If you’re a CFO about to start your first year on the job it might help to imagine that you’re going on a road trip.
The goal of this new role — whether it’s your first time in the seat or you’re a veteran — is to “drive value and establish yourself as a competent and empathetic leader who gains the trust of his or her team,” said Lori Scherwin, founder of Strategize That, a New York City-based career coaching company.
Preparation should start before you even get in the car. “If the company is public, review all recent SEC filings. Get familiar with the company’s trends and outlook,” she advised. “Look beyond the numbers. Actively read all PR so you are better acquainted with the company’s story and how they prioritize news. Make a list of key relationships you want to build.”
Meanwhile, “assess the dashboard,” said Dean Quiambao, a partner with San Ramon, Calif.-based Armanino LLP, one of the nation’s largest independent accounting and consulting firms that advises CFOs. What are the key performance indicators (KPIs)? How much cash is on hand? What assets are liquid and not liquid? What’s the strength of cash flow and the revenue pipeline? What’s the path to profitability?
As you do this, find “any leaky buckets requiring urgent intervention,” Scherwin said. “Plug holes where you can for some early wins.”
Star slow: listen, don’t dictate
You also need to assess who else is along for the ride. You’ll likely be handed an existing team and it’s up to you to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t underestimate the impact of setting up a weekly meeting with your direct reports.
“Get to know them, their frustrations, their spouse and children’s names,” said Cynthia Wylie, a former CFO who is now a consultant with The Project Consultant in Venice, Calif. “You need them to like you and be behind you.”
Don’t dictate drastic changes. “Too often, senior executives walk into a new role and over-assert themselves to try and make an early impact,” Scherwin said. “Usually, this backfires as they don't make many friends and damage their political capital. In the first few weeks, aim to listen more than direct.”
Quietly figure out who your star employees are and who needs guidance. The best CFOs identify the employees who have more to give and then provide opportunities to grow and shine. “More often than not, that person will step up and surprise you,” said Quiambao, who shared the road trip analogy during an interview.
The first few months might be busy and personally draining, but don’t skimp on the time investing in your team.
“An underrated necessary trait of a CFO is their ability to lead and inspire,” said Pascal Ambrosino, CFO of Burlington Street Partners, a Toronto-based private-equity firm. “At times, there could be chaos and over the long term you want a team that is capable and willing to put in 150 percent effort to accomplish the department’s goals.”
Settle in with the numbers
By the second quarter, you should have a solid understanding of the numbers. You should also be focused on broadening your relationship building with employees of all job roles and levels of importance, something that will help prevent you from getting stuck in an ineffective and potentially isolating silo. “It’s getting out and about and really learning,” Quiambao said
More than most employees, CFOs need an extensive network both internally and externally. Within the company, establish yourself with strategy and operational executives, corporate communications, technology and human resources, Scherwin said. “Really understand business and segment drivers,” she advised.
Don’t forget key relationships with the board as well as external constituents like bankers, auditors and lawyers, she added. As Ambrosino pointed out, “It is important to meet these stakeholders, and understanding their needs early on sets you up for success.”
Don’t think that this can happen from behind a desk, Wylie warned. “Walk around the whole company,” she advised. “Watch. Ask. Measure. Listen.”
This will bolster your network as you prepare for the unplanned – anything from economic crises to competitive shocks – and being able to adjust the course as needed. “The best CFOs know how to pivot correctly since they understand where their business is and where it’s going,” Quiambao said.
This may also involve getting tough with the chief executive officer. “The CEO is not your friend. That’s the reality of it,” Quiambao said. “What does the CEO need to hear most in the hard times?” The CEO needs to hear data-driven, transparent answers that let him or her make their own conclusions. If the CEO and CFO don’t agree, they should discuss openly in a truth-seeking environment and then scenario plan for what might be coming, he explained.
Along the way, be sure to take care of yourself – akin to stopping to refuel the vehicle.
The trust factor
“In the first year, it’s so easy to get caught up in your job. It’s a sprint,” Quiambao said. “But you can’t sprint for that long. At some point, you will crash and burn.”
As you grow in the role, people will start to ask ‘Are we there yet?’ That’s why communication is key. Stay consistent in your message. Also, leverage your peers. “Being a CFO can be lonely, so the ability to know that you’re not on your own is very important,” Quiambao said.
Once you arrive at your destination – in this case, the year mark – “you should be running strong,” Scherwin said. Now it’s time to evaluate how things went. Consider phrases like: Here are some things on our dashboard that are good. Here’s how we’re going to make them better. Here’s how we’re going to measure it. Here’s how we’re going to see the impact of that metric, Quiambao suggested.
You also need to examine how much trust you’ve earned. “In my opinion, there is one measure of success after the first year as a CFO: Do you have the trust of all stakeholders within and outside the company?” Ambrosino said. “Is the board willing to call you if they have a question? Are you the first person the CEO thinks about when they need to bounce something off of? CFOs are not only stewards of financial resources, but they become trusted experts within an organization.”
The final stop of your first year involves using the trust you’ve earned to establish future destinations. “The CFOs that can set that direction the best, they’re going to win,” Quiambao said.