Today’s CFO market is beyond hot, it is on fire. Not since the dot com heydays of 1999 and 2000 have we seen a market like this. Insiders such as CFOs and Investors see it. CEOs trying to attract talent see it. Executive recruiters are feeling it every day. I spoke with a female CFO last week who told me I was the 12th recruiter to call her in the preceding week! She only took my call because she knows me.
What is going on? Why is this happening and what can be done to solve what seems to be an intractable imbalance of supply and demand?
A blistering IPO market
Certainly, the obvious answer is the IPO market. Check out this data:
Nationwide, there have been 368 IPOs total this year to-date.
In 1999 there were 486 IPOs.
In the Bay Area alone there have been 86 IPOs YTD, with several more in the pipeline before this year concludes.
Last year was almost as equally hot—with 407 total IPOs nationwide and 76 in the Bay Area.
In the previous 10 years the US was seeing about 176 IPOs on average—so the last two years, 2020 & 2021, reflect a significant increase in IPO activity.
IPOs drive the CFO market for sure. It is almost impossible to IPO without a CFO. There is a follow-on to CFOs getting recruited to IPO companies as well—it creates a vacuum from the companies they came from and it creates more ROI for investors who plow those winnings into new ventures, which in-turn need CFOs. It is the cycle of capitalism, but the supply chain hiccup in this case is not a shortage of truck drivers, rather a shortage of CFOs.
Regular readers of my blog know that I have been warning of a systemic shortage of CFO talent in the coming years for a long time now. It is upon us. Baby Boomers are retiring at a massive clip, and the pandemic accelerated this already impactful macro effect on the labor market. Many CFOs are reaching the CFO tier for the first time in their fourties. But many more are in their sixties, probably on their last rodeo. The generation following the Boomers is the smallest generation in the workplace. Hot IPO market or not, there just may not be enough people to fill all the seats the Boomers are leaving empty. In addition to this macro demographic, plenty of CFOs I have talked to in the last two years are saying this role they are in now is the last. Many of them have the money to retire and just do not want to grind out another one, no matter the rewards or their age.
Cash, cash, cash – return, return, return
The amount of capital to be invested remains at an all-time high. Venture and Private Equity investors do not get paid to sit on cash. They are looking to put capital to work and it is available. The chart just keeps going up, up, up, with 2020 seeing venture investment of roughly $130B in the US alone. With the IPO market refueling the coffers this does not seem to be a bubble. The big difference between the dot com era of venture investing and IPO exits and today’s market is that the companies this time around are real. They have real revenue, sustainable growth and it is not just one sector. Technology is changing the world we live in on all fronts, not just how we shop. From clean energy, to biotech, to food, to software to crypto and beyond companies are growing by finding real solutions to today’s challenges. (Can someone fix the supply chain soon please?) These companies are not seeking eyeballs, they are providing tech-enabled goods and services that result in money being exchanged and value being created.
So what to do if you are looking for a CFO?
First off, it is really important to know what you need in your CFO before you start looking to hire someone for the role. This may sound obvious, but in my many years of recruiting for CFOs I speak from experience. I frequently meet clients who think they need one set of skills and experience when really they need wildly different things. Don’t knee jerk into this market. Finding the right person demands knowing what is key. This may be much more subtle than first glance. For example, I hear from many entrepreneurs that the CFO MUST HAVE IPO experience. This is the most overrated skill for a CFO I can think of. The second thing a lot of CEOs get stuck on is that the CFO must come from _________ industry. (Fill in the blank.) It generally is not true and may be more of a nice to have than a must have skill for most companies.
Broaden, don’t narrow
While successful searches usually correspond to a well-thought-out target audience, my general advice on the current CFO front is to keep that audience as large as possible. Yes, I have conducted searches such as: CFO Must be female, must be willing to come to the office everyday, must bring consumer internet industry experience, with an IPO under her watch. We ended up with most of that list. But the key is to be flexible—most of what a CFO does is fungible across industry lines. If we have learned anything in this pandemic it is that people can be highly effective working remotely. I guarantee that the majority of these IPOs this year were not led by CFOs with IPO experience. The other thing to do is to look for finance executives in larger companies in “#2” roles who have most everything you need to succeed in the role. It can pay to get creative — not only in what and where you look, but also in how you go about it.
Phone a friend
I recommend you call your trusted CFO recruiter for help in this market. While we do not have a magic wand, we do have some tricks in the bag which can bring results—like getting a return phone call above the 11 others that may not. We have some other learned experience as well— did I tell you about the “living plant” close technique?
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about using artificial intelligence and machine learning in technology. In fact, many of our clients at Arnold Partners in Silicon Valley and beyond employ these tools in a variety of applications to help their customers outsmart the competition. Within the recruitment industry, there has been talk of AI and ML potentially replacing recruiters all together. I am happy to report that AI is being deployed by Arnold Partners as an enhancement to our recruitment services – not a replacement. How so?
One cool thing about being in Silicon Valley and serving tech clients is the exposure we gain to cutting-edge technologies. We make it our practice to keep abreast of what’s coming down the pike and applying technologies that are applicable to the recruiting industry. For one, we added AI capabilities to help uncover talent for our clients. This will help us continue to win the battle with the Goliaths of the recruiting industry: Spencer, Heidrick, Russell, Egon and Korn aka SHREK and will clearly separate us from other boutique firms who do not embrace technology platforms to enhance their client interface. (I did not coin this acronym; my long-time, friendly competitor Cliff Scheffel was the first person to share it with me.)
Powering up with AI
Utilizing the amazing powers imbedded in the AI tool provides unprecedented efficiencies in uncovering passive and hidden talent. This means more refined and targeted prospect lists and potentially much faster turnaround times for our clients. However, it does not translate into the irreplaceable human process of turning a prospect into a candidate!
In the last two searches we have completed, the art of getting a CFO to the client meeting has been on full display. Through deep listening to the candidate and shaping the client opportunities appropriately we were able to get the meetings initiated. There are a whole lot of “no’s” we hear as recruiters. “No, I’m not interested in making a change right now” is the most common thing we hear; I would say we hear 20 “no’s” for every “yes” or “maybe.” But what, if through a bit more dialogue we could get those “no’s” to a “maybe” or a “I’ll take a look”? There is no software out there that can do that. I further posit that getting a CFO candidate to “take a look” is even more difficult than getting the C-suite to do so.
Delicate art of persuasion
By combining the cutting-edge abilities of AI and ML with the decades of experience in the delicate art of persuasion, we are not only keeping up with the SHREKs, we are winning. Just like David took down Goliath by being more nimble and by utilizing the right tools, we are doing the same by integrating the right technology into a well-honed recruitment process for success. Our tool was developed at Stanford and the company is still in stealth mode. As an early adopter of their solutions, I will be placed at the front of the line as new tweaks and improvements are made to the platform, further enhancing our competitive advantage.
It is an exciting time to be in the recruitment business. Things are changing; some things will stay the same. But, as I wrote in my last blog, we have to constantly be learning. While there is a steep learning curve with this new tool (it could still use a lot of work on user interface). But for me personally, by mastering and utilizing this new software, I am confident it will add another arrow in our quiver to stay one step ahead of SHREK and perhaps even other boutique recruitment houses who do not adopt and learn in the fast-changing world we all operate in.
No way am I going the way of the dinosaurs!
If you would like to learn more, shoot me an email. In meantime, happy recruiting! Dave
But first, some thoughts on the current business environment…
For those of you who follow me closely, you will note I have not written a blog in a long time. When Covid hit, it just did not seem to be the time to promote ideas about recruiting, hiring, and all things business that I cover in my blogs. What has been shocking to me is the pace of business…it has not slowed down at all for the tech companies we at Arnold Partners supports. Honestly, this has led to some degree of thriver guilt – to see so many fellow citizens (and in many cases very good friends) struggle in this K-shaped economy we are living in. In the direct world where I focus, the demand for CFO talent has never been greater. Tech IPOs are booming, which has a direct effect on the overall CFO market. As CFOs get drafted up into IPO companies, it frequently leaves a void somewhere down the food chain of the tech continuum. This has certainly had a welcome effect on our business and frankly has kept me from taking time to blog about this or that or the other thing. But now, following a brief respite, on with the show!
It is something we all muse about in both our personal and professional lives. Some of us actually try to do a bit of it…I still take a saxophone lesson every week, even if my skills seemed to have leveled off. I was taking Spanish classes when Covid hit, but those are on hold. It is especially important for me to always be learning. Whether a new skill or tactic, or perhaps even a whole new strategy around hiring.
I had an “Aha!” moment last year as I took on a fairly early-stage client needing a CFO. One of the clear mantras of the culture in the company was around continuous learning. Everyone in the company is encouraged and engaged in learning something new all the time. It could be how to juggle or how to improve listening skills. It does not matter as long as it is something outside of work that involves learning. When I met the CEO, I knew we were simpatico on that and immediately wanted to support him in finding an excellent CFO. (Which we did, and all went well!)
Learning a whole new approach to interviewing candidates…
The prospect of a taking a new tack for interviewing candidates was an entirely different kind of challenge. I mean, come on, I have been interviewing finance pros since 1992. I think I know what I am doing! Along came another client who had a VERY specific approach to the hiring process based on a book written in 2008. When they informed me of their dedication to this technique, I quickly got the book and read it from cover to cover. Three times. I went back with a highlighter to study certain elements of the process outlined. It was exciting. Some new ideas, some GREAT ideas and as it turns out, some really interesting learnings in the actual process with CFOs. Not as expected!
First, the positives:
The book gives a particularly good template to design a job spec that actually fits what it is you want to hire for. This may sound obvious, but I will tell you from experience, most companies take a spec off the shelf and maybe customize a line or two for their needs. By really thinking about what problems, you are trying to solve at the beginning of the process, it definitely makes screening candidates against a specific wish list of skills and experience for the exact needs of the client more effective. I have written about this before in a blog, “For CEOs and CFO Candidates: The Importance of an Exacting “Spec” in Executive Recruiting,” and the authors got it right.
The real aha in the book for me was around having various members of the interview team focus on different areas of expertise and skills of the candidates during the interview process. So often after a series of interviews candidates will tell me that everyone asked them the same thing. Or that they spent the first 10 minutes of the interview talking about something completely off subject such as a hobby. If there are six people on the interview team and each one spends 10 minutes talking about the same hobby, your interview team just spent a whole hour on it – not exactly productive! The takeaway is to have people on the team with specific skills or knowledge to hone in on those areas you are seeking in the candidate. Certainly, overall impressions are still made with each interview regarding communication skills, reasoning skills, presentation, listening, etc. So even tho each interviewer had a specific task, each contributes to the overall assessment.
The authors also offer a great litmus test to getting to a “no” on a particular candidate very quickly. Focusing on what the candidate’s recent former bosses say about them early on in the first call reveals whether or not their bosses have confidence in the candidate and will stand up for him/her.
Now the negatives:
The overall arch of the first five or six meetings as outlined in the book is heavily weighted to the company who is evaluating the candidate and offers very little opportunity for the candidate to ask any questions about the company, the role, or even the people they are meeting. In practice, this was a particular turn-off to CFOs. CFOs are data driven. They want to learn about and be sold on the opportunity as much as they like to show off their abilities to ask penetrating questions. We lost some good candidates that were totally turned off by this one-way approach. I think it may have something to do with the book being written in 2008. It was a buyers’ market for talent in 2007-2009. Not anymore. Not by a long shot. (Credit – when I gave the client this feedback, we altered the process a bit to give candidates an early opportunity to learn more about the company.)
Specific to my client, the first “real” interviews between the company and the CFO candidates after passing a 30-minute screen with the CEO were conducted by a very junior person on the staff. While this staff member is really well respected within the organization, the feedback from CFOs was basically they felt insulted and a real reluctance to continue the process no matter the outcome of the meeting. CFOs were telling me that spending an hour being grilled by a person with three years’ experience out of college sent a message that the company did not know what it was doing. (Credit – after a few of these meetings, the client heard the feedback and altered the process). I have another blog to follow this one about hiring a CFO and how much weight needs to be from “the team” (code for the people who would report to the CFO), the “executives,” and the CEO/Board. Stay tuned…
Conclusion on the book:
It was well intended. As with most business books there were a few good nuggets. I did take away some good learnings, both positive and negative. But to apply it literally to each hire was misplaced. CFO hires are unique. This hiring template was unique but the two were not really compatible. Fortunately, my client was open to feedback and we were able to alter the process and ended up making a great hire. If you want more details, please reach out…good to be back. More soon, Dave.
Without exception, my conversations with executives all begin or end with, “What strange times we are living in at the moment,” or something similar. No one seems to be able to make sense of the big picture right now. From what I have read, it is because we are not conditioned to understand events that have no clear timeline to conclusion. Almost all endeavors we embark on as humans have a delineated end — this pandemic does not. We are cautiously “opening” up while new cases of the virus continue to accelerate in many states, including California. With all of this as a backdrop, it is on the surface hard to think about hiring a new CFO or VP Finance for your company. But this is the exact time you need to think contrary to the pack. Here is why.
Shelter in place creates a unique recruiting opportunity
Since early March we have seen a marked increase in the number of “confidential” searches coming into Arnold Partners. Smart companies are taking advantage of the ability to meet candidates virtually and in complete confidence during this unique moment in time. It works well for the confidential passive candidates most companies want to hire as well. They are in a great position to take meetings without the necessary excuses of where they are going or why they are not in the office. The best recruiters know and target passive candidates, and in this work from home environment, the ability to grab the attention of this passive population is uniquely available right now. The last VP Finance search we completed in 30 days because we know who to tap.
But with a recession going on and companies laying off 1000s?
The focus at Arnold Partners is technology companies of all stripes. This sector has certainly seen a number of verticals hit in the downturn — travel and some med tech companies come to mind. Early stage tech companies without ample funding may not be in the market to add executive talent either. But if you are the CEO or Board Member of a well-funded tech company, now is the time to take inventory of your C-suite and VP-level talent and decide if it is time for an upgrade. How has your CFO done throughout this pandemic? Was the company well-prepared from a cash standpoint? Was the CFO able to tap banking relationships to shore up the balance sheet?
The best time to upgrade is at the start of a recession when executives from other companies may be concerned about the future of their career in-place. Now is the time to pluck from your competitors or near competitors to strengthen your team. But you need the right help.
Partnering with the right search firm and consultant
The best search consultants will truly consult with you and your team to determine how to improve the mix of both talent and diversity in your executive ranks. Search consultants do not just “take job orders.” They help craft the specification by carefully listening to you and by gaining an in-depth understanding of the business you are in and what the road map to success looks like. But then, only the best of the best consultants can reach into the vast pool of talent to pluck out a select list of passive candidates, who will not only take the call from the consultant, but also take the meeting with the prospective new employer. This process is part science, part art, and usually a culmination of many years of hard work, and it is certainly the way Arnold Partners continues to deliver. View my video for a list of questions you may want to use when interviewing an executive search firm:
Setting the right tone for a confidential search
This all may sound a bit cloak and dagger and nefarious — sneaking around your competitors’ home offices to steal their talent away! (Although that is the nature of recruiting.) But this is the key reason why it is so important to partner with the right search firm. The connected firm can quietly target the right people without resorting to any publication of your needs. Because of long-standing, curated relationships Arnold Partners maintains with the top finance professionals, the risk of word getting out that we are working on a confidential search is almost nil. When we make those calls into our network, we set the right tone during the very first call with each prospective candidate. The efforts to upgrade your team can be achieved quickly, quietly, and effectively. It is really important in a confidential search that your company and motivations will be represented in the most ethical and accurate manner by a trusted professional like Arnold Partners.
I invite you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to talk about your needs and explore upgrading your team. Stay safe and healthy, David Arnold President, Arnold Partners, LLC Strategic CFO and Board Recruitment
With your newly crafted executive resume in hand, it’s time to get to work on getting the right people to see it and invite you for an interview. Again, the goal of the resume is just that: to open doors to a conversation about new opportunities for you as a professional. But as we climb the latter into executive roles (VP and above), fewer and fewer positions avail themselves (as math dictates). In addition, many of these roles are not advertised in public forums.
Here is my advice on how to network yourself into a new role.
For the sake of this article, let’s just assume that you have made up your mind to seek a new professional home. Maybe your commute stinks, your company has flatlined in growth, you have a new boss, or that side project you just completed really got you excited about using a different skill set. Whatever the reason, it is time for a change. Most professionals at this juncture reach out to the three or four executive recruiters they know to see what is happening. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but there are better ways to take charge of your search.
The first step in this process is getting out a pen and paper (or a spreadsheet) and writing down a list of the most influential people you know. These are people who would return a call or email and who would be willing to make some time for you. But they are also people who are in a position to make introductions that matter. This list should include investors, board members, CEOs, professors, MBA classmates, peers in other companies you work or compete with, etc. These are folks who are in a position to introduce you to other people in charge of executive hiring.
Note: That list does not include executive recruiters. Think broadly while scribbling your list, and include some stretch goal people. Get at least 50 names down, and shoot for 100. Take a few days and retrace your career. Find lost contacts. LinkedIn is a great resource.
Once you have your long list, study it, and rank the top 10 people on the list. Your goal now is to arrange one-on-one meetings with those 10 people. Your ranking should be a weighted combination of how influential the contact is and your ability to get a meeting with the person. Be realistic and just a bit idealistic. You want wins (getting a meeting), but you do not want to set yourself up for disappointment by aiming too high. This is a game and a sport, and if you approach it as such, it can be fun, stimulating and ultimately rewarding.
Getting the meeting
Narrowing your list to the top 10 makes the networking game more realistic for a working professional. These meetings are hard to get and hard to schedule since everyone is busy. You are asking for time on an executive calendar, so be realistic and persistent and respectful. If you can get two meetings a month, that would be a win. Three would be fantastic. In my experience, if you get 10 meetings in a few months, new opportunities will present themselves, either directly through these contacts or through their network. In a world full of noise, interruption and email bombardment, you need to be top of mind.
Being crystal clear
So what to do when you get the meeting? This is where the elevator pitch is key. You may only get a few minutes with these influential people, so it is really important to be clear about why you are there and what you have to offer. You should have your personal elevator pitch down to three or four sentences with an easily understood takeaway (e.g., how your skills and experience can help transform an organization). This elevator pitch should be repeated in the summary of your resume to reinforce your message. You should also be in a position to offer help to the executive you are meeting with, so be sure the conversation is a give and take.
Be respectful of this person’s time, and don’t go over the allotted schedule. Follow up with a thank-you email and an offer to be a resource for this person in their line of work. Reiterate your goals and skills. Be brief and to the point. Set a reminder to follow up with this person in 30 days via email.
In my experience, establishing a plan like this makes the likelihood of introductions to new opportunities very high. It takes work and dedication, thoughtfulness and persistence. But it works. As for the recruiters I left out of your “influential” people list, I mean no disrespect. But we are tasked with finding very specific people for our clients, and while we play an important role in building a career, don’t stop there.
Let me preface this blog by acknowledging that I am not a parent. But I get asked by a lot of parents and occasionally college students about what undergraduates should do to maximize their chances of success in the business world. Here are some objective and hopefully helpful thoughts.
Some philosophy about the goal of education
One of my high school mentors imparted that the academic goal of a high school education is primarily to teach budding brains how to study and how to learn. This makes inherent sense to me. In high school students need to learn how to listen, take notes, read complex material, gain understanding, and apply knowledge to class discussions, writing papers, and taking tests. On the other hand, the academic goal of a college education is to learn how to solve problems and be a critical thinker.
Application process and the importance of school selection—or not
I know third hand how hard the college application process is today. You have to apply to 8, 10, or 15 schools because that is how the game is played. It is a bit frustrating to see it from the sidelines, even before addressing the shocking bribing that is going on.
When the highly anticipated acceptance letters come in, the talk is about what schools accepted you into their hallowed halls. Then you make the big decision: which one to accept? It is less important than you think! In reality, it is not the school that you have selected that will ensure your success in business or in life. It is how you apply yourself once you are there. Based on my many years consulting with companies on their hiring decisions, any good hiring manager would take the top of the class from a state school over the bottom or even middle of the class of a “prestigious” Ivy League. What you do, how you learn, and how you apply critical thinking to solving problems begins in undergrad. An April 30, 2019 New York Times article, “Almost All the Colleges I Wanted to Go to Rejected Me. Now What?” talks about this very subject.
The importance of developing “executive presence”
I would also argue that the whole concept of developing executive presence begins in undergrad as well. The key elements of executive presence are reputation, communication, leadership, and charisma. All these traits can be seen in varying degrees in recent college graduates. The types of activities you choose to engage in as an undergrad directly affects the foundation of your executive presence and what people think of you—what leadership roles you pursued and secured, what speaking engagements you undertook. These are all differentiators and indicators of your potential in the workplace that your future employer will carefully consider.
The right major for getting a jump start on your career path
A question I get asked frequently is what majors are most sought after by businesses looking to hire entry-level workers. I would encourage you to focus on a liberal arts degree coupled with courses in computer science (CS) and business/accounting. The liberal arts training will teach you to think critically and the CS and Business courses will give you practical knowledge. Depending on the program you are enrolled in the reverse could also be true: focus on CS and Business, but take enough electives in the liberal arts program to round out your education.
The value of attending junior college
If you are a high school grad who is not quite ready for a four-year program, attend a good Junior College. This can be a brilliant strategy! Many JCs in California have automatic acceptance routes to the UC system. This approach gives you time to catch up academically and/or emotionally if this is the reason you are not going off to a four-year program. The general ed topics that are mandatory for any undergraduate degree may indeed be taught more effectively at JC than some four-year schools. It clearly reduces the financial burden, which is no small issue for most students and their families these days. Finally, I can tell you for a fact – if you go on from a JC to a four-year program no one will ever know. In my 24+ years of recruiting it has never occurred to me to ask a candidate where they did their first two years of school. But do I look at where you graduated from? Of course.
Undergraduate diploma vs experience
So how much weight does an undergraduate degree carry? Is someone 10 years out of school from an Ivy League an immediately superior candidate to someone from Chico State? Not in my book. What we look at 10 years out are your achievements in the roles you took on. What sort of progression have you achieved? What types of companies have you worked for? Who have been your mentors? What are your accomplishments?
To counter this argument, it may be true that the top-rated universities have more on-campus recruiters from top-tier companies combing the ranks for the best and the brightest undergraduates. But if you are in the best and brightest in a lesser-known program which may not be on the on-campus radar, it is upon you to make yourself known to the companies you want to work for. This entails a diligent effort, but it most certainly can be done.
As a follow-on to this blog, I will write one about MBA programs, a different animal.
Congratulations on your graduation and acceptance. Now, go forth and learn to solve complex problems; we need your contribution in this complex and ever-changing world! If you feel so inclined, shoot me an email with your comments and or questions at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you and wish you a productive and satisfying career.