How to get a new CFO role in COVID

By Alexandra Cain

Devotees of The Simpson’s cartoon show might be aware of Homer Simpson’s notion of a ‘crisitunity’ – the idea of opportunity in crisis. This is certainly the approach Andrew Stephens has taken in his pursuit of new horizons, having finished in his CFO role with hospitality management and food services business Delaware North in July after taking a three-month sabbatical.

It’s easy to assume this was not the most opportune time to be looking for a new role. But Stephens has made the most of this period to put himself in a position of strength in terms of finding his next role.

“I’ve used the time to complete my MBA and really develop the next phase of my personal brand. I stayed active and used the downtime to think and process the impact of COVID-19 globally and also locally, especially trying to understand its impact on my type of role.”

Stephens’ circumstances mean there was no pressure to immediately find a position, which has allowed him to be strategic about his next role.

“I’m want to work for an organisation that empowers its people to get on with business and trusts the management team to deliver. I’m particularly interested in organisations focused on tactical execution, transformation, governance and growth”.

Melbourne-based Stephens says it is essential to develop and maintain strong networks when you’re looking for a role, given so many senior finance positions are filled through network connections, rather than being advertised in the open market.

“It’s also an idea to pursue job openings that come up on LinkedIn and other media. Being a finance guy, I have strong analytical abilities and I am highly organised and disciplined in my approach, which has proved to be very useful during this period. When you’re looking for a new role, it is important to focus on the journey and the process.

No matter whether it is your choice to move on or if you are made redundant, Stephens’ advice is to take stock of where you are before you make your next move. “Check your personal finance plan and make the necessary changes. Try to avoid activities that bring no value to your personal position. A lot of these activities are limited by COVID, anyway. I made sure my investment portfolio was solid. For instance, with my investment properties, I was proactive about talking to the real estate agents managing them. If my tenants were not able to pay rent on time, I made sure there were payment plans in place to help the tenants meet their obligations. I spent a lot of time working on my resume, leadership profile and network reach.”

He also focused on his wellbeing, including taking regular exercise. “That allowed me to stay positive, despite the market conditions. I was also able to reboot my consulting and board advisory businesses and used the downtime by giving back to the community in the form of pro bono work.”

Julie Schelfhaut left her role in financial services in November last year before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. She has subsequently been involved in a lengthy recruitment process to find a new position and has taken a similarly proactive and strategic approach to Stephens’.

“It’s been important to maintain my networks and keep connecting with recruiters. I also joined the Governance Institute of Australia and started a certificate in governance and risk management. I’ve also been involved in Women in Banking and Finance and was a member of the judging panel for the awards program to celebrate its 20th anniversary, which has been another way of keeping in touch with the industry,” she says.

Schelfhaut is also part of a female-focused CFO group with executive coach Sue Rosen, who has helped her navigate this period.

Like Stephens, Schelfhaut has also been giving back to the community, mentoring University of NSW students through a program organised by global bank HSBC. “I’ve also been helping people who have lost their job through COVID to prepare their CVs.”

Compare the market

While it is certainly a tough market for CFOs looking for a new role, Colin Kerr, senior associate, accounting and finance at u&u Recruitment Partners, says the market is picking up.

“In March and April, there was a real drop in the number of open positions compared to last year. But we actually saw the number of new CFO roles increase this September versus last year,” says Kerr.

In terms of sectors where there’s are demand for senior finance staff, surprisingly, demand for senior finance executives in health has not increased because the entire sector is focused on COVID and other more, standard health care work has been put on hold. “Where we’ve seen increases is in fintech and businesses with a digital presence,” he adds.

Kerr’s advice for senior executives looking for a new role is to ensure their CV and job application exactly match the role’s criteria. This is because given the large pool of candidates in the market looking for a position, one easy way to cull the candidate pool is to immediately exclude those applicants whose experience doesn’t exactly mirror the position’s criteria.

Stephens agrees there is huge competition for roles, with senior level people applying for junior level roles and junior level people aspiring for senior roles. “All of a sudden there are 300 people applying for a position that would have in the past attracted 20 or 30 resumes. There is an opportunity for businesses to fill roles with high-quality talent. But the question is whether they will be able to retain the talent when the economy settles down, opens up and starts to grow.”

From her perspective, Schelfhaut, who is presently working in a consulting position for a London-based funds management group, says it’s important to choose carefully a full-time position. “Recently I decided not to go forward with a position I was offered because it wasn’t the right role for me.”.  

Stephens agrees it’s important to be circumspect about his next move and has some advice for other senior finance people who may be in the market looking for a position.

“COVID is global and a great leveller, never let a situation like COVID or a personal tragedy hold you back. If you have had a set-back, do not be afraid to be vulnerable and reach out for help. I have personally found people and businesses out in the community want to help. It’s challenging at the moment, but I encourage my peers to stay positive, keep giving your time to the community and make wellness your number one priority.”