Job Hunting

How to Botch an Interview for a CFO Job

Being a good CFO candidate requires a different skill set than being a good CFO does.
John ToueySeptember 16, 2014
How to Botch an Interview for a CFO Job

As we get back into hiring mode after what I hope was a relaxing August for all of us, I thought it might make sense to offer some pointers to my financial-officer friends on where I have seen things go wrong in CFO interviews over the past 20 years. Here are some of the most common problems I have encountered when interviewing CFO candidates.

If you have to tell me you’re not an accountant, then you’re probably an accountant.

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Even though many CFOs have served as business partners to their CEOs for decades, there still are some who spent their formative years — and maybe more than that — in finance departments wearing “green eyeshades.” If you feel the need to tell me that you’re not an “accountant,” then you probably grew up in one of these companies. You’re also telling me that, more likely than not, you are a staff executive, rather than a business executive, who has less experience in developing strategy and more in executing on tasks that have been assigned.

If you are arrogant, you really better be as good as you think you are.

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It’s fair to assume that you have a decent level of credibility given the fact that you are a senior financial executive with a great pedigree. Don’t feel as if you need to bludgeon the person on the other side of the table with the sharpness of your intellect and the weight of your accomplishments. A certain amount of humility and an understanding that you didn’t make it to this level alone go a long way to establishing rapport in an interview. If your ego enters the room before you even make it through the doorway, I hope you are on The Wall Street Journal’s “Best CFO” list because, believe it or not, people want to like the people with whom they work — even at the C-level.

I’ll give you a hint: the answer is a number.

It’s amazing to me how many candidates for CFO jobs can’t seem to quantify their accomplishments. They are great at discussing strategy at a high level but can’t find a way to connect that brilliant thinking to past results. I am not suggesting that they can’t do it, but it is empirically evident that, for some reason, most don’t speak to it. Perhaps this is not an issue while on the job, but it’s a huge problem in an interview setting. A candidate must be able to demonstrate both his strategic capabilities and his ability to drive results in order to be taken seriously. You would think that in a metrics-driven function like finance that CFOs would find this to be second nature, but they don’t.

So that’s what happened on the eighth day; thanks for letting me know.

This might surprise you, but answers like “I don’t know” and “I’m not familiar with that” are greatly underused in interviews. Often, when candidates encounter a question where they don’t quite know the answer, they attempt to fake their way through it. Or, they embellish the role they played in a project and the impact they have had on results. A good interviewer will see through these attempts almost immediately. If you think you might be able to fake your way through an answer but know you have no shot at answering the follow-up question, a good rule of thumb is to respond with a simple “I don’t know.” I can tell you from experience that the interviewer will find your approach refreshing.

In the end, being a good CFO requires a completely different skill set than being a good CFO candidate. The one we practice every day, the other only on rare occasions. As in all things, we improve with practice, so when the headhunter comes calling with your dream job, don’t assume that your accomplishments alone will lead to an offer. Take some time to brush up on your interview skills to give yourself the best chance possible to land that role.

John Touey is a principal at executive search firm Salveson Stetson Group with 20 years of experience providing executive search, human resources and management consulting services to organizations in the healthcare, financial services, utilities, manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries. Follow him @JohnTouey.