Financial leadership is falling under a spotlight as economic headwinds continue to batter companies, with hard-hitting industries like the technology space likely to hunt for “operating” CFOs that can pare down expenses.
The shifting economic environment may also lead to more companies seeking out finance chiefs that, rather than managing things behind the scenes, are increasingly “leading in the front line,” Zhi Li, CFO for online marketing platform Customer.io, said in a recent interview.
“What that means is, you want to be out there interacting with customers, talking to people in the capital markets, in the investment community,” Li said. “You want to be out there talking to critical hires.”
Li has served as Customer.io’s finance chief since October 2021, having previously served as CFO for online medical education platform MedBridge, according to his LinkedIn profile. He has held other financial leadership positions for cloud service Skytap and bank Credit Suisse. Li served as VP, investment banking, technology, media and telecom for the bank for about six years.
Moving to the front lines
While companies may be asking more from their CFOs, there are still responsibilities that remain table stakes for finance leaders, Li said. Maintaining good accounting compliance, managing cash, and making sure the company’s numbers are correct and timely are still the skills needed for a high-functioning CFO, Li said.
“The train’s always got to be on time,” Li said.
However, being able to wear multiple hats and to work closely with other members of the executive team, including the chief human resources officer, when it comes to hiring becomes more of a value add for a CFO, Li said.
Taking that front line view can help to boost value by making the CFO “more of a strategic partner to the executive team and the CEO,” Li said.
Companies are still facing a tight labor market, with “quiet quitting” trends still a major concern for financial leaders. In a recent survey by CFO.com, 78% of CFOs and 59% of non-finance executives said quiet quitting is an issue for their organizations, for example, and talent shortages in key areas mean companies are jostling to entice skilled employees.
By talking to critical hires, the CFO can help to communicate the story of the company, the potential employees’ growth or financial prospects — such as stock options, for example — and the way the organization thinks about value to new potential candidates, for example, Li said.
“I found that the candidates find that really kind of valuable, to be able to talk to a CFO and kind of get insight directly about how we think about the future,” he said.
Growing comfortable with uncertainty
It is important for CFOs to act as strategic partners, Li said, communicating with others in the executive suite regarding trends such as pricing or other top-of-mind indicators, he said.
“You have the opportunity as CFO to have the front row seat on the growth of the company, so you should take advantage of that,” Li said.
This means involving oneself in areas that have the potential to provide a leading impact to the company, he said, rather than seeing such indicators after the fact. “A lot of the time when the numbers come through, it’s too late,” Li said.
“I want to be ahead of that process and working with the exact team to make that happen,” Li said.
Especially in the startup world, it’s also important for CFOs to become comfortable with “a certain level of uncertainty,” he said — this may seem counterintuitive for finance chiefs, but doing so can help CFOs get more in line with the rest of the C-suite, he said.
“I think a lot of opportunities open up when you have the mentality of ‘if,’ or ‘yes, and’,” Li said. “So always come with two or three alternatives rather than, ‘Hey, we’ve got to keep cash at this level.’”