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Communications | Peer-Reviewed Research

Lip Service

What Happens When The CFO Sounds Like The Boss

Based on research by Yan Anthea Zhang, Robert E. Hoskisson and Wei Shi 

What Happens When The CFO Sounds Like The Boss

  • CFOs often use language that mimics that of their CEOs. 
  • CFOs who do this might please the boss, but could fail to adequately express opposing opinions during company decision-making. 
  • The result may be higher CFO compensation — but worse decisions for the firm. 

It’s time to meet with company leadership. Whether it’s a top level conference or a routine all-company huddle, have you ever noticed a certain sameness in the way the CEO and the CFO speak? Do they ever sound too similar?

You’re not imagining things, say Rice Business professor Yan Anthea Zhang and emeritus professor Robert E. Hoskisson. Partnering with University of Miami professor Wei Shi, the researchers analyzed 11 years of conference calls by companies making decisions about high level mergers and acquisitions.

They found that seeming similarities between CEO and CFO language are real — and usually rooted in the personal goals of the CFO.

The motive isn’t too surprising. As senior-level leaders, CFOs consistently acquire responsibility in their organizations. It stands to reason that people who rise to this level are focused, motivated and looking to advance — typically, to a higher salary or a seat on the company’s board.

One way CFOs can aid their rise, the researchers found, is by using language style matching, or unconscious verbal mimicry of their bosses. To measure this mimicry, Zhang, Hoskisson and Shi tracked function words (articles, pronouns, prepositions, etc.) to reveal the similarity in top officers’ language styles.

The researchers then used these findings to predict advancement outcomes for CFOs and their companies. The predictions tended to be accurate because, quite simply, it’s easier to advance with people who are similar to you. When CFOs use high levels of language mimicry, they create a pleasant, familiar rapport with their superiors. Language mimicry also indicates a shared opinion — always flattering to hear. However, one important aspect of a CFO’s job is to challenge important decisions to make sure that they are financially sound, and here mimicry doesn’t help.

High mimicry levels have three major outcomes, the researchers found, and not all are good.

  • Since CEOs often influence compensation, high mimicry levels boost a CFO’s chances of a raise.
  • But high mimicry levels lower a CFO’s likelihood of serving the company by playing devil’s advocate.
  • Firms lacking authentic critical input from CFOs make less favorable decisions for shareholders.

What about those CFOs who are less fun for their bosses to be with — the CFOs with low mimicry rates? They’re better for business, the researchers found. Declining, or just failing, to mimic the boss actively benefits shareholders, because the CEO is more likely to hear reasoned opposition to flawed decisions. 

These dynamics affect everyone involved in a business, the researchers write. For board members and shareholders, too much similarity in top officers’ speech should be a red flag: Your CFO may care more about pleasing the boss than about protecting the company.

CEOs themselves should think twice when a CFO’s language sounds pleasantly familiar. A lieutenant who sounds too much like you may not help you make the best choices. Even if you have minimal contact with your company’s CFO or CEO, such mimicking behavior often surfaces in other power relationships as well – with potentially similar outcomes.

So when you do end up at that C-suite meeting — or simply any presentation by two people in power — it’s worth listening to how much the second in command sounds like the boss. 

It may be the sound of someone working her way to the top.

Yan Anthea Zhang is the Fayez Seraphim Vanguard Professor of Management and Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Shi, W., Zhang, Y., & Hoskisson, R. E. (2019). Examination of CEO-CFO social interaction through language style matching: Outcomes for the CFO and the organization. Academy of Management Journal, 62(2), 383–414.

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