Ask The Expert: Sarbanes-Oxley Pains - A Career Headache

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A. As you doubtless know, you are not alone. Sarbanes-Oxley ('SOX' to those all too familiar with the law and its many tentacles) has transformed the CFO function of nearly every publicly-held firm. Now it is no longer enough to produce a set of numbers: The CFO's office must document the process behind them and attest to its integrity. In a recent survey by the CFO Executive Board, CFOs reported spending about 25 percent of their time on Section 404 compliance efforts alone, crowding out other important activities like internal business support, budgeting and planning.

Still, the impact on a financial services firm remains wide and varied, extending far beyond the CFO's walls.

"Sarbanes-Oxley will have its biggest effect on the financial services workplace in terms of the documented accountability around details that used to be taken for granted," says outplacement counselor Rod Williams of Lee Hecht Harrison. "Simple requisitions for even the smallest purchases are now subject to mandatory scrutiny....On the back end, this means that a paper trail is required to corroborate all charges associated with purchases."

The impact of the new law is even being felt in the way mergers and acquisitions are conducted. Assessing the strength of financial controls at a target company is now an integral-and time-consuming-aspect of due diligence. The discovery of weak controls can kill a deal.

In a SOX-soaked landscape, your experience on the frontlines may increase your value if you switch teams. "Attention to process and detail as well as a high degree of accuracy will be necessary general attributes for success in a Sarbanes-Oxley environment," says recruiter Peter Gonye of Spencer Stuart.

While you will probably never escape the shadow of SOX, you can certainly edge your way out of the maelstrom. In general, CFO skills "transfer pretty readily to commercial banking, mortgage banking, project finance, private equity, and venture capital," says Williams.

Without more detail, however, it's difficult to recommend a specific direction for you to look toward. You will need to carefully analyze your background, technical skills and aspirations to hone your next move. "The less you know what you want to do, the less you know what your specific skills are, the less you will be able to position yourself well for consideration," advises recruiter Peter Gonye of Spencer Stuart.

Before you jump ship, remember that times of change are also times of opportunity. Look around and see if there isn't something else that interests you in the CFO domain, which in many instances has expanded in the SOX era to include responsibilities for IT, facilities, procurement and strategy. There is also an enormous opportunity to shape the system of controls in a way that boosts performance in addition to meeting SOX requirements. Figure out how to do that and you may find that your career assumes a life of its own.

Next week's question:

Over the past four-and-a-half months, three of my colleagues quit because of our boss, who was brought in a little over a year ago. However, in their exit interviews with h.r., they didn't reveal the true reason they were going, in order not to burn bridges, etc. Obviously, this doesn't help the rest of us. Am I naïve, or aren't exit interviews supposed to be confidential? Do we all have to quit before upper management realizes that our boss is the real problem?

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