New CFOs: the First 100 Days

Landing a top finance job is only the beginning. Focusing on the big picture is the key to success, according to a new survey.
Lisa YoonSeptember 8, 2004

A new survey by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International carries a message for CFOs new on the job: Put away the spreadsheet and get out of the office. The survey, which collected responses from 183 recruiters worldwide about a new executive’s first 100 days at a company, found that a strategic outlook and interpersonal skills are the most important indicators of success.

Getting off to a great start is key, according to Chuck Eldridge, head of Korn/Ferry’s financial officers practice. When a new executive stumbles, says Eldridge, “it takes three or four months to get back on track.”

The most common mistake of new executives, according to the survey, is “failure to establish strategic priorities,” cited by 23.5 percent of respondents. Other often-cited blunders included committing cultural gaffes or “political suicide” (16.4 percent); waiting too long to implement change (15.8 percent); and not spending enough face time with subordinates (14.2 percent).

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People skills (cited by 44.3 percent of respondents) and cultural compatibility (38.3 percent) were considered the most important items in a new executive’s toolkit. “A well-matched skill set” was cited by only 8.7 percent; even fewer respondents cited functional experience (2.2 percent) or industry experience (1.1 percent).

Big-picture tasks should top the to-do lists of new executives, according to respondents. For instance, 25.1 percent said new executives should first assemble and solidify a team; 24.6 percent advised articulating a statement of vision and goals; 15.8 percent recommended understanding what’s most important to the CEO and board; and 13.7 percent encouraged adapting to the new company culture. Micro-level goals were held in much lower regard: only 4.9 percent thought new executives should first achieve several quick successes, and 3.8 percent advised new executives to turn immediately to fixing obvious, nagging problems.

Finance executives are well advised to avoid a micro-level focus. A successfully placed CFO candidate needs to understand why the search firm was retained in the first place, says Eldridge — “in other words, what’s the company trying to accomplish, or what is the CEO thinking about?”

To that end, “don’t try to execute 25 things” in your first 100 days, adds Eldridge. Many new executives fall into this trap after being overwhelmed by dozens of requests. Instead, sort through everything that lands on your desk and identify the three most important tasks — then do them.

Finally, finance chiefs should focus on moving forward instead of dwelling on their experience. “Appreciate that it’s a new company and a new situation,” says Eldridge. After all, no one wants to hear the constant refrain, “Well, at my last company, we did it this way…”

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