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Got a New CFO Job? Five Starting Tips

Making the right moves in the first 90 days improves the chances for long-term success.
Marielle SegarraJanuary 3, 2012

The cliché about first impressions is true: there is never a second chance. And with CFO tenures averaging just over five years, there is little time for finance chiefs to waste when starting a new job. Here are some tips for getting off to a good start.

1. Find an Ally
It is crucial to quickly get to know the finance team. But since no one can be everywhere at once, it’s good to have an observant adviser within the company, says Blythe McGarvie, former BIC Group CFO and now CEO of Leadership for International Finance, a corporate finance and leadership consultancy.

McGarvie suggests finding someone in the company to “be your counselor, letting you know if the troops need more attention or if they’re confused.” An ally does not have to be a peer or a direct report; hers was a junior colleague who was attuned to the workforce and unafraid to share his observations. Over time, his suggestions became indispensable, as McGarvie realized that the people who needed help rarely came into her office asking for it.

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2. Get Things under Control
A CFO who wants to position himself as a strategic partner to the CEO should avoid getting bogged down in the controller function, says Bill Maw, CFO of Liquidnet, a vendor of electronic securities-trading systems. “My number-one risk is the controllership, but I want to worry about it the least,” he says.

A new CFO should establish a strong controllership function early on, whether that means adding positions, hiring people, or reorganizing. “You want to have a team and processes in place that make you extremely confident,” Maw says. “That’s not going to happen in 90 days, but you have to have the commitment in place to support you going forward.”

3. Don’t Skimp on the Finance Department
CFOs want to control costs, and what better way to do that than tightening the purse strings of the finance department, right? Wrong, Maw says. “CFOs often think they’ve got to set an example from a cost perspective, and they kind of cheapen themselves,” he says. Cutting the budget for finance solely to be a model for the company is a mistake, he says, because it can restrict the quality of finance talent. And more than anything, a new CFO needs capable, engaged employees.

4. Be a Collaborator
When it comes to strategy, it’s easiest to forge ahead if executives across the company are on board, says Suzanne Bates, president of Bates Communications and a business-communication coach. Particularly for a new CFO, it’s important to vet plans with the right people, whether launching an IT transformation or introducing a new initiative, she says. “Keep them updated on where things stand so that they’re hearing how the project is advancing. That way you’re constantly winning buy-in for the next move.”

A new finance chief should also look for informal support and feedback on how to make projects more efficient and less disruptive to the business, Bates adds. “Lots of the things the CFO does have a big impact on the other business functions,” she says. “It’s critical for the CFO to gather input and make sure that he is doing what he can to make it as easy as possible.”

5. Take Note
A new CFO should spend lots of time listening, McGarvie says, noting that many finance chiefs spend too much time talking and not enough time taking notes on what they hear. “When you’re new, you find so much information and get so many ideas, but it’s not wise to act on those ideas immediately,” she says. Rather, the first 90 days are an opportunity to determine which strategies, people, and processes are healthy and which need improvement. “You can tell by talking to people whether they believe in the current strategy. Those sorts of clues really help you long term when it comes time to review the strategy,” McGarvie says.

The listening process will also help a new finance head understand the political factors within a company, says Howard Seidel, an executive coach at Essex Partners. “As much as we want to believe organizations are very rational entities, they’re not,” he says. “Even if you try to make a change in an organization and it makes sense on paper, there may be things in the way.” Understanding such potential obstacles will smooth the way when it is time to start making big decisions, perhaps as soon as Day 91.

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