Job Hunting

9 Things to Ask Your Future Boss, the CEO

Since knowledge is power, know all you can about your prospective superior's habits, history, likes, and dislikes.
Marshall KrantzSeptember 4, 2008

How to find that great next CFO job? Here is one tactic that you might overlook but should not: Interview your future boss, the CEO, as if he or she were the job applicant, not you.

Because when it comes to your career, knowing as much as possible up front about the company and person you might work for is probably more important than dazzling them with your résumé, presentation skills, and personal charm. Nobody, most of all you, wants that supposed dream job to turn into a nightmare, and one that ends with a rude awakening — another job search, and a lot sooner than you’d thought.

Besides, CFOs can rightly feel emboldened to question the CEO, who probably needs you as much as or more than you need the job, according to Eric Rehmann, co-managing director of the financial officers practice for recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International. (Rigorous due diligence, albeit on your own behalf, should impress any savvy CEO, anyway.)

“There aren’t enough good CFO candidates to go around,” says Rehmann. “The best ones have multiple choices.”

While a few straight-forward questions are obligatory and possibly useful, you’ll probably discover the most revealing information about your prospective CEO and organization through indirect questions — that is, those that appear to be about one topic but really are meant to elicit information about another.

And rather than ask questions that invite abstract, non-specific answers, get down to cases. Whenever you can, ask for examples of how the CEO and organization dealt with real-life situations.

“When they tell stories, they tell you a lot,” says executive coach C.J. Liu, principal of My Whole Life, and a former CFO herself.

To fully understand the meaning of those stories, and other answers, a CFO job candidate needs “two antennae: one to process the facts and the other to process feelings and impressions. Both are critical to get a complete picture,” says Jonathan Schiff, a Fairleigh Dickinson University accounting professor and founder of the Finance Development and Training Institute, an alliance of 15 global companies dedicated to deepening the bench strength of their finance organizations.

In other words, listen carefully for the subtext, or unspoken message, in the CEO’s responses.

And last but not least, a CEO’s answers probably won’t do you much good, Schiff points out, unless you first ask yourself a few tough questions. “The first step,” he says, “is to know yourself; then find the right match. Sometimes that understanding of one’s self is lacking.”

To help find the best fit for that next job, here are nine questions to ask the CEO:

1. What were the strengths and weaknesses, or what did you like and not like, about the former CFO, both in your working and personal relationships, and what are you hoping to change with a new hire?

Some CEOs can’t adequately articulate what attributes they’re looking for in a new CFO or what kind of relationship they want with a new finance chief, according to Rehmann. This question probes that issue for details. “You’re on more neutral ground talking about a third party, but you’re still getting granular detail about the CEO’s day-to-day relationship with the CFO,” he says.

2. What critical business decision, or two, did you make over the past few years, and what role did finance and the CFO play?

The answer to this question will pointedly tell you whether the CEO considers the CFO a strategic partner or the head numbers-cruncher.

3. Which financial statements do you focus on and how often do you read financial reports?

The CEO’s answer can reveal how much or little a driver of business decisions finance is and thus the CEO’s view of finance’s role in the organization. A CEO who reviews monthly reports and focuses on cash flow and profit margins is more likely to consider the CFO a strategic partner, because in such an organization, Liu says, “The CFO needs to deliver on shareholder value.” A CEO who skims quarterly reports with an eye to potential illegalities probably depends on finance and the CFO mainly for compliance.

4. Tell me about a conflict within the organization and how you handled it.

The answer to this question can tell you a lot about a CEO’s leadership style, whether the CEO’s approach to conflict is competitive, collaborative, or avoidance, according to Liu. Whether the answer satisfies the CFO depends on the CFO’s comfort level with any particular style. You may prefer a boss who makes decisions without too much discussion and moves on, or one who seeks buy-in from key participants, including the CFO. Collaboration can, of course, slip into avoidance, with no decision, or a poor one, ultimately being made.

5. Who are the key outside advisors influencing major decisions? And what’s the role of any outside accounting firms — what functions do they perform?

Often CEOs rely on outside advisors such as a former company CEO, a management consultant, or maybe even a spouse. You’ll want to know who else has the boss’s ear, and the quality of that advice, before accepting the job. As for outside accounting firms, does the CEO employ an outside firm for auditing and other traditional accounting functions, or does the CEO lean on the agency, like a crutch, to weigh in on business decisions? If it’s the latter, that’s probably a bad sign for the incoming CFO.

6. What are the company’s top business goals, what’s the strategy to achieve them, and how are you adjusting your strategy in light of current market conditions? And related to that: Who are your major competitors, why, and what is your organization’s competitive advantage?

These questions are designed to test the CEO’s business acumen. How well does the CEO understand his or her own business and business environment, and how well can the company compete? You should know the basic answers to these questions going into the interview; you don’t want the CEO to think you didn’t do your homework. So it’s best to preface the question with a statement indicating that you know the basics but would like a more in-depth discussion.

7. How many new SKUs (stock-keeping units) have you launched in the past year or two, and what new stuff in the pipeline?

This question gets to the pace of change and innovation in a company and in fact whether the company genuinely embraces change, says Schiff. (SKUs are common in consumer-product companies, but the concept can be applied to other companies by asking: How many new clients/customers have been acquired? How much key-client attrition have you experienced? Is the quality of client/customer improving?)

8. What are board and investor meetings like? Smooth sailing, or rough? And what pressures do you face from major shareholders?

The answer, Liu says, probes a major issue that CFOs face: the pressure to use accounting gimmicks in financial reports to make a company’s earnings and overall financial picture look better than they really are. “The more intense the climate, the more pressure there is to cook the books,” she says.

9. May I speak with the former CFO?

How else will you really find out where the bodies are buried?