During a panel session at the CFO Rising West conference in Las Vegas this week, three seasoned CFOs discussed the ever-changing, ever-expanding role played by today’s finance chiefs. Equipped with just two hands and only so many hours in a day, how do they cope?
In a single phrase: they hire the right team. The panel, made up of CFOs Kevin Knapp of CareerBuilder, Ronald Kisling of Nanometrics, and Bill Zerella of Vocera Communications, discussed how to successfully manage the daily tasks of a typical CFO. Having the basic accounting skills is still important, of course. Past experience in operational roles certainly helps.
But the real key to success is being a good casting director. “Typically, CFOs of larger companies manage the finance teams and IT, and those are fairly complex organizations. So you need to hire the right leadership teams to manage them,” said Kisling, who has been with Nanometrics, a maker of semiconductor systems, since March 2011.
“You have to have a team capable of making sure the controls and the complexity of accounting are there,” he said. But the finance chiefs also said that hiring people who can work independently without micromanagement and yet aspire toward team success is critical.
In making strategic hires, Knapp, who has led the finance team at CareerBuilder since March 2003, when he joined the huge employee website after six years at Cars.com, looks for people whose leadership qualities are so strong that they come with their own set of followers.
“When I think about my most successful [hires,] there were people that wanted to stay with that guy because he was such a good leader, and they eventually migrated over to us,” he said. “So now I’ve committed myself, when I go through the hiring process, to ask more questions about the teams they build, and is this somebody who’s got a strong network that can fill out the whole team.”
Anyone hired by a CFO should, without a doubt, have established basic skills of finance and accounting, panelists acknowledged. But just as important in the overall success of the finance team are the “softer skills,” they said.
“At the end of the day, you’re managing people,” said Zerella. “Ultimately it’s how do you manage a group of people to deliver on performance. Over the years, I’ve tended to focus a little more on that side to understand that someone can deliver.”
A management team that can work independently frees the CFO to handle some of the bigger business challenges — like, say, going public. Zerella knows first-hand the importance of assembling the right team, he told attendees. After taking over finance at Vocera, which provides mobile communication services for hospitals, just over a year ago, he was tasked with taking the company public as soon as humanly possible.
But he quickly discovered the finance team was not equipped to take on such a task. “The finance team was just not where it needed to be to support a public company, and it ended up being a matter of bringing in senior folks underneath me who I knew had very strong qualifications. And six months later, we did go public,” Zerella said.