Can anything really prepare you for the ﬁrst 3 months in your new role as Chief Financial Officer? Just when you feel that you have reached the peak of your career by successfully attaining a sought-after CFO role, you may realise that you still have much to learn. You also may face some real challenges settling into your new company and team. As a new CFO, getting it all right — reporting, systems, business strategy, relationships and people development – can be a daunting prospect.
So, how can new CFOs make the most of this important transition period and avoid the potential pitfalls that can affect their ability to be successful over the long term? Our discussions revealed many common experiences among new CFOs and we would like to share these findings with you.
First, CFOs agreed about the importance of the ﬁrst 3 months for establishing trust and credibility within the organisation, which can have signiﬁcant bearing on the CFO’s long-term success. Second, they talked about the importance of understanding the expectations of the CEO and board and agreeing on short-term and long-term objectives. Last but not least, they also talked about the perils of “rushing in” and making hasty judgments and how to strike a balance between being decisive and taking the time to study the organisation.
Our conversations also highlighted the different challenges facing CFOs depending on the stage of the company and the surprises they encounter once they arrive. For example, the new CFO of a turnaround company must act quickly to address immediate concerns, while the CFO of a mature company may take a more measured approach to change. The growth company CFO, meanwhile, typically has to focus on making ongoing adjustments to ﬁnancial systems and controls to support — or keep pace with — the company’s growth. However, the principals guiding the effective CFO through his or her first 3 months remained consistent, no matter the organisation.
How important are the CFO’s ﬁrst 3 month?
The general consensus is that this is the most critical period for a CFO. This is when a person gains or otherwise loses credibility within an organisation. It also is a time when a CFO makes assessments about the priorities before blending in. That is, you can look at the situation with fresh eyes.
A CFO should seek to set an agenda for the first year in those 3 months; and the first questions to address are:
- What is it that you are trying to achieve, and
- How will you make the transition from the status quo
You are ultimately measured by your ability to provide insight, grow the business and achieve objectives. This initial period sets a base and whilst it may be only a superficial view of your capabilities, it is during this time that the CEO and board will make their first real assessment of you.
You therefore have to be clear what values you aspire to in this time; whether it be a strong control environment or aggressive growth targets or indeed whatever KPIs were discussed in the interview process. You also need to be ﬁrm, but commercial, and you must be able to move things forward and put your own stamp on it. Also, you need to get the resources and infrastructure right to be able to move forward as planned. Putting in place the basic building blocks during the first 3 months will set foundations for success during the rest of your tenure in the organisation.
What are the main challenges to be faced when starting a new role?
There tend to be two recurring themes when talking about the key challenges in a new CFO role. First, the need to evaluate infrastructure. Second, reviewing accounting policies and ways of doing things (things that may have made sense when they were initially implemented, but that are redundant or make little sense in today’s world).
Time spent during the first 3 months looking under the rocks to see where the problems are then creating an appropriate strategy to address them is well spent. A review of basic accounting frameworks, the team around you, as well as the systems for reporting, is essential and pays dividends in the long term.
How can a CFO best add value in the ﬁrst 3 months of a new role?
Without exception, it is crucial to become involved in the key decision making process early on in the piece. If the company is travelling reasonably well, you must support what’s going on and don’t get in the way of others doing their jobs, but do think about ways to do it better.
The quicker you can get to the key issues and deal with them in a prompt and decisive way, the more your actions will be supporting the CEO. As the CFO your role should be to act as a mentor and sounding-board to the rest of the executive and management team. Keep in mind that the some of the best value you can bring in your initial 3 months is a fresh perspective, so you’ll be asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of listening.
What are some of the key short-term priorities and long-term challenges as a new CFO?
Short term requirements are almost always “people focussed”. Some of the key issues will be gaining the trust of those around you. Similarly, the personal development of peers and individuals in your team will be equally important in bringing people “on side”.
Once your team is “in order” you can now ensure you are contributing to the success of the entire organisation and helping the business to achieve its objectives. In order to do that, you must understand the long-term framework. Who are the stakeholders and what are their long-term expectations? Once you understand this you can work out whether there are any gaps between what is expected and your internal planning and the supporting infrastructure.
In some situations, you may choose not to deliver short-term outcomes in favour of long-term objectives. Our research shows that in delivering on expectations, companies sometimes have to rationalise. As long as you have the correct rationale, you can justify your position.
On the external side, there are a number of key relationships that need to be understood and developed (for example with fund managers, institutional shareholders, analysts, and auditors) and when you become CFO you will need to spend time on aligning these relationships.
What are some of the most common mistakes made by new CFOs?
Throughout our research and discussions with CFOs, we were able to conclude that the cause of all the most common mistakes can be attributed to two things:
- Rushing; not taking the time to study the business model and the strategy.
- Resourcing; not having the right team around you.
Not taking the time to understand the business, to forge the right relationships, to listen and observe eventuated in quick and typically bad decisions. However, it is possible to act too slowly. So when you see an issue that needs to be resolved, don’t be frightened of tackling it head on.
For most people in a new role, the tendency is to take on too much. As a CFO, your must avoid getting buried in the day-to-day stuff. Make sure you are surrounded with high-quality people and then work out (as a team) how you are best going to add value. Finally, having done that, you can act.
What are the five “must-dos”; the most important things for a new CFO?
- Understand the business drivers; once you have worked out what the key issues are, play them back to everyone to make sure they agree and feel part of the solution.
- Establish good working relationships; every conversation is critical, and each one is a source of your information and understanding of the culture. Ensure that the behaviours you are exhibiting are consistent.
- Take your time; keep quiet for a period of time while you absorb the status quo and before you communicate externally. That way you will be in a position to make better judgements.
- Make sure you have the right team and infrastructure; look at the quality of your people and systems. If the base structure is not adequate, then you need to take steps to address that.
- Produce good work for all your constituencies; establish the expectations upon you and make sure there are no gaps in your understanding and then ensure you deliver no surprises.
Overall, you have to pick up on what your predecessors have done and pass on the role to the next person. There are always issues to improve. Your role as the CFO is to leave as few problems as possible.
By using the ﬁrst 3 months as an opportunity to forge key relationships, learn the business and ﬁnancial systems and set short-term and long-term priorities, a new CFO can lay the groundwork for a successful tenure.
A CFO must be as capable as anyone else on the executive team on the issues of people, resourcing and the development of strategy. They need to be skillful in analysing and assessing the issues, the business drivers, the infrastructure and the resources of their organisation, and identifying appropriate solutions and communicating those solutions effectively.
A CFO today must be able to build strong internal and external relationships to achieve an outcome for the company. Unless the CFO can gain the conﬁdence of others, he or she will not succeed in the role.
Finally, the role of the CFO should be both as Steward and Strategist. As a Steward, you are accountable for ensuring the financial integrity, the corporate governance, and the rigour around the financial processes. As a Strategist, you will be tasked with adding value to the overall direction of the business.
You may experience crises during your tenure, in which case your activities will likely be diverted to “life saving” activities, or your role may be to ensure the continued smooth running of the financial affairs of your business. Whoever you are, our research confirms that preparing for those first 3 months is extremely important, and being clear about your objectives will improve the chances for your success, whether it be in a mature, turnaround, or high-growth company.
Stonewater Consulting Group – SCG – is a leading firm of executive recruitment consultants, providing professional career advice and guidance for candidates seeking executive jobs and management positions across a wide range of industry segments including accounting, legal, finance and banking. Our client services include talent management, executive search specialising in locating senior level managers and corporate executives as well as providing human capital advice & services. Make an online enquiry or contact one of our Principals to hear first-hand how we can add genuine value to your business.