business people talking to illustrate questions to ask a CFO

If you’ve been around the world of finance — or even the corporate world, for that matter —, you might have made a few assumptions about what it’s like to be a CFO. Some people think all you need to do to get here is to have a degree in Finance, others think we’re control freaks — well… that one’s not too far off, but I’ll get to that —, and you might even think we can’t spend a full day without meetings.

Well, I’m here to answer some of the questions the team sent me and that you’ve probably always wanted to ask a CFO but maybe you were too afraid to. So, sit down, grab a cup of coffee, and buckle up for the ride.

1) How do you actually become a CFO?

The simplest answer would be to say all you need is to have a finance degree and background, but it really is so much more than that. You also need a few personality traits such as ethical responsibility, given that you are, let’s say, the guardian of the company’s finances, so you need to make sure that money is being well spent and make sure that everything is going the way it should.

But we also need to keep in mind that we face a lot of uncertainty in Finance, so we also need to have a good amount of courage and perseverance to face those moments. As a CFO, you might come across some difficult times and also situations where you’re stretched, and you need to embrace these challenges and think strategically to achieve the best possible outcome.

And if there’s something a CFO needs is to be curious about everything that’s going on around him. Bob Dylan sang that “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, and we know that the way we’re doing things today will probably change in the next 5 to 10 years, so CFO’s really need to stay up to date with the different tools they have available, the way they manage their organisation’s money, etc.

Last, but certainly not least, you need to be able to prioritise. Because lots of things are ongoing at the same time, so you have to make sure that you know what to do first.

You might come across some difficult times and situations where you’re stretched, and you need to embrace these challenges.

2) Given that there's always a lot of things happening, what would you say your typical workday looks like?

Well, the short answer is: there’s no typical day, or even week. There are a few tasks that we know are recurring, such as preparing every board meeting for the quarter or for the end of the year, but apart from those cyclical tasks, there’s always a lot of different things going on.

It also depends on the company you work for and the priorities you establish for each day or week. You need to establish those priorities, and you know that, most of them, involve making sure you have money for the future. So one day I might be working with the team on cash-flow planning to identify any gaps — and that also involves making sure all payment collections from customers are happening as they should —, and on the next day I might be meeting with other executive team members, to understand if we’re on good track with our growth, if we’re going in the right directions or if anything needs to change.

I also have other projects where I need to be more involved with the team. And these are fundamental projects that might not seem like they are important, but actually have a lot of impact and require a lot of work, from structuring to implementing, and you need to stay on top of those in order to progress and meet your deadline.

3) Is it possible to go a full day without meetings?

I think this is a very good question, because I believe that one-on-one exchanges with other colleagues can be more efficient than meetings with a lot of stakeholders.

But it obviously depends on the type of meeting, because sometimes, and we saw that a lot during the pandemic, people would just schedule meetings for something that could have been an email or Slack message. The most effective meetings have an agenda, a topic and are based on decision making. If we’re just going back and forth without reaching a decision, that’s not effective at all. And that makes it hard to find free time without meetings to get things done.

So what I do sometimes is block time for myself, so I can actually focus and get things done. During the pandemic I also used to do this just to find the time to go outside and get some fresh air. And I still try to do this because, otherwise, you just end up completely submerged in meetings and end up not having the time to work on what really needs to be done. And I really think everyone should be doing this and try to, at least, go one day a week without meetings.

4) You mentioned collecting payments from customers. Does a CFO get involved when customers won't pay?

In Rydoo’s case, we have someone in the Finance Team that’s responsible for managing these situations. But they can, of course, escalate, and when a client has been overdue for a while — especially if we’re referring to big clients that can lead to a great impact on our budget —, the Sales and Customer Success teams are involved first. Then, if it escalates even further, it moves to our Chief Revenue Officer and myself.

I always keep an eye out for the whole process and am in constant contact with the team to understand how the situation is being handled. And it might, on rare occasions, reach me, or I might even decide to handle it myself if I already have a relationship with that client, but there’s a whole set up system that usually means I don’t necessarily need to be involved.

5) Do you actually have control over all of the company's money?

Pretty much? (laughs)

No, seriously, when it comes to making payments and such, we’ve established a set of rules for the whole Executive Team about who can approve what type of action. But I would have to say that it is more of a shared responsibility, given that we have to work on budgeting and forecasting within the whole finance team, including other exec team members.

So, for instance, when approving payments, I’m not the one looking at every single invoice that comes along. In the Marketing team, for example, our Chief Marketing Officer approves those invoices, makes sure the money is going into something that’s really necessary for the team and that it follows what we’ve forecasted for that year’s budget. You could say it’s a shared responsibility and, for that, you need to establish a good relationship between your CMO and CFO, as well as with all the other members of the team.

6) With such responsibilities, how do people in finance actually manage work and life balance? Is it very different from what we see on movies and TV shows?

I think that everyone has this idea that people who work in Finance are like you see on TV and movies because we’re very deadline driven. There are moments where you just need to get it done on that day, you can’t just pass that deadline. So, whatever it takes, you need to make sure it’s done by that time, and that sometimes leads to more stress and longer working hours. For that, and to find a way to keep a good work-life balance, I rely a lot on productivity apps, which help me stay focused when I need to, but also to stay organised and not get overwhelmed with everything that’s happening around me.

Other than that, I do believe it’s important to have work-life balance, but that’s important not only for CFO’s and people in Finance, but for everyone else as well. At the end of the day, life is not all about work, it’s important to breathe, to have time for your friends and family, for hobbies and to really just be able to unplug from work and keep your mental health in check. For that, you need to be organised and consistent, but also be able to set your own boundaries when it comes to work.

At the end of the day, life is not all about work, it’s important to breathe, to have time for your friends and family, for hobbies and to really just be able to unplug.

7) There are also a few myths associated with CFO's and people in Finance. So, for instance, are you really control freaks?

Are we control freaks? Well, I think we are, obviously. We control numbers, that’s part of our job, we control compliance, to see if we’re abiding by rules. We’re also controlled by external parties so we need to make sure everything is… well, under control. You’re not really obliged to be a control freak, but I would say most of us are, because it just comes with the job.

As CFO’s we’re given a huge responsibility of managing the company’s money and, not only that, but we also need to make that money grow. It’s a shared responsibility, of course, but when there’s this huge weight on your shoulders and you need to make sure the organisation doesn’t go bankrupt, you end up always having to stay in control of everything around you.

8) What's something that CFO's shouldn't do?

Compromise on his ethical behaviour. That’s something I believe to be unacceptable.

As a CFO, you are responsible for taking care of the company, so you should do everything in your power to not compromise that commitment.

9) Do you feel like, in order to be a good CFO, you would also have to make the best choices in the way you manage your personal finances?

Your personal life is your personal life, and the way you operate in the company is the way you operate in the company. You have to run your personal life, of course, and at the company the amount of money you’re managing is probably not the same as you’re managing in your personal finances. But I do admit there’s a bit of a balance there, because the job comes with certain personality traits that translate into your life outside of work.

Being prudent in your choices is one of them. At times, CFO’s actually need to take risks to invest, but they need to make sure they have the means to support that investment, given that they’re working with other people’s money. And the same happens in most people’s lives. Regardless, in the end, the way you manage your finances is up to you and the choices you make.

10) And on the topic of being bolder, do you use the word "no" a lot?

We use it more often than other people, even though I believe CFO’s shouldn’t really say no, and this brings us back to the fact that CFO’s need to be curious and embrace change.

As a CFO, you should be open to listen to all new ideas, especially the ones that other people are passionate about. Encouraging innovation and listening to what others think might lead to great changes, such as improving the way you manage your expenses.

And even when you do need to say it — and it does happen —, it shouldn’t just be a simple “no”. You should always try and understand the other side and explain why something is not possible at the time, in order to encourage that person — or people — to come back to you at a later time with new ideas.

As a CFO, you are responsible for taking care of the company, so you should do everything in your power to not compromise that commitment.

11) What's the advice you would like to have been given when you first became CFO?

As a CFO you work with numbers, and numbers are very factual, so there’s this belief that CFO’s need to be accurate at all times. Everything needs to be done right, correctly reconciled, squared. It’s all about going from point A to point B, right?

But it doesn’t always work like that, so… Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because mistakes happen.

12) If you were retiring tomorrow, what would you say to the person who would take over from you?

Well, here are the keys! Have fun!