The first 90 days in any career are typically considered to be the most crucial, and this is never more true than when taking on a finance leadership post. Whether it is your first CFO role or you’ve done it before, you need to be able to make an instant impact in a new organization so how do you go about it?
In this article, we look at the first 90 days of the new CFO and give you a few tips about the things you need to do. In this post we look at:
Information gathering and network building
It is important as a new CFO to make sure you are building your foundations on accurate information. Let’s be honest, everyone you meet will have their own perceptions about your new company so it is really important that you form your own opinions about the relative strengths and weaknesses that you see. So the first 30 days are really all about understanding and network building.
You need to have the information to build a credible plan and you need a supportive network to allow you to put it into practice.
Meeting your board
The first stop of course is to meet your fellow board members. The aim here is to build relationships but more importantly to understand exactly what they are expecting from you.
What strategic direction are they taking the business in? What resources will you have? What are your constraints? Much of this will be covered in the interview and appointment process but it doesn’t hurt to revisit key points and make sure you have understood them.
Meeting your team
Day one will probably involve a meeting with your team. Remember that they will be concerned about what is going to happen to them and how they will be perceived. So whilst you may be nervous meeting the people who you now lead, they will be just as nervous for other reasons.
A key point here is that they are the people who will help you put your plan into action. You need good lieutenants if you are to drive change, so getting to know people early on is vital. Aim to have a more general initial meeting with everyone and just cover the basics about yourself, where you have come from, how you like to manage etc.
Then later, arrange individual meetings with team members. If the numbers are small then make sure you meet everyone, if you have a massive team then you may need to be a bit more creative.
Meeting your peers
Just as your team will be ultra-important in getting your plans enacted, your peers will have a big say in changes that affect their areas. Make sure you meet them early, form relationships, and find out what they are looking for from their finance department.
Don’t be a shrinking violet though – ensure they tell you the good and bad about your department as they see it. This will give you a great understanding of the perception of your finance team.
Meeting other stakeholders
Depending upon your business you may have other, very important stakeholders with whom you should contact.
In Private Equity or Venture Capital situations, some of the key players may have been involved in the interview process but if not you should contact them and start building those important networks as soon as you can. Other stakeholders could include significant equity holders, funders, government departments, staff associations, and trade unions.
This may all seem like a distraction from the day job but there are two points here. The first is that all of these early conversations allow you to manage people’s perceptions about you and form relationships that will become very useful later. The second is that this IS your day job now!
Testing and planning
If the first thirty days is all about gathering information then the second is all about planning your impact. You need to make sure that your first forays into transformation go perfectly and you can only do that with a good plan.
Forming your initial plan
Planning is at the root of all successful transformation projects and will be an integral part of your acceptance as a CFO. Presenting an unrealistic plan on day two of your tenure will blow your credibility out of the water immediately so this is why you have been taking your time getting under the skin of the organization. Now you’ll have some ideas about how you can make things better and this is the time to start committing things to paper.
Start with the key themes, then begin fleshing them out with individual mini-projects that will all help to make a difference. Categorize your mini-projects into urgent, important, and nice-to-haves. Then you’ll know where you have to turn your attention sooner rather than later.
Testing your hypotheses
So you’ve had some great ideas about projects you’d like to put into place, but wait – you need to test your thought processes.
You need to speak with members of your team that have experience with the things you are wanting to do and to your peers whose departments they affect. Are your hypotheses correct? Have they tried it before? Can they see any issues? The more input you get the better and the less likely you are to build an unrealistic plan.
Assessing your technology gaps
During the first thirty days, you will have formed an understanding of the skills and strengths of your people but now you need to look at the tools they have at their disposal. It is now that you can look at the technology you have in place and ask if it is suitable to deliver on your initial plan.
It may be that you have massively capable, modern systems that simply haven’t been used properly or that you need to have a total refresh but until you start asking questions you won’t know. Once you have an idea of what you want to achieve, what people and technology you have at your disposal, then you can begin to refine your plan.
Refining your plan
The important thing for a new CFO is to build up credibility as soon as they possibly can so a successful project or two in the early days of your tenure is a really good idea.
Look for the fabled ‘low-hanging fruit’ that can be quickly completed, with little expense and little chance of failure. Refine your plan in the light of your new information above and identify projects with a high likelihood of success that can be completed quickly. Look for things that will make life better for other departments because as a newcomer to the organization you need to develop ‘cheerleaders’ who will rally to your cause later on.
If the directors start getting reports from trusted senior managers about the wonderful work the new CFO has been doing then it will help when you need them to commit to larger projects later on.
So you’ve got your network in place, you have a refined and realistic plan and maybe you have completed a couple of small projects along the way. Now is the time to put your main transformation plan into action. This is the time when you can really make your name as a CFO who gets things done.
Bringing people along
The whole point of building relationships is to have people at your side when you need them. Now is the time to reveal your plan to them in all its glory.
Don’t go for a big bang reveal. Instead, meet with each of your stakeholders, peers, key team members, and board and explain your vision. Show them how it will improve their working lives and how important it is to the organization. Explain the advantages but be honest, explain also where there will be compromises needed. Ask for their help and show them where they fit into the delivery and implementation plan.
Bringing people along in this way will show that you are a collaborative finance leader that values teamwork in pursuit of the greater good. You’ll find that extensive, personalized communication will reduce change resistance and increase the number of cheerleaders you have at your disposal.
Revisiting your plan
There’s an old saying that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” and the same is true for any finance transformation plan. The truth is that things will happen that you don’t expect and curveballs will appear that you need to deal with.
Stay flexible. Make sure you are always willing to consider changes to your initial vision if they will deliver the outcome you want. Understand sometimes that discretion is the better part of valour and if you make compromises in one area it may allow you to make gains in another.
One of the main skills you will need in your career as a successful CFO is the ability to pivot and make the best of a situation that isn’t ideal. So use your plan as a living document that gets updated and refined depending upon the latest circumstances.
After all, we all saw our plans radically altered once COVID appeared!
The new CFO - information, networks and flexibility
For any new CFO, their first 90 days are going to be dominated by three things. They will need information about their team, peers, and stakeholders and a clear understanding of the issues facing the business. Only when the new CFO has comprehensive knowledge about the task at hand can they develop their plan.
A finance leader needs to be connected. So the second thing they need is an extensive, multi-level network. They need to be able to call on the support of their peers, stakeholders, and team to drive through changes that will make a beneficial improvement in the business.
And finally, they need the flexibility to roll with the punches and refine, adapt and remodel their plan for the latest conditions.
You have 90 days to make an impact so make it count!