Once, while discussing his post-Velvet Revolution rise to power in the Czech Republic, former Czech president Vaclav Havel described “a sensation of the absurd, what Sisyphus might have felt if one day his boulder stopped, rested on the hilltop, and failed to roll back down.”
A CFO who’s finally landed a job after a lengthy job search can relate. In the current job market , where interviews are increasingly more grueling, background checks ever more thorough, and hiring criteria more exacting, a job search can sometimes resemble a bus tour through Hades.
Once employed, however, CFOs face a new dilemma: how do you start the job off right?
The answer, according to Laurence Stybel, CEO of career-management firm Stybel Peabody & Associates Inc., can be summed up in two words that CFOs know well: risk management. “It’s the tenor of the time,” he notes, referring to the weak economy, when candidates invest heavily in the job search and in some cases make sacrifices (pay cuts, relocation) to get a job.
And from the employer’s perspective, recruiting and hiring a top executive is expensive. According to one estimate by Hay Associates, the hiring process costs a company about 70 percent of the new hire’s base salary.
“In the first 100 days, mistakes count more,” says Stybel. “The same mistake, even six months later, won’t weigh as much” as during those first crucial months.
To chart the right course from the get-go, many companies are hiring coaches for top executives in their first 90 to 100 days on the job, according to a report in the Boston Globe. Executive-search firms are also getting in on the act, adding transition services to their list of offerings.
Aside from enlisting professional help, new CFOs can also employ some career risk-management strategies of their own.
Start by arming yourself with knowledge. “Get up the learning curve as much as possible, before you get on the job, if you can,” advises Michaels Watkins, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the upcoming book The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for Leaders at All Levels.
Stybel recommends meeting with the boss and your team to establish expectations and boundaries formally within the first five days of the new job. Use this meeting to get specific details. What things can I unilaterally change without consulting my boss? What things should I consult my boss on before making changes? When should I defer the final decision to my boss?
Get to know what needs to change, what must stay in place, and what to avoid at all costs. Again, the goal is to avoid mistakes during the first few months.
For instance, if your new employer recently deployed new financial management software, it may not be a good idea to trash the application in a meeting, or rave about a rival program. “[Co-workers] may say, ‘I don’t care how good the other software is. I just spent money on this; I’m not switching,’” explains Stybel. “If you know this ahead of time, fine.”
Indeed, ignorance of such boundaries may result in a misstep that could cost a new CFO time and credibility.
During the first two weeks, spend as little time in your office as possible. “The office has a computer with a spreadsheet on it,” Stybel points out. “I think for CFOs, that’s a sort of emotional teddy bear. It makes you feel like you’re doing something.”
Instead, Stybel recommends that new finance chiefs talk to colleagues and team members and ask questions. And make sure you go to them; don’t summon them to your office.
Stybel also says it’s crucial to build relationships and coalitions early. Get to know the line executives and find out how to empower them. Think also about coalitions with those outside the company, such as journalists and investors.
Leave the biggest challenges for several months into the job. Instead, take on problems where you know you can succeed. “Think about how to get those early wins to build credibility and momentum,” says Watkins.
Finally, enter with an open mind; don’t assume you have The Answer. “To walk in to a group of people who think they’re successful and say, ‘This is all wrong,’” says Watkins, “or to tell them their competitor does it better, is a one-way ticket to oblivion.”