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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover:

Not All CFOs Are the Same

Over the past decade, I’ve conducted close to one hundred searches for financial executives nationally. What is interesting, though not surprising, is that the superstar financial executive comes in all sizes with talents that cover a wide spectrum.

For example, the Chief Financial Officer who will lead an IPO needs to be comfortable interacting with analysts and being part of a “road show” as the company and its management team are introduced to the investment community. Conversely, a Chief Financial Officer who will lead a company’s global expansion should have a bent for process and matrices. And then there is a company that has overspent or that has not fared well in today’s market that needs a financial executive with a finely-tuned scalpel. The list is endless.

So how does this apply to Board of Directors and Chief Executive Officers hiring Chief Financial Officers?

1) Focus on your company, not your competition. Know your company and where it is headed. Many companies immediately look at their competition as a source of candidates. Sometimes this works but even similar sized companies in the same industry have different challenges. Sure, they all want to increase shareholder value but while some companies need a Chief Financial Officer, others need a Chief Financial Officer who will build a sophisticated financial team to support growth in line with the business plan.

2) Determine what type of Chief Financial Officer you need. What should your Chief Financial Officer excel at? E.g., restructuring, capital markets, international finance, compliance, budgeting, etc. Several years ago, a medical device company bemoaned their Chief Financial Officer’s inability to perform. One look at her resume showed that the Chief Financial Officer had moved from investment banking to one pre-IPO company after another. She had never run a mature post IPO company that needed strong organizational and financial planning talents.

3) The type of Chief Financial Officer who fits today may not fit tomorrow. Just as founder Chief Executive Officers may not work for a post public company, the same can be said for Chief Financial Officers. Many times we hear clients lament that “Mary was great for the first five years.” In truth, Mary did not change but as the company became more acquisitive, sophisticated, and diverse, it needed a different type of skill set.

4) Determine pivotal soft skills needed without regard to industry. Are you looking for a change agent? Someone who can bring a dysfunctional financial team together? After some initial skepticism, I’ve become a big believer in the use of benchmarking tests which not only prioritizes soft skills but allows various stakeholders to compare their results.

5) Know your culture. Many people mistakenly characterize their culture as collegial when truth be told, only the dominant sharp elbow types excel. Chief Financial Officers rarely fail because they don’t/can’t do debits and credits. They fail because they are not a cultural fit or their “sweet spot” is not what the company needs.

6) Interview a wide pool of candidates. This can be a great window into best practices and you may get a result you didn’t expect. Last year I completed a Chief Financial Officer search for a global professional service firm. After encouraging my client to think “outside the box”, we presented candidates from many industries, including publishing, manufacturing, financial services, as well as professional service firms. To their surprise but not mine, they selected an executive from an international publishing company. She just celebrated her first anniversary and the client is extremely pleased.

Thus this blog ends where it began with a wink to the publishing industry: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

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John C. Lamar

Managing Director