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Agency and stewardship attitudes of chief financial officers in private companies

Martin R. W. Hiebl (Institute of Management Control and Consulting, Johannes Kepler University of Linz, Austria)

Qualitative Research in Financial Markets

ISSN: 1755-4179

Article publication date: 2 February 2015




This paper aims to explore the differing attitudes of salaried chief financial officers (CFOs) that can be associated with agency theory and stewardship theory. CFO attitudes are investigated because CFOs typically face additional agency conflict in their roles as overseers of the financial and accounting functions that are responsible for the production of numerical information used as a basis for incentive compensation.


A qualitative field study of 14 large privately held Austrian manufacturing companies was conducted. The findings rely on information retrieved from 18 semi-structured interviews conducted with individuals from these companies.


The findings reveal a number of contextual factors that influence stewardship and agency attitudes of salaried CFOs. CFOs, who mainly report formally to owners, perceive more control in the hands of the owners. Short-term management appointments appear to facilitate agency-like behavior, whereas the existence of owner–managers and the typical CFO's maturity in terms of age and wealth seem to nurture stewardship behavior.

Research limitations/implications

Further (quantitative) research is needed to corroborate the findings in this study, which are derived from a qualitative research approach. Further research on agency and stewardship behavior should also include the view of principal with respect to agent actions, as this paper shows that principal opinion strongly affects the way agents perceive control.

Practical implications

The findings suggest that the behavior of company owners can influence and change a manager's agency or stewardship attitude. Owners who desire a culture of stewardship should set long-term goals and facilitate long-term management appointments. Moreover, owners can lower a manager's perceived level of owner control by adopting an active role in management.


This paper is the first to analyze stewardship and agency attitude of salaried CFOs in privately held companies. It, therefore, adds to the current literature on the role of the CFO, as well as to the literature on governance issues in privately held firms.



The author would like to thank all interviewees for their time and participation in this study. Moreover, the author wishes to thank Birgit Feldbauer-Durstmüller, Dorothea Greiling, Helmut Pernsteiner and Reinbert Schauer for valuable comments. The author also gratefully acknowledges comments from participants of the 36th Annual Congress of the European Accounting Association (EAA), Paris, May 2013, where a previous version of the paper was presented. Last but not least, the author thanks the two anonymous reviewers for their excellent comments and assistance on this paper.


Hiebl, M.R.W. (2015), "Agency and stewardship attitudes of chief financial officers in private companies", Qualitative Research in Financial Markets, Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 4-23.



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