- Author: Jon Brett | Non-Executive Director & Chair of the Audit & Risk Committee | Corporate Travel Management (CTM)
- Posted: August 22, 2023
What do Boards look for when hiring a new CFO?
To me, a CFO is one of the most important positions in any organisation and ranks only second to the CEO, so getting the right CFO for the job is crucial.
I started my working life as a partner in an auditing firm. After this, my first corporate role was the CFO of two public companies which had common shareholders. These companies owned 14 major subsidiaries between them, being industrial factories, wholesale businesses and automotive distribution. I used to arrive at work between 7 and 7.30am, 2 to 3 days a week. On those days I visited a different factory or subsidiary and still managed to get back to my office around 9am for my day job, unless I was travelling interstate for those visits. I developed a wonderful understanding of each of the businesses, the respect of the various CEOs and an ability to help them with their issues. I was also technically competent and younger and better looking.
But each organisation is different, at different stages in their journey and skills that are required on day one, maybe different to the skills needed as the organisation grows.
Qualified accountants are usually wonderfully versatile individuals and provided they can grow as the organisation grows, they can soon develop the skills needed below.
A CFO should not only be able to “keep score” but needs to have commercial acumen and be able to help with strategic decisions. Virtually every decision in any organisation goes into the financial statements in one way or another.
So, what are the key attributes one looks for?
The difficulty with technical competence is that it is only “a ticket to play”. This means that without a technically solid financial and accounting background, one cannot even be considered for such a role. This requires a formal qualification at the very least and perhaps, even a number of qualifications.
At Investec, I was in Private Equity. We owned around 30 or so pubs in New Zealand. I employed a CFO, through a recruitment firm, who had terrific credentials and gave one of the most polished interviews I have ever seen. In his second month I queried a reconciliation which didn’t make sense. He gave me an argument that he knew what he was doing and I had it wrong. I excused myself to go to the ‘bathroom’ and went to call the recruitment company to ask if they had checked his qualifications. They had forgotten and called me back to say he only had a diploma in accounting, wasn’t a CA and had lied on his resume. It cost us 2 month’s salary and wasted valuable time we could not really afford.
Technical competence doesn’t mean one has to know everything. There are many ways to get technical help, including the auditors.
I want someone who isn’t afraid to say “he/she doesn’t know and will get back to me with answers” and does get back to me.
An understanding of the business and the numbers
In a small business this is relatively easy, but in large complex business this gets harder. A CFO who doesn’t understand how the business operates will have very little ability to understand the numbers. Numbers tell a story. Why are sales so low or why is stock so high etc? What is the impact of too much cash on hand or too little cash. A good CFO should be able to divorce him/ herself from having helped prepare numbers and then critically looking at them to see if they appear correct. It is amazing how many CFOs don’t do that. When I was a CFO in my early days, we owned the Holden franchise. We employed a lot of people and many had company cars. I introduced a policy that any company car anywhere in the organisation, had to be a Holden. This was not popular with employees but helped our own businesses prosper.
Not being afraid to challenge the CEO or others in the organisations. History is littered with CFOs who ‘blessed’ numbers that were “incorrect” or “manipulated” to achieve certain results. And when things go wrong, the CFO in most cases is the one to take the blame.
An ability to communicate and present the numbers in an articulate manner.
A CFO needs to present to boards, analysts, help fund raise, IPOs and the list goes on. This is a crucial skill. I am very well known for asking the tough questions, so be prepared.
Ability to do multiple tasks
A CFO role is not just the accounting. It can involve looking after IT, corporate governance, risks, cyber security, privacy, mergers and acquisitions, investor relations, and the list goes on. Everything is on the table. As the business grows, one can employ specialists for each role, but they may all need to report to the CFO.
Getting on with other people
At Investec Bank, prospective employees who got through the various rounds could perhaps have up to 6 interviews. The first interview was for technical competence and the second covered a lot of the above. But the next 3 or 4 were to see if the interviewee could get on with the rest of us. We spend lot of our time at work, and working with difficult people or people one doesn’t like, makes one’s life hard.
I don’t care how good you are, or technically competent you may be, I want to like you. I hope you like me too. I want to work with people that are approachable.
A recent expression that I heard was “does it make the boat go faster”? I want a CFO who can contribute to strategy sessions, add ideas, stream line their own department, help others stream line their departments and make themselves an invaluable member of the team. The new CEO of Qantas is Vanessa Hudson. Whilst I don’t know her personally, she was the CFO of Qantas. I assure you if she didn’t have all the above skills, she would not have got the job.
Look after the Audit & Risk Committee
As a current and previous chair of numerous audit committees, I want a CFO who can do this and make my job easy. That is not to say I don’t expect to do a lot of work. I do, but this Committee is the CFO’s responsibility.
If the CFO wants to earn the ‘big bucks’, he/she needs to be able to step into the CEO role. That is not to say they want it or would even get the job, but they do need to be a viable alternative at least in the short term.
Jon Brett | Non-Executive Director & Chair of the Audit & Risk Committee | Corporate Travel Management (CTM)
Jon is the author of the very successful podcast series “The Taking of Vocus” which chronicles the extraordinary rise of Vocus, what went wrong with the M2 merger and concludes with the privatisation of Vocus.
The podcast can be found via Jon’s LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/jon-brett-95734732/