September 2017

For the long and uncertain trek you have ahead, make sure you partner with a CFO who understands the terrain and can master the journey.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

A few months ago, my colleague and fellow on-demand CFO James Jones, published an insightful article titled “There’s a Time for Everything: When to hire the right finance help for your startup”. In his article, James brilliantly laid out a “Framework for Finance” that advises CEOs and founders on when to engage various types of finance and accounting talent.

As James indicated, there is a time for hiring a CFO, whether full-time or part-time. Once you have determined the timing is right you will be faced with one of the most important hiring decisions for your startup and you need to be prepared. Hiring the right CFO will boost your company’s performance; hiring the wrong one will distract you and will slow you down.

The “textbook” marching orders of a CFO are to “maximize shareholder value.” This implies many things, including a control aspect, which involves making sure the right controls and processes are in place so you can make the right decisions, and a judgment aspect, which involves maintaining an objective viewpoint to help you do what is right for the business. However, you also want to have someone who does the above and has the rare ability to foster relationships within the company to collectively work towards the same goals and objectives.

You are not just hiring someone who understands the process of closing the books and issuing financial statements. Anybody with a financial education can do that. You are hiring one of your closest partners, someone who gets it not only from the financial performance side but from the operational and infrastructure perspective as well. This CFO partner needs to be someone that can not only speak to what numbers on the financial statements went up or down, but can provide the insights as to why they moved and can drill down to understand the operational drivers of your company, turning data into information you can use to make good decisions.

A good CFO will partner with you and your management team so that all are collectively working to “maximize shareholder value,” as the textbook definition of a CFO indicates. This partnering is particularly important in startups as they are often a new experience for the CEO or for their management team.

The Psychology of Finance: how to go beyond the resume

Hiring the right CFO certainly requires, of course, carefully evaluating a candidate’s resume. Beyond this basic requirement is where you need to pay attention. Assuming the finance skills are there, you need to understand what most likely is not on their resume—their ability to build internal partnerships to help you operate the company. This is what I refer to as the Psychology of Finance. Specifically, more often than not, your first CFO will also be your acting COO because they will be the ones setting up basic systems such as HR, Legal (negotiating contracts, including sales contracts), M&A, IT, Supply Chain/Logistics and facilities. A CFO with poor people skills will not be able to champion your internal team to succeed at this.

Partnering with the right CFO that gets the importance of people dynamics will be one of your most important early decisions. When scouting for your partner CFO, make sure you ask for examples and find evidence of: a) the person’s flexibility (how do they manage the unforeseen?); b) the candidate’s preventative or enabling style when managers come up with issues outside the plan (are they about “getting to no” or about “getting to yes”?); and, c) their ability to nurture stakeholder relationships (the acid test here is the extent that business managers have consulted them for advice on key aspects of business/strategy in their past).

Key to ensuring you have the right CFO is to understand their view as to their role in your organization. Along with answers like setting up planning, forecasting, processes, controls, helping to raise money and preparing the board decks, listen for past experience that evidences they see themselves as someone responsible for turning the financial data into information that helps you and the rest of the company make informed decisions. A CFO who understands their role in your startup will ask you questions that evidence they do. These can include questions regarding your style for running the company, what are you looking for in a CFO, how your executive team work together, your relationship with your board or the biggest challenge you are facing right now.

Net, what you are looking for in a CFO for your startup is evidence that the candidate knows the importance that people dynamics have on their role as one of the key executives in charge of steering the company in the right direction. Mastering the numbers with no emotional intelligence is of no use to you when you need sound cover from a CFO. So when you decide it is time to hire your part-time or full-time CFO make sure to look beyond the resume to find the person who can make strategic finance actionable and useful.