Vive la difference!
Finance people (and this is a sweeping generalisation) tend to be disciplined, structured, organised and concerned with rules & procedure. CEOs (and it’s even harder to generalise here) are normally commercial people with an action focus, often extroverted, impulsive and uninterested in routine or procedure. Quite often, they wouldn’t have got into their positions if they weren’t able to push against the boundaries a little.
How then, do you make this relationship of opposites succeed? Like any relationship, it needs to be worked on. Every situation is different, but there are some ideas you can follow to give yourself the best possible chance
(I refer to the CEO as ‘he’ in this guide for brevity, but am well aware that CEOs can also be female!)
Speak the language
Put yourself in the position of your CEO & think how your communication will sound to him. Your CEO is concerned with markets, sales, profits & cash flow. His financial understanding is likely to be quite strong, but he’ll have no interest in the detail of your work. If you talk to him about Annual Returns or IFRSs, he will soon lose interest in what you are saying.
So, whenever you’re talking to your CEO, talk in business language and stop yourself whenever you lapse into financial jargon. A few examples will help illustrate the point.
What you mean
We have accelerated our depreciation rate from 20% to 25%
What you say
We have decided to write computers off over 4 years rather than 5.
What you mean
We are adopting IFRS 75 which requires additional disclosures, but has no impact on earnings.
What you say
There’s a change in the accounting rules, but it only concerns what appears in the notes and doesn’t affect profit.
What you mean
We should apply full absorption costing.
What you say
When looking at product margins, we should take overheads into account.
At the same time, you should be checking your CEO’s understanding and be careful not to be seen to talk down to him if he does understand financial concepts.
You need to get his views on what the business requires from your department. The closer you can work with him the better.
Convince him he needs you
You need to demonstrate to your CEO that you are an essential part of his team.
Take workload from him. Look for things that he does that you could do for him. Examples might be shareholder relations, meetings with the bank, writing monthly reports.
Delight him. Under promise and over deliver. If you think you can deliver the monthly results in 8 days, offer to do them in 12, and then actually deliver in 10.
Find ways to demonstrate your competence so that he can be satisfied he doesn’t need to intervene in your area. Ensure tax returns are made on time, update staff appraisals, improve debt collection and ensure you publicise what you have achieved. You need to be known as someone who can get things done.
Work closely with him in developing business plans and forecasts.
Deliver insights using your financial expertise. You may get the chance to do this during your normal interactions. If not, find a problem within the business; analyse it in an original way and propose a solution.
A common problem in many businesses it that they don’t fully understand their cost structure and therefore the margins they are making on different product lines. This could be fertile ground for you.
The actions described so far will enhance the respect in which you are held by your CEO. Beyond this, you need to show integrity and strength.
As a professional person, ethics and integrity are important to you. You may be faced with an ethical issue which allows you to demonstrate this, but if not, you should take any opportunity to display your strong ethical code. Eg:
- ‘We could just add fifty thousand to inventory value, but professionally I couldn’t do that.’
- ‘Obviously, we can’t tell lies to our customers’.
- ‘That won’t happen as long as I am CFO of this business.’
This article talks about strengthening your relationship with the CEO but, paradoxically, one step towards doing this is opposing him on something. Find an issue on which you disagree. It should be important, but not a resigning matter. Put your case forcefully and cogently, but politely. Stick to your views in the face of opposition. You may end up being overruled, but your CEO will respect you more if he sees you are strong enough to fight your corner.
Timing is important for this. If you argue at your first meeting, the relationship may never recover. You need to have built some credibility by other means first.
Set and meet expectations
You need to be clear about what the CEO is expecting from you. Ask him about this at an early meeting. If he doesn’t have a clear or complete view, you should give him a statement of what you are planning to deliver. Eg
Ensure all tax, reporting and regulatory requirements are completely met.
Provide management accounts and board reports within 10 working days of each month end.
Within 3 months of appointment perform a complete review of business processes and make recommendations for improvements.
Improve management of the finance team by performing regular appraisals and monitoring customer satisfaction.
Provide financial and commercial support to the board as required.
Take responsibility for relationships with shareholders and banks.
Get this statement agreed in writing. As you deliver against it, ensure that your CEO is aware of what you have achieved.
The relationship between CEO & CFO can make or break both careers and businesses. There is no accounting for the personal chemistry of each relationship. But by behaving in a professional, business-like and respectful way you can give yourself the best chance of success.