And not just the challenge of becoming successful. Also, it's the costly reality that once your enterprise achieves success it becomes a target, attracting criticism that isn't always perfectly deserved. Take Apple, currently in the dock -- as some form of new poster boy for labor rights abuses in China.
This is a backlash, of course, but the media loves to knock you when you find yourself at the top of the ladder. So Apple's feeling the heat right now. And not for the first time. After all, no one wants to read about an also-ran. People love to hate winners.
Look at the headlines: Apple partner Foxconn's treatment of its million-strong workforce is right at the center of the tech news agenda this weekend, with the iPhone-maker pilloried for working with the self-same partner key competitors including the likes of Dell and HP also have a relationship with.
The media's refusal to grapple with the matter -- that nearly all U.S. firms in the consumer electronics field are theoretically complicit in these claimed abuses -- underlines the cost of success. "Apple is the biggest firm, so Apple is at fault," the media cries. And while no one said life was fair, these accusations against Apple aren't a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card for everybody else, but rather are a move toward enhancing corporate responsibility.
Economic challenges, improved communication and growth of the notion that we live on a connected planet are driving awareness of the need for corporate responsibility. In the UK, check the upswell of anger against banking's bonus culture. In Davos, Switzerland, this week, the Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland announced survey results which named and shamed UK-based Barclays bank for its role in profiting from commodity trading, "effectively betting on hunger by speculating on food prices," the protest groups said.
Then take Aron Cramer, the CEO of BSR, a company that consults for Apple and hundreds of other major companies on corporate responsibility. He responded to the NYT piece to say:
"My BSR colleagues and I view Apple as a company that is making a highly serious effort to ensure that labor conditions in its supply chain meet the expectations of applicable laws, the company's standards, and the expectations of consumers and other stakeholders."
So, why's this a problem for a CFO? The world's changing. Scarce resources and increased economic deprivation are igniting new awareness that corporate responsibility needs to go further than a bulletin on the marketing materials, but needs to go all the way.
In this, Apple seems to be taking a leadership position. The company recently introduced a supplier responsibility report, which admitted to numerous contraventions across its supply chain. Since then, assailed by public criticism of its record, Apple CEO Tim Cook hasn't held his peace. Instead, the public company with a market cap bigger than Exxon's has kept the position that it hopes to improve the lot of workers in its third party supply chain.
Apple has never turned "a blind eye" to the problems in its supply chain and any suggestion it does not care about the plight of workers is "patently false," Cook responds.
"What we will not do - and never have done - is stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain," he said. "On this you have my word." The company has also agreed to allow an outside agency to monitor working conditions, and has engaged in an education program for workers to ensure they are aware of their rights.
Is this a good thing? Right now, reports continue to castigate Cupertino for its partner's sins, but in future the company's decision to attempt even a muted response to these criticisms seems likely to set a template others must follow if they wish to hold onto any success they may win in future. And this will mean paying for such measures -- and that's where the future CFO challenge kicks in.