The 80-20 difference between a CEO and CFO

Bernhard M. Koch, CEO and president of AAA Mid-Atlantic, wonders about automakers collecting drivers' data, and how this will affect independent repair operations, like AAA's Clifton Heights shop. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

Until he became chief executive of AAA Mid-Atlantic automobile club in 2012, Bernhard M. Koch had primarily worked in finance and insurance, ending up as a chief executive. In a lot of his previous positions, his responsibilities included closing the businesses. During our Leadership Agenda interview, published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer, I asked Koch the difference between being a CFO and a CEO.

"For the years I was a CFO, 80 percent of my time was spent looking behind, explaining the numbers, how did we do versus last year and 20 percent of my time was spent looking forward," he said. "As CEO, it’s flipped around. Eighty percent of my time is where are we going and how we’re going to get there and 20 percent is things that worked well and things that didn’t work well."

Koch said the key to both jobs is the ability to communicate. In the CFO position, the explaining has to do with accounting principles and financial decisions. The language can be technical and arcane and the audience may be financially savvy, including investment analysts.

In the CEO's position, he said, the task is to communicate vision and to explain the why behind company decisions.

For inspiration, Koch said he turns to biographies of Steve Jobs, the legendary founder of Apple. Koch, who grew up in Canada, is both a certified public accountant and a Canadian chartered accountant, which is the equivalent. "When you are a CPA, I know my limitations," he said. "I’m a very analytic."

While he doesn't necessarily agree with Jobs' ways of dealing with people, he admires his vision. What Koch wanted to learn, he told me, was "how do you dream beyond what you can see?"