacks “the real-time data needed to inform decision-making and reporting on a continuous, ongoing basis” (selected by 35% of respondents as one of their top two challenges).

    To address these challenges, companies will likely require seamless information and insight flows where finance functions are able to gather, clean and analyze data as an asset. And subsequently, they could extract insights using analytics and tools, such as AI, and then build the connectivity so that insight and data flows to stakeholders in real time, with intuitive visualization and self-service tools. However, only a minority of CFOs and finance leaders currently believe they have the end-to-end capability to meet reporting and disclosure requirements.
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    Where finance leaders feel they have most or all of what they need to meet reporting and disclosures requirements. Data acquisition and management: 28%, process workflow tools: 34%, data modeling and analysis: 31%, data visualization and dashboards: 27%, ongoing and real-term performance management: 31%.

  1. Disrupting the talent and skills mix

CFOs and finance leaders surveyed say they are willing to actively disrupt the finance function’s skills mix. While core finance skills may continue to provide the foundations of the function, the research asked leaders to identify the other top two roles and skills areas that may be required for the future.

More than a quarter of respondents (27%) see a requirement for operating officers with experience in shared services, outsourcing and managed services, and close to one in five respondents (18%) see a requirement for “futurists,” including digital strategists — futurists are defined as professionals who can present scenarios of the future based on how digital technologies will develop and affect organizations and the economy.

However, building a team with diverse skills – including financial analysis, data science, and data storytelling expertise – will likely require greater focus on the talent agenda. The Global EY DNA of the CFO study found that while finance leaders see technology and data analytics as critical priorities for finance transformation, talent was seen as the least important (selected by 19% of respondents as a priority). Implementing the tools and technologies for advanced analytics may not deliver value if a finance team does not have the people who can interpret the output and translate it into insight for business leaders or external stakeholders.

At the same time, finance teams may struggle to drive value from data analytics technologies if legacy, back-office mindsets continue to dominate how people think and behave. Driving value from data analytics will likely require a willingness to experiment and collaborate. This can also require a culture that strikes a balance between risk awareness and granting the freedom and permission for finance teams to innovate and experiment with data analytics.

Finally, the ongoing skills strategy should also tackle how people keep their skills refreshed and relevant, which can be particularly important given how fast demands can change. More than half of CFOs and finance leaders (55%) say that finance people “will need to do more to embrace self-learning and continuous improvement,” if they are to keep their skills relevant.

  1. A more fluid operating model

CFOs and finance leaders could find it difficult to meet changing reporting demands and other expectations if their function’s operating model is too complex and fragmented, or slow to react. The research shows that CFOs and finance leaders face a range of operational delivery challenges. For example, in the Americas, the most significant issue is “we invest significant time in responding to information requests as we have no capacity for self-service reporting.”

Thinking about the ability of your finance team to respond with agility to financial and ESG information requests, what are the main operating model challenges you face?

Number one operating model challenge — by region




“We invest significant time in responding to information requests as we have no capacity for self-service reporting” (selected by 32% of respondents as one of their top two challenges).

“We struggle to develop and recruit the new skills we need to meet ESG reporting demands” (selected by 29% of respondents).

“We lack the capacity, skills and technology to deliver, and need to make greater use of shared services, outsourcing and managed services.” And “we are struggling to match the increasing digitalization of tax revenue authorities and other bodies” (both selected by 28% of respondents).

Note: “Americas” is made up of four representative jurisdictions (the US, Canada, Brazil and Mexico); “Europe” comprises 11 jurisdictions (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK); and “Asia-Pacific” is made up of Australia, China Mainland, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

Addressing these significant issues may require greater operational agility, including a more fluid operating structure that extends beyond the walls of the enterprise to tap into an industry-leading ecosystem of third parties and provide the next generation of finance services. This could provide a more dynamic and agile approach, and is likely to be a focus for many CFOs and finance leaders, both at a general operating effectiveness level and for ESG management and reporting in particular.

Transforming the operating model


More than half of finance leaders at large organizations surveyed (those with revenues of more than US$10 billion a year) say “we need to transform delivery capacity through operating model changes, including shared services and managed services”

Third-party support for ESG management and reporting


More than half of finance leaders surveyed say they will “look to outsource aspects of ESG management and reporting”

In the future, the outcome is likely to be the most important factor, regardless of who contributes the data, tools, skills or systems, either within or outside the organization.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 3

Connecting the transformation agenda and culture change

CFOs should hone their skills to bridge the gap between the transformation agenda and culture change.

CFOs and finance leaders may not realize their aims — be it digitalization or new ways of working — without changes in organizational behaviors and norms. For example, they should provide a culture that promotes collaborative rather than siloed working, and an appetite for continuous learning and experimentation.

Finance teams are more accustomed to performing technically work that requires precision and working to results cadences. However, this can stifle some of the capabilities and behaviors that drive innovation. In the research collaboration between the EY organization and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, finance teams were more inclined than others to believe that failed experimentation would negatively impact their careers (70% of finance workers versus 62% of workers in all functions).

However, the research suggests that many CFOs and finance leaders see certain traditional finance mindsets as limiting and are impatient to change their team’s culture to a more agile, innovative and value-driven footing. More than half of corporate respondents (54%) say, “traditional back-office behaviors and mindsets in finance are slowing the modernization of the function.” And more than half (52%) of respondents also say, “we should shift the mindset and behaviors of the finance team from ‘generating reports’ to providing valued insights that drive business decisions.”

CFOs and finance leaders should take a proactive approach to reshaping the culture of the finance function and they should reflect on their leadership skills as part of this. They should strike a balance between the traditional and more technical competencies required to effectively lead a finance function (e.g., risk awareness) and the more “social” attributes required for people leadership (e.g., listening and empathy).

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 4

The way forward

Focusing on leading transformation and culture change can enhance corporate reporting and strengthen the sustainability narrative.

By focusing on two key areas, CFOs and finance leaders can enhance corporate reporting and strengthen the sustainability narrative for investors.

  1. Leading transformational change

There are a range of success factors when it comes to driving transformation, but it arguably starts with one area: a vision that inspires finance people and explains why the transformation program is important.  For finance leaders, this means changing the way they think about transformation. As well as seeing transformation in terms of program milestones and organizational goals, CFOs should also think about people’s individual journeys and personal milestones. This is about creating a narrative that inspires people, addressing anxieties around impending change, and motivates them to see the required changes through to the end.

  1. Driving culture change

A successful culture shift in finance is likely to require change along a range of dimensions, from taking a fresh look at finance’s vision and purpose (and how it enables the wider purpose of the enterprise), to building a more inclusive and diverse workforce. However, one key focus area for finance leaders should be to create a culture that supports experimentation and innovation.

Traditionally, finance functions undertake highly technical work as part of carefully controlled processes. While this can be an important part of the finance team’s role, it can also potentially affect people’s willingness to experiment and innovate. Therefore, CFOs should find a balance: encouraging experimentation (innovation), but also setting clear boundaries around the scope of that experimentation (discipline). As a starting point, CFOs can take a fresh look at roles, responsibilities and decision-making rights, setting out where teams further down the organization can make decisions and where they should seek leadership input. This will be an important step to making finance people feel empowered and able to embrace innovation.

  • Show article references#Hide article references

    1. The CFO Imperative: How can bold CFOs reframe their role to optimize performance?, the EY organization, 28 June 2023.
    2. Six ways CFOs can increase the likelihood of transformation success, the EY organization, 18 April 2023.


Corporates are looking to their CFOs to help balance short-term financial performance expectations with long-term sustainability goals, but CFOs face challenges in articulating this through corporate reporting. The research found that CFOs and finance leaders are uncertain if today’s ESG reporting is communicating what is material. The research also found a fundamental gap between companies and stakeholders when it comes to sustainability performance and corporate reporting. CFOs need to improve corporate sustainability narratives to make the case for a company’s long-term, sustainable value. 

About this article

By Myles Corson

EY Global and Americas Strategy and Markets Leader, Financial Accounting Advisory Services

Supporter of finance leaders and functions of today and tomorrow. Global citizen. Podcast host. Curious mind. Father of two energetic boys.