Finance professionals reaching for their first-time CFO job had better be prepared for high expectations.
Yes, experienced CFOs are retiring earlier, and companies have fewer sitting CFOs to recruit. Also, boards are interested in diversifying the C-suite, which may help women and minority candidates get a foot in the door. But once on the job, first-time CFOs need to build credibility quickly, executive recruiters and senior CFOs suggest.
Many boards and executive managers expect CFOs to have international perspective to foster global growth, according to executive recruiters interviewed by Deloitte. They want a CFO who’s a good communicator with vision, who can lead and collaborate, and who can turn data into strategy. And they want quick results.
Rowan Wilkie is the Melbourne-based CFO of global software company LiveTiles. He said a new executive in a C-suite role was traditionally given six months to bed in, six months to make and implement changes, and a further six months to measure their impact.
“Those timelines I believe are far shorter these days, and in my world in enterprise software, things are moving so fast that we don’t have that much time to make an impact,” Wilkie said. “It’s far more agile, and so the CFO has to manage a balance of priorities.”
5 ways to show you have what it takes
Here is more advice from senior CFOs to help you in your first three months as a first-time CFO:
Prioritise cash and culture. This is the advice of Fabien Dawidowicz, the CFO of Spendesk, a French tech startup that gives CFOs and finance teams more visibility over company spending. “You may be in a newly funded company with a lot of cash in the bank account, which gives you more time to deep-dive into other subjects. But if cash is tighter, this absolutely needs to be your chief focus. That’s the main financial priority. You can’t do anything without cash. You can’t pay employees or suppliers — nothing.”
Dawidowicz said new CFOs also need to talk to the executive team and the wider company to understand the culture. “In some companies, finance is at the very heart. It’s like this for us at Spendesk — the CEO understands and cares about our financial reporting and our cash situation,” he said. “But you’ll also have plenty of CEOs who are not fluent in these topics — they may have come from sales or marketing and care mostly about the brand. It’s vital that new CFOs figure out how the company views the finance team and whether education needs to be done.”
Deliver business as usual. When you become a first-time CFO, you’re now the custodian of core competencies. “There are certain compliance-related functions, such as closing the books on time, getting meaningful reports out to management, making sure that financial statements are in compliance with GAAP, meeting regulatory requirements, and making sure you pass the audit,” said Anna Brunelle, CPA (inactive), the CFO of Kinestral Technologies, a US company that develops software-enabled tinting windows.
“If the fundamentals are operating well, everyone takes them for granted, but if they are operating poorly, they’re a constant pain point,” Brunelle said. “To be successful, you have to have the wheels on the bus — it’s not the glamorous part of the job, but without that foundation, you can’t be a successful CFO.”
Wilkie echoes Brunelle’s advice on getting meaningful reports to management. “If you don’t do that, and if there are question marks about the accuracy of information, or about multiple versions of reports or numbers, you will end up in a credibility cycle and you end up chasing your tail,” he said.
Walk, listen, and talk. Mitsu Doshi, ACMA, CGMA, is the Asia Pacific CFO of foodpanda, a mobile food delivery platform with a presence in more than 240 cities worldwide. She advises new CFOs to observe, listen, and actively engage and interact with multiple stakeholders in their first 100 days.
“Invest time in understanding your business, your organisation’s culture, and the people who run your business,” she said. “It’s equally important to understand the values and the vision of the business, the board, and the investors.”
Craft the company’s story. Brunelle said stepping into the CFO role requires a transition from being a truth-teller in the organisation to becoming a storyteller.
“You’re focused on what the company will become over the next few years,” Brunelle said. “Or, if you’re in a public company, you’re … sharing your strategy with analysts, sharing quarterly financial results, answering questions, speaking at conferences, and guiding the stock market on future projections.”
Doshi agrees. “Aim to build a business where you can tell a story that not only contains elements of growth and wealth creation but also says that we proactively protect our businesses from the risks that come with the changing business landscapes.”
Act with integrity. “You need to have a strong personal compass and a strong view of right and wrong and a strong view of how to work with others and solve problems,” said Wilkie. “You will have to raise bad news and address problems head-on. In the past, if you’ve been the second-in-charge, or if you’ve been out on a project but you’re not accountable, it’s easy to let that fall on someone else’s shoulders. There is no one else in the CFO role, that’s on you. From day one, be prepared for stepping into that.”
— Luke O'Neill is a freelance writer based in Australia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.