Toya Lawson, a partner at Bridge Partners LLC, an executive search firm focused on diversity, has spent 17 years recruiting accounting and finance professionals. She has placed many CFOs and finance vice presidents in her career, and advocates for a long-term relationship with recruiters, even if CFO isn't looking to change jobs.
"If a company doesn't have a succession plan in place for a C-suite or vice president-level position, more than likely, someone in talent acquisition or HR, or the CEO, will reach out an executive search firm, and that's where the relationship starts for us," Lawson says.
Executive recruiters hold substantial influence when it comes to CFOs' career trajectories, and Lawson knows there are many things that could prompt a CFO to move from one job to another or stay put.
"It has to do a lot with the financials and direction of their company, and where it's looking to go," Lawson said. "It's really all about the executive team's strategic plan. For example, if a private company is thinking of going public, there's a lot of things, from an accounting perspective, it needs to do in preparation. If it doesn't have a CFO in place who's gone through an IPO process, that'll force a change."
What companies want
While CFO tenure at a company varies widely, even the CFOs most satisfied with their jobs would do well to keep their ears open for new opportunities.
"If an organization is looking to do something exciting, maybe something related to acquisitions, and a CFO wants that experience, that'll be the selling point a search professional comes to them with," Lawson said.
Lawson has companies, not individuals, as clients. When the company approaches her in search of a CFO, the background they most want is public accounting, often time spent at one of the Big 4 firms.
"I'd say most clients are looking for four to six years of experience as a manager by the time they get to a management level at public accounting firm," she said. "By that point, they'll have seen a variety of industries."
In Lawson's practice, she's always hoping the executive she brings to her client will remain in the role for "at least three to five years, if not longer." If it's shorter than that, that could signal the relationship wasn't smooth.
"Clients call me because they want someone who will significantly impact the organization," she said. "The very first person I ever placed has been in his role for six or seven years, and has been promoted four times; that's a successful placement."
Bridge Partners, where Lawson has been for just over a year, works exclusively at the VP and C-suite level; people with between 10 and 20 years of experience. "They know what they want to do, are comfortable in their skillset and know when it's time to make a move," she said. "But they don't change very often."
Ebb and flow of relationship
While it's generally advisable for C-suite leaders to keep their ears open for new opportunities, if they've recently accepted a position, that may be a lower priority.
"It takes most people about 18 months to two years to feel comfortable in a new role, and sometimes that's three years," Lawson said. "For the most part, it takes a while to really master a role and assimilate to an organization's culture. Around the three-year mark, it's okay to start listening to other opportunities out there."
Lawson emphasizes the benefits of CFOs maintaining their recruiter relationship even after they've landed a job they like.
"A lot of times, because I have these long-term relationships with potential candidates, when a client is describing a new role at their company and going through the skills and requirements of the job, candidates are already popping to mind for me," she said. "So when I leave that meeting, I already immediately know who I want to call. Having those long-term relationships allows me to do that."
CFOs' diversity responsibility
Bridge Partners prioritizes diverse hires across an organization, and Lawson believes CFOs can contribute to a diverse C-suite even if they don't have a direct hand in hiring.
CFOs are typically number two within an organization, Lawson points out. "He or she is the CEO's go-to, because anything that comes down the pipeline needs to be paid for."
If not involved in hiring, even tangentially, CFOs nonetheless should always be involved in mentorship and sponsorship, and should be a strong and vocal ally. They can do this by giving women and people of color at the company opportunities to make presentations to the board, or sign onto a larger project.
"If a company decides to use a search firm or a recruiter, CFOs can make sure the message is communicated that a diverse and inclusive slate of candidates is required," she added.
Always be networking
Though CFOs may not be on the job search as often as entry-level employees, they nonetheless should always be networking, and should know recruiters specializing in their niche, said Lawson.
"Potential job seekers should know who in their market or function specialty is their go-to," she said. "Also, remember it's a two-sided relationship. Executive search professionals work on behalf of the company that's hiring. It's really the job seeker's responsibility to always remember they're presenting to us, and not vice versa."
Lawson advises candidates to be clear about their interests, and know that a recruiter will keep an eye out, but it's their job, as the candidate, to look.
"Many job seekers come to us when they've lost their job, and say, 'Toya, this is what I'm looking for,' and the thought is, maybe, I'm sending their resume places," she said. "I am not; I'm waiting for an opportunity to come to me, then I come to them."