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Critical Skills and Characteristics of an Exceptional CFO

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

Finding the right chief financial officer (CFO) for the for your company is vital for its long-term success. An expert CFO is a nimble and hands-on strategic thinker, who holds a major role in the success or failure of the organization.

Here are some common characteristics to consider in the selection and evaluation process of finding the ideal CFO.

A great CFO can build and lead a strong accounting team. He or she hires the right people for the role and for the team and company culture. As opposed to an unskilled CFO who is challenged on this front — he or she mis-hires and winds up doing all of the work themselves, then complains about it to everyone who will listen.

A great CFO organizes for success. He or she designs the accounting and finance organization in a way that optimally supports the business now and that can be flexible to meet changing short-to-medium term needs. An inferior CFO hires bodies to “get the job done” and doesn’t have time to think about what comes next.

A great CFO uses their innate understanding of each team member’s aspirations and limitations to get the best out of them. An inferior CFO can’t tell the difference between good talent and bad talent. He or she is afraid to upgrade the team because of the additional work they’ll need to do during the transition period.

A great CFO sets clear expectations with the team and follows up. He or she sets goals for themselves and their team focused on continual process improvement. He or she asks lots of open-ended questions and learns from the answers. An inferior CFO does things the way the last CFO did them without ever asking why. Bad CFOs have no need to ask questions as they already know all of the answers.

At a smaller company, a great CFO enjoys being hands-on and is happy with that as an ongoing part of their job, comfortably working both as a preparer and a reviewer. An inferior CFO in this size company resents having to do the detail work themselves and doesn’t bother to review the work of subordinates.

A great CFO takes responsibility. He or she is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done and will work shoulder to shoulder with the team during those long close or pre-audit nights. The inferior CFO punches out after their 8 hours regardless of what is going on in the office, leaving the team behind to fend for themselves.

A great CFO is quick to spread the credit and slow to spread the blame. He or she takes pride in the team’s successes and owns their failures. The same mistake doesn’t happen again because it becomes a teaching moment and a lesson is learned. A bad CFO takes credit for others’ successes and blames others when things go wrong. There is no teaching and the same mistakes happen over and over again.

A great CFO is super service-oriented and ensures that the finance team delivers outstanding service to its internal business customers (the rest of the enterprise). An inferior CFO doesn’t believe that finance has any customers and ignores the needs of the other departments.

A great CFO communicates well, both within finance and to the broader organization, knowing that he or she is part of a collective team that only succeeds together. A bad CFO works in a silo and doesn’t encourage collaboration.

A great CFO understands processes, systems, and their underlying data and will work closely with engineering and IT partners to get the best out of their technology tools. A poor CFO doesn’t implement systems projects because he or she can’t find the time.

A great CFO creates accurate financial statements on a predictable schedule and has a plan to improve upon their timeliness and comprehensiveness. He or she understands that getting to a faster monthly close means that the team will have more time each month for process improvement, making the next monthly close even better. In a larger private company, a great CFO has a plan to accelerate the monthly close process to a public company timeframe while also maintaining the sanity of the team. The bad CFO uses the entire month (or more) to close the books, leaving no time for process improvement and leaving the team perpetually in a state of exhaustion and stress.

A great CFO inherently understands and is fluent in the majority of the operational and technical accounting concepts relevant to the business. The inferior CFO assumes that the auditors will figure out all of the technical accounting issues in the audit so he or she minimizes their effort expended on investigating them.

A great CFO builds a strong and constructive working relationship with the audit partner and is unafraid to engage in honest and open dialog around critical internal issues. Great CFOs communicate often and share the common goal of “getting things right” and avoiding surprises. The bad CFO dreads every conversation with the audit partner out of fear that his or her incompetence will be exposed.

A great CFO is ethically and morally grounded and is unafraid to challenge and engage with others at all levels of the organization in discussions about ethical issues. A bad CFO lives in fear for their job and thus will hide from challenging issues.

A great CFO projects gravitas and can partner well with executives and others across the organization. An inferior CFO is uncomfortable when interacting with others and it shows.

A great CFO seeks out mentorship and guidance and is focused on self-improvement. An inferior CFO just “does their job” as he or she doesn’t have the bandwidth to do any more.

If you are a business owner or CEO within the San Francisco Bay Area or Silicon Valley, in need of an experienced part-time CFO to help your company improve operational processes, cash flow, as well as profit margins, our highly skilled outsourced CFO services provide direct access to high-quality expertise in a cost-effective manner.

CFO Growth Advisors (CGA) specializes in unique and highly effective growth strategies that are tailored to help companies in the San Francisco Bay Area grow more quickly and efficiently while improving sales & profit growth. Contact us to learn more.

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