When Chris Sands joined energy intelligence software company EnerNOC (now Enel X) as head of treasury and investor relations in 2015, investors had an incomplete picture of the company's performance. Its finance function relied on traditional reporting, which did a poor job of showing the value the technology company generated across its business segments.
"I actually had the opportunity ... to lead an initiative inside the business to redesign the reporting and actually create segment reporting," said Sands, who is now CFO of automated accounts-payable software company MineralTree. "This was hugely important from an investor relations perspective, but ... even more important internally, because we weren't looking at the business [the way we should have been]."
Studying metrics for different segments of a technology business, including software-as-service (SaaS) vs. transactional business segments, is common today, but at that time, it was a bold step for Sands.
"That moment was one of the most confidence-inspiring moments in my career," he said last week in a CFO Thought Leader podcast. "The way the organization started thinking about the two different businesses … after that was fantastic."
Sands started in finance right out of college as an intern at Lehman Brothers at the end of 2007 and into 2008, just before the firm's bankruptcy filing triggered the economic downturn that left capital markets frozen for two years.
"I was sitting at home and the news hit the table," he said. "That Monday morning, it was chaos.”
Sands worked a previously scheduled rotation at Barclays, where he became an investment banking associate, and moved to JPMorgan, eventually becoming a vice president before leaving Wall Street to gain experience on the finance side of business at EnerNOC.
Accounting and technology
Being a finance leader today is as much about being a technologist as an accounting professional, Sands said.
"The function, as a whole, is being digitized," he said. "It's absolutely changing the way people practice finance, but it also changes the skill set people need to be effective at their roles."
At MineralTree, where Sands has worked for a year, he's implementing NetSuite, the first cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform the company has used.
"I spend a lot of time working on that project, designing our instance of NetSuite, thinking about how it's going to interact with our other cloud-based systems, whether it's Salesforce or platforms we use in our customer success organization, or the actual database where we get usage data from all of our customers," he said.
This technology focus isn't something he was trained to do in college, but its importance today can't be overstated, Sands said.
"It's so important for finance functions to adopt these technologies because the efficiencies, the functions gained, create the opportunity for the function to bring so much more value to the business," he said. "If you can capitalize on these efficiencies, then you can use your mental horsepower to create those insights that are more impactful for the business as opposed to spending tons of time manually invoicing your customer or closing the books."
The digital revolution is still in its early stages in the profession, Sands said. "There are so many applications … that plug into these ERP systems, so as I think about my technology wish list over the next two years, I already have a handful of other applications that I'd like to go explore and potentially add on to NetSuite in order to create more efficiencies with the team and allow us to bring more value to the organization," he said.
In addition to the technology, the way you interact with other executives at your organization is key to CFO success, Sands said.
"That's something you can't really have much experience with until you're in the seat, how important the relationship is with the CEO to your success, as well as his or her success," he said. "I wish I had known more about that when I first stepped in."
Sands said young finance professionals should share ambitions with mentors. "When I transitioned from JPMorgan into industry, it felt like I had a good skill set but I wasn't entirely confident it was the right skill set to get me to be CFO," he said. "But as I started to build that confidence, I became more comfortable sharing my aspirations with my boss, who was a longtime public company CFO of many familiar brands."
Mentors aren't mind readers, Sands said. "When they know [what you want to do], and if you've read the relationship right, they'll enable you on that journey," he said. "That's probably the single most important thing for me to get where I am."