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How to hire a CFO that fits

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I count myself incredibly lucky to have hit the jackpot when we hired our CFO Pete Rowse in the summer of 2014. Having had a year to reflect on it, what are the lessons that we could pass on to others who are about to fill the finance man’s shoes?

To start with, it’s important to be clear on the difference between a finance director (FD) and a CFO. 

For me, the FD is more internally focussed, concentrating predominantly on Horizon One and making sure we are steering a stable path (and keeping the bank happy). 

The CFO’s world is more externally focussed. Of course, supporting the FD is crucial, but the CFO’s natural habitat is Horizon Two. Where is the growth coming from? How much can we invest and risk? Over what time scales? How should we fund the growth? These are the questions that a good CFO will own and obsess over most of the time.

Once you’ve clarified the difference between the FD and CFO, you will be halfway to knowing why you need a CFO in the first place. This is really, really important. Don’t simply recruit one because you feel you should. Or because you are trying to punch above your weight. If you can’t write down three business critical reasons WHY you need to hire a CFO, then you can be fairly certain that you don’t need one at all.

One reality of life for most CEOs is that we are all inundated with approaches from recruitment ‘consultants’. Email spam filters are constantly stress-tested by firms desperate to get their hooks into your recruitment process. So how do you choose? My advice is to go with an agency who has committed to specialising in that exact domain, rather than a generalist.

So you know the difference between the FD and CFO. You’ve confirmed that you do indeed need a CFO, and you’ve hired a specialist outfit to run the process. Simple? Far from it. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the recruitment firm has a magic machine that will give birth to the perfect CFO for your business. 

The main reason is that only YOU really know what that person looks like. So write it down and be brutally honest about the must-haves. And don’t write down what you think you should write down to look clever in front of the agency. Avoid the temptation to write down stupid things like:

  • Must be ACA qualified (why?!)
  • Must come from a top four accounting firm (really?!)
  • Must be super bright.

I’d suggest that the following are much more important and can go a long way in finding the perfect match:

  • Must fit in with the company culture
  • Must be respectful enough of the company’s past but be capable of challenging future plans robustly
  • In particular, must stand up to the boss and not be bullied by enthusiasm
  • Needs to have a commercial bias and be fundamentally committed to growth.

Of course, trying to analyse these characteristics is largely a black art. Ultimately, it comes down to the judgement of you – the CEO. Sounds unfair? Not really. After all, if a business is being run by a CEO with poor judgement then it’s not just a CFO that needs recruiting.

Stuart Miller is CEO and co-founder of ByBox.

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