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5 qualities every public-company CFO needs

I have seen a wide range of public-company CFOs in my work at RoseRyan and I’ve been one myself, having spent 13 years at Nasdaq-listed companies between 1997 and 2009. So when a RoseRyan client considering an IPO recently asked me what qualities are vital for a public-company CFO, I came up with the following list:

Experience. Nothing beats it. Having a CFO who has gone through the demands of public-company life is so important. This type of CFO knows what he’s getting into and will have the confidence to get started from day one. I don’t mind admitting now that when I first became a CFO of a public company, it was a huge step up. I had been the corporate controller of the company, so I knew the underlying accounting well, but nothing I had done previously could help me with the new experiences of strategic direction, public-company investors, and public-company boards and committees. It was the same company but a new world. It took me a year to get comfortable handling the new responsibilities. The bottom line was that I let the company drive me in that first year as opposed to me helping drive it. In my view, I did not add anything close to the value that a more experienced CFO would have done. I am all for training, but for this key role, you always want someone with experience.

The ability to multi-task. Most of my CFO roles have involved managing finance, IT, HR, operations, investor relations, and legal. You need someone who can juggle many balls in the air at the same time. If your CFO can’t easily switch gears between the different business areas and give a fair amount of attention to her many roles, she will sink and be ineffective – and your business will feel the consequence.

The resourcefulness to work constructively with the CEO. Most chief executives are very driven individuals, with a flair for marketing or product development but not finance. It’s up to CFOs to work closely with the CEO and get their viewpoints heard and inserted into the decision-making process. If they can’t do this, they will fail, critical decisions will not take place, and problems will arise. When I was CFO, I liked to think of the CEO as a peer, not as my boss. I preferred to think of the audit committee chair as my boss.

The resilience for handling investor relations. One key role of the CFO is the ability to market the company. They have to be salesmen, notably when they are on a roadshow or an investor call, but they can’t oversell at the same time. Finding the right balance is a fine art. Investors rely on a CFO’s every word and how it’s said, and they expect a lot. So the CFO has to fully understand the company’s products, market opportunity, and direction, and be able to handle a tough audience. More than any other executive, CFOs get grief when the stock price falls, or executives sell stock, or the company doesn’t meet investors’ expectations or preferences. When this happens, CFOs have to be professional and move on. They should not take it personally – it just comes with the territory. If your CFO cannot market or handle the tough calls, you have the wrong CFO.

The desire to manage the finance function. I have seen CEOs bring in CFOs who want to concentrate only on investor relations–related matters and ignore the finances of the company, the finance team, and the internal controls. That is the worst type of CFO. Finance chiefs are ultimately responsible for the financial integrity of the entire organization, and they should never forget it. Thus, they need to continually understand the numbers and actively manage their finance team. So often you see companies that have to restate their financials or that get dinged for internal control weaknesses because the CFO did not consider either to be important until it was too late. Don’t let that be your company.

Stephen Ambler is a director at RoseRyan, where he manages the development of the firm’s “dream team” of consultants. His interim CFO stints at RoseRyan have included a social media company and the management of the financial integration process at a company acquired by Oracle. He previously held the CFO position for 13 years at Nasdaq-listed companies.

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