Job Hunting

Wanted: Strategic CFOs. Again.

The skills companies value in finance leaders continue to shift with the times, with strategic acumen now edging past capital-markets experience, h...
David McCann and Lori CalabroSeptember 28, 2009

For a position as important as CFO, the requirements of the job seem to change with astounding frequency, driven by the macro trends of the moment.

In the first years after Sarbanes-Oxley took effect, many companies wanted finance chiefs with technical accounting skills and backgrounds as controllers. When the credit crisis set in, CFOs with capital-raising skills were suddenly in demand. Now, with hope emerging that an economic recovery is on the way, having the strategic bent to identify and exploit opportunities is coming to the fore. The revolving job description is one of the reasons CFO turnover is so high, although the churn rate has moderated somewhat during the economic downturn.

Those topics, as well as what finance executives should do to enhance their job-search prospects, were up for discussion by a panel of executive recruiters at last week’s CFO Rising West conference in Las Vegas. Panelists E. Peter McLean, Michele Heid, and Christopher Langhoff lead the financial officers practices at Korn/Ferry International, Heidrick & Struggles, and Russell Reynolds, respectively. An edited version of their question-and-answer session with Lori Calabro, editorial director of CFO Conferences, follows.

Has the supply and demand for finance professionals changed in the past year as a result of the recession?

: Our business is down 40% in the past year. It’s created a flood of available talent. And for clients who are recruiting, the searches are taking longer because they feel there’s an opportunity to look at a wider range of people; they’re not settling for the candidates presented on the first slate.

Langhoff: Turnover is obviously down and our business is off, but a lot of it is at the lower levels — controller, treasurer, investor relations, and financial planning and analysis. On the CFO front, I think turnover is still high. If any of your departments had turnover of 12% or 15%, you’d probably say that’s too high.

So CFOs are staying in their positions longer?

Heid: They are more inclined to stay with the devil they know than go with the devil they don’t know. In the Fortune 1,000, there was 18% turnover in both 2007 and 2008, and this year it looks like it’s going to be more like 14%. That’s a significant decline. One big factor is that disrupting and moving your family, at a time when the economy is volatile and the housing market is seriously suffering, is a tough pill to swallow right now.

A year ago, capital-raising experience was at a premium because of the liquidity crisis. What skills are in demand now?

: There’s been a quick sunset on the need for capital-markets expertise. We’re back to a focus on strategic and operational CFOs, real business people who have proven they are effective at driving value.

Langhoff: Capital-markets experience is more important than it used to be, perhaps, but what a lot of companies are looking for is the ability to communicate and interact with all the economic stakeholders — the board of directors and investor relations, as well as with Wall Street and the credit-rating agencies. The ability to own those relationships and represent the company well gives CEOs a sense of comfort that they need right now.

Heid: In the private-equity sector, we’ve seen some people with treasury experience who were brought in to do an IPO that is now delayed. The portfolio companies are switching their focus to operations, finance, restructuring, cost-cutting, and profit improvement. Raising funds is not as prevalent, except for companies that are highly levered and need to recapitalize.

We’ve heard in the past that companies want Superman or Superwoman to be CFO. Are they reordering priorities now, or is the laundry list still really long?

Langhoff: In years past, if clients had 10 things on their checklist, they might settle for 8. But now they want all 10, and are willing to take their time and see as many people as they need to in order to get all 10.

Heid: The amount of due diligence by both companies and candidates is pretty extensive in today’s environment. A company cannot take the risk that the CFO they hired is going to show up with a Wells Notice from a former company. And rarely do we have a CFO candidate who does not insist on meeting with the chair of the audit committee and the external auditors.

Langhoff: There’s no substitute for spending time with the CEO, your potential future partner. Go to dinner with him and see him in different environments. It should be the closest relationship you have outside of your immediate family. Letting someone hire you after a 45-minute interview is a real mistake.

Heid: We call it the airport test. If you got stranded in the airport for 12 hours, would you want to be with this person?

What are boards of directors asking for? CFOs who can be CEOs?

Heid: They absolutely want CFOs who have upward potential. They want somebody who has not only the technical capabilities but also leadership ability and who can move up to be COO, president, divisional president, or even CEO. They don’t want to bring someone who doesn’t have upward potential into this critical slot.

Langhoff: Clients are asking for someone who can step up, but the reality is, I’m not aware of any Fortune 500 CEO who was recruited in from the outside as CFO and went directly to the CEO chair. The average tenure at a company for a CFO who becomes CEO is 19 years. So if any recruiter calls you and says they’re looking for a CFO who can be CEO, you ought to push back pretty hard. If you don’t go out and get operational experience, you are probably not going to get the shot.

Are companies doing a good job when it comes to succession planning?

Heid: The ones we encounter usually don’t have much succession planning in place. When a vacancy unexpectedly occurs, shame on them. There should be not one but two or three potential backups, and plans to get them to that level. A lot of companies have other priorities and it falls by the wayside. A case in point is General Motors. How large is their finance organization? They’re doing a search right now for a successor to the CFO.

: Well, of course, that’s a company in crisis. But companies outside the Fortune 500 tend not to have enough people with all the experiences and training needed for the CFO role, so they’re forced to go out into the market.

Even if you have a good internal candidate, selling it to the board becomes an issue. We just did a project where we interviewed a group of 40 longstanding CFOs, in their roles for six years or longer. In every instance, these people claimed to have their successors in-house. But is the board going to be satisfied that an internal candidate will be as good as an external one with CFO experience? That is a challenge, because the board has a major obligation to get the selection right.

Heid: That is even more prevalent in today’s economic times. But I will say that an outsider has to be substantially better in order to overcome the fact that the inside person knows the company, its management team, and its systems. Internal promotions to CFO have increased significantly over the past year. I encourage people to make sure they have punched all the tickets for the CFO slot — some corporate roles, operational finance roles, global experience, some treasury experience. If you’ve been in a silo, it’s much harder for the board to endorse you as a candidate.

: It’s really important to take ownership of your career development. Make certain to pursue opportunities within your company for roles that will broaden you. Larry Zimmerman, the CFO at Xerox after a long career at IBM, where he became controller, says he always took roles that nobody else wanted. When [former IBM CFO] Jerry York asked him to take the role of European CFO in Paris, he didn’t really want to do it, but he did it anyway, and it positioned him to come back and be the controller of IBM.

Recruiters have mentioned that they’re getting many résumés these days and are stepping into the role of coach. Can you describe that?

Heid: We are getting inundated with résumés. I probably receive 200 a week, so realistically I can’t get back to every person and meet them live. But if I were to coach anyone, I’d say get to know recruiters when you’re employed, because rarely do we place someone we haven’t met.

: As you approach recruiters, be specific about what you’re interested in. Over the past year, many people I know personally, like neighbors, have reached out to me to say they didn’t know where to turn and that opportunities seemed so limited. Some of these people are multimillion-dollar executives who have had successful careers, and yet their résumés don’t get much attention because they’re not specific enough.

Langhoff: One mistake people make when sending a résumé to a recruiter is to copy the entire firm. That does not endear you to a recruiter. Send it to the right person. Because I have a consumer background [as a former CFO of Pepsi Bottling], a lot of sales and marketing folks send me e-mails. But I’m never going to cover those people, so it’s a wasted effort. Also, be helpful when recruiters call and ask if you know anyone they should talk to in their search for someone with a certain background to join XYZ Company. If you help us, we’re going to remember that.

: If you don’t know a recruiter, find an intermediary who will provide an introduction for you. It works every time. If I get a call from someone I know and respect who referred somebody to me, I will always return the call.

A good exercise is to tell a recruiter the five things you’re good at, the five things you like to do, and five places where you’d like to live. That helps a recruiter think about you in the appropriate fashion.

Are there any geographical job-search guidelines?

Heid: We often see people who have lost their jobs and say they can’t move. In this economic environment, if that is absolutely the case, take a defined time frame, like three to six months, and really penetrate your area. If you don’t find something, you absolutely need to expand your geography. You do not want to be out of the market for more than a year. You may get a little bit of a grace period right now because the economy has been so weak, but quite honestly, I have clients who say they don’t want to see anybody who’s unemployed. I do push back and explain that there are a lot of people who are unemployed for the right reasons, like their company was bought. But if you have a job and want to make a move, stay employed.

Do you recommend to CFOs that as part of raising their profile they should talk to the press?

: I think that is a very effective way to get some visibility. It highlights what you’ve been able to accomplish.

What are the chances of moving to a larger organization?

Heid: People who have been in smaller companies tend to have worn many hats, so in many cases they are broader in their experience base. You’re not going to go from a $20 million company to a $2 billion company, but you can certainly move up the food chain.

What are the trends in pay packages?

Heid: We’ve seen base salaries continue to escalate. The biggest difference is in variable compensation, both long term and short term. It’s much more tied to performance, as opposed to just the passage of time. Certainly the long-term equity is tied to very explicit metrics, whether they be cash-flow generation, EBITDA, or whatever is important to the company. Another thing we’ve seen is that the perks that once existed are really going out of vogue. A company doesn’t want to have to file an 8-K saying they bought the CFO a country-club membership.

Langhoff: The bump-up you get from moving to a new company has begun to shrink. We have clients who feel that because of the economy, they can lowball somebody. So if someone was making $200,000, the new employer is thinking, well, he’s out of work right now, so I’ll offer $180,000 and I’m not going to budge. This also impacts what I call “wealth on the table” — if you have unvested stock options or restricted stock units, the new company may look to give that a haircut. They may think they don’t have to compensate you dollar for dollar.

: The A-players are always going to be able to demand what they’re worth. You don’t have to give up very much, if anything, if you bring what the company really wants.