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Red flags in the finance org: The one simple question every new CFO should ask

So you just walked through the doors as the new CFO. You’ve already met the key players, you understand your role, and you have a pretty good understanding of the company. Only when you become part of the company can you get a real picture of what goes on in the finance organization.

While you have many responsibilities in front of you — which can include IT, facilities and possibly HR — your primary focus should be on the finance team and getting to know its inner workings. This is the team that is vital to the greater organization, and you need to understand its ins and outs.

Here’s how to get a grip on your new finance organization without wasting another minute. Ask this question: How long does the finance organization take to close the books? The answer reveals a lot.

Seems like a simple question, right? But there will be no simple answer, despite what the first person you come across tries to tell you. Most likely, after some digging, you will discover some issues related to the close process. A slow-to-close team will reflect poorly on your leadership if you don’t find a way to speed things up, but it’s also a key way for you to see where the skills deficiencies lie within your new team. They could be with just one person or a few, or there could be something that needs to be fixed — or significantly updated — within the systems and processes the organization has been using. The real answer to the question — based not only on what people tell you but what you can see for yourself — will go a long way toward letting you know exactly how strong a team you have, their ability to get things done and their level of commitment toward getting things done right.

Ask for details
Let’s say you have a five-day close, but your team is working 18-hour work days to get it done. That’s a  clear warning sign something is amiss. Or you have a 20-day close, and you wonder what the heck everyone is doing all day. Under either scenario, you may discover inefficiencies related to process flow, duplication of effort or lack of skills. Just one person who doesn’t have the requisite training to execute a task can make the entire team suffer from this inefficiency, either because of effects of dependency or errors that need to be fixed.

Your discovery of deficiencies should also have you looking down the path of technology. Are the current systems effective for the task, do they help the team or hinder the team in getting the job done? Your team may be suffering with a system that is older than they are. Or your team may have the latest and greatest but still don’t know how to use it effectively one year after the go-live date.

Use your early days in the new job to interview the team members individually, to get to know them and the details behind how the books get closed. As you listen to others walking you through the process, you will likely hear inconsistencies and questions about who is responsible for what. Ask about when things have gone right and when they haven’t, and how issues get resolved. Who is monitoring these issues for resolution? Are the issues being resolved based on how critical they are to the organization? Someone needs to be accountable, and if it’s not you, then who should it be?

Beyond helming the finances, your role as CFO includes the staff’s morale and motivation. It’s not always top of mind, but when it’s done well, you will see the effects. If you can get the month-end close process down to a well-oiled, repeatable process, then you have created an environment where the day to day becomes smooth sailing and the adventure of growing the business can then be enjoyed by all finance employees as they become true business partners within the company.

Salena Oppus has been a member of the RoseRyan dream team for over 15 years. Her specialties are system planning and implementation, cost accounting and forecasting. 

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