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 firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you and wish you a productive and satisfying career.
Have you ever done this? Or had a CFO candidate do so?
In my 20+ years as an executive recruiter I have never heard of nor experienced such behavior. Until now.
Is it a sign of just how overheated our market for talent has become?
A little backdrop: Our client came to a negotiated agreement with a sitting CFO to join them as their new CFO. However, the candidate needed more time than normal before leaving their current employer. (Red flag #1) Given this situation, I encouraged my client to treat the candidate more as a new employee during this interim period rather than someone starting in eight weeks, and to hold regular meetings and provide them a constant stream of information so the relationship would take hold and a strong bond would start to form. I could not control what happened during this interim period, but my understanding is the client did make an effort to bridge the signed candidate into the CFO role.
I was very confident the candidate would part ways with their current company given the circumstances that led to their interest in leaving in the first place. Nonetheless, my client and I were collectively holding our breath a bit and I think we both felt a sense of relief when the candidate announced their resignation. We were all feeling pretty good at this juncture. Signed offer letter from four weeks earlier and now a public resignation. What could go wrong?
Because of the unique qualities of this person, their phone began to ring with additional CFO opportunities as soon as the resignation hit the wires. I believe the correct response to these incoming inquiries is quite simple: “Thank you for your call, but I have already accepted a new position and will be starting shortly. Good luck in your search.” Since I call on recently resigned CFOs all the time, I have heard this response and respect it. In fact, I think it would be not only ungraceful, but also in bad taste to push a person in this situation for more information or for them to entertain what it was I was calling about. That is not what happened in this case.
I suppose the candidate was pleased, surprised, and or even flattered by the attention the resignation ignited. Given the volume of purported calls this person received it is another sign of how overheated this market really is. So, the calls came in, but rather than simply offering a simple no, they apparently entertained the new inquiries. Now in my book this is a black and white situation; just say no. Am I wrong? Once you sign a contract that was negotiated and evaluated in good faith you stick with it. There was nothing negatively affecting the new company the individual was joining. If the company had produced bad news or the CEO announced they were departing or some such other major event had taken place, I would understand. Things were actually headed up and to the right, so backing out at this point seemed unthinkable and in my book unethical.
But backing out is exactly what this person did. I was speechless when told. Dumbfounded. What exactly changed in their mind? What happened between the time of signing the contract and now? They said it just did not “feel like the right fit.” Well frankly, that is what the interview process is for. That is the purpose of due diligence. We are all supposed to make sure the “right fit” exists before we make an offer and we did.
Never a dull moment in the recruitment business!
If you read my blogs regularly, you know it is rare that I write about a deal gone bad. But honestly, I do believe lessons can be learned out of every experience, good or bad, and I do write about such experiences. This one stung. Now that a bit of time has passed, I can look back and see a few red flags early in the process. I will take the experience I have gained to my next client and the next. That is the silver lining of this experience. What about you? I am curious to hear from you whether have experienced such behavior and your thoughts on ensuring that it does not happen again.
If you are in a company seeking a CFO, please know that yes, the market is red-hot for talent. You need an experienced recruiter at your side to take all precautions who has a laser focus on any red flags and employs a well thought out methodology to land the CFO you want and need. Give me, Dave, a call at 408-205-7373 or shoot me an email: email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
I recently met with a CEO who is a potential client in need of a new CFO. He is in a name-brand company that most people in technology circles would recognize. He is also one of the most network-connected people I have ever met. Part of the value he brings to his company is his deep and wide network of connections to influential people; this helps him recruit exceptional talent and drive customer and vendor relationships.
However, because his network of CFO talent is not the deepest and widest, he is considering engaging Arnold Partners to help him identify and land the CFO. It is pending while he reaches out to a few folks before engaging a full search. I always encourage my prospective clients to work their network prior to engaging a search; it just makes sense.
On my soapbox again
For frequent readers of my blog, you will recognize the soapbox upon which I stand regarding the importance of a strong network. As I emphasized last year in my video on the importance of networking and ways to do it effectively, I am constantly in awe of the power of a great network. Most folks in full-time jobs may only occasionally think about networking, but for me it is a daily priority. One of the greatest assets I bring to my clients is the depth of my network and my ability to tap into long-term relationships based on mutual trust to deliver exceptional results. When I entered the executive search business over 20 years ago, it was clear to me that building a trusted network of people of influence was truly the goal each and every day.
What also surprises me about my own network is the breadth of its reach and its value personally as well as professionally. When I needed sold-out U2 tickets for my friend’s 50th birthday celebration I had someone to call. When my client needed to set up their first European operations I had someone to introduce them to. When my client was looking to move office space I had top-tier folks to help them. When there have been personal medical issues beyond my control, my network was there with well-connected referrals. When my good friend started an HR consulting business and needed help setting up a website, I introduced him straight to excellent vendors. All these significant relationships have come from years of networking.
In the last week I have received inquiries about partnering on two separate CFO searches—one in Florida and one in New York City. Both are successful SaaS companies and will need seasoned CFOs to help chart their next stages of growth. With a quick look into my contacts database I have confidence that we have an excellent jumping off point to help these clients efficiently and effectively. Our research team will supplement our existing network with additional introductions as needed.
Brand-building and networking go hand-in-hand
I just read an article about executive branding. Building a personal brand is important, but if you do not have a network to share it with, what good is it? For most CFOs, and up-and-coming CFOs, building a network is not on the top of the daily to-do list. So, how do you do it? It does take time. And the time is worth the effort. As cited above, a strong network is more than about finding your next career opportunity. It is about being a knowledge resource for all sorts of solutions. It is about knowing who to tap to find the answer for both personal and professional challenges.
Taking time to assess the marketplace
One of my favorite high-profile CFOs said in a Business Journal article last year that he takes the time once a quarter to step back from his current job and assess the marketplace. Not only to assess what is happening with specific opportunities for himself, but check out what is happening in the broader pulse of technology and in the tea leaves of the economy. If there is a certain item or trend that grab his attention he will make the time to explore who he knows in that new vertical or emerging industry. This is a good practice for all of us. Get out of the weeds of our daily roles and take a look at the macro. When something in the larger field grabs our attention, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore it and become networked in that new universe.
My personal new year resolution is the same every year: keep building the network. I encourage you to do the same. If you are looking for a top-notch CFO or Board Member to join your team, call me at 408-205-7373 or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org and we can have a conversation about taping into a deep, wide, and continually expanding network.
Economic and Employment Outlook for 2018 (i.e. How Long is the Commute?)—and Impact on CFO Demand
It’s not just the CFO market that is RED HOT in Silicon Valley, it’s the entire economy. According to the California State Employment Development Department, as of March 7, 2018 the overall unemployment rate in Santa Clara and San Benito counties is currently at 2.9%. That’s the overall rate. For degreed professionals it is under 1%. That means more jobs, including CFO jobs, are out there.
For those of you commuting anywhere in the Bay Area, you instinctively know this. A look at the unemployment rate from 2010 to 2018 is telling — it’s a straight down and to the right line:
What’s Driving All This?
The economy in Silicon Valley is firing on all cylinders. It’s a very different expansion from what we saw with the dot-com bubble in the late 90s. For starters, the push is extremely wide in terms of the industries within tech: AI, Autonomous Vehicles (can you guys hurry up with this, we need them now!), SaaS, Consumer, even Semiconductor is seeing some revival due to the AI boom. On the Life Science side of things, CFO jobs are opening as both Biopharma AND Medical Device companies are getting funded and doing very well. This expansion is about revenue generation —- real dollars (not just ICOs, which is a whole other topic).
From everything I’m reading there’s still a lot more fuel to throw on these flames. Where we’ll house and transport additional workers is a real problem, but the epicenter of tech is still here and not disappearing anytime soon.
IPOs Drive CFO Demand
There are a number of high profile IPOs that really will happen in 2018 and 2019. DropBox, Zscaler, AirBnB, and Uber have all announced. IPOs directly affect the CFO market in that when high flyers go out into the public markets with success, others will follow. We saw this happen in 2012 in the Biotech market with dozens of IPOs, some of which probably should not have gone out. Most companies will not go public without a CFO, and those that do soon realize they need one.
What does this mean specifically for the CFO market in 2018? It means competition for employers. It means candidates for CFO jobs can be picky. It means there are very few people on the sidelines. It means if you are seeking to hire a CFO it will be hard work and you will need to dig deep into your contacts and or work with an executive recruiter who can really help.
Changing Demographics Impact CFO Availability
There’s an additional factor facing the CFO market this year and the coming years as well — the Baby Boomers are retiring. This is noticeable at the CFO level and will force companies to look at planned succession and look at candidates who haven’t previously been in the CFO seat. Our clients have been more receptive to looking at “step-up” candidates than ever before, and I think this is at least part of the reason.
So enjoy the ride as slow as the traffic may be, it’s going to last a while. And take stock that full employment is a lot better than the alternative. Remember 2003?
When the CFO market is this tight, you need a search partner with proven success in this type of environment. Contact me at email@example.com to discuss your objectives and we’ll work together to land your ideal candidate.– Dave
Dave’s got a lot to say on variety of topics relating to CFO jobs and the industry. Be sure to read his previous post: Have You Ever Been Presented with a Counter Offer?
Recently my friendly competitor and colleague Cliff Scheffel published a white paper titled, “When is the right time for a tech startup to hire a CFO?” What I really liked about his report, which was co-written by Jeff Epstein of Bessemer Ventures, is that it gives analytical support to what all three of us have experienced as search executives and as investors. It provides a CEO, board, or founder with specific metrics that signal when to hire a CFO. The key markers cited are 100 employees, $25MM in revenue, and/or revenue growth of 100+%.
The report was well done. Let me know if I can send you a copy.
I got thinking about a related question: what factors or changes call for changing the CFO? I believe that in some cases, the first CFO, perhaps at the stage of company that Cliff and Jeff outlined above, can grow his/her skills along with the growth of the company. In other cases, a change in CFO is needed as the company changes.
It’s common for companies to contemplate a change in CFO when they start to seriously look at an IPO. In a VC-backed company, the investors are always looking for ways to minimize risks in their portfolio. If the CEO doesn’t have previous public company experience, that is also an important consideration on when to hire a CFO – the investors will almost certainly want an experienced hand in the CFO. If the incumbent CFO can demonstrate the ability to communicate the story to investors, they may be considered a candidate, but this situation will frequently prompt a CFO change.
Pre-Revenue to Commercial Stage
What about a company that goes from pre-revenue to commercial stage? This too can prompt a CFO change. We see this in the Life Science sector of our technology practice at Arnold Partners. If a bio or pharma company is successful in getting a drug approved, they have a major decision to make about bringing that drug to market. If they plan to build out a commercial organization, the role of the CFO changes materially. I actually had a CFO tell me a few weeks ago, just as his organization with going through this change, that he wanted no part of being in charge of a revenue-producing company!
Beyond IPO and Commercialization
Beyond IPO and commercialization, other changes in a company can affect options for when to hire a CFO. For many tech companies, international expansion is happening earlier and faster than ever before as tech goes to the cloud. In the med-tech side of things, sometimes getting a CE mark of approval is a better strategy to prove product acceptance than trying to fund a US-based study for FDA approval. These considerations affect the role and requirements for the CFO big time.
In an earlier blog, I wrote about how most CFOs get their first chance in the seat through a battlefield promotion. This can be a big break for a Controller or VP Finance that significantly changes the trajectory of their career. However, CEOs need to be careful in making a choice out of convenience over careful consideration of a slate of curated candidates while also considering the company’s stage of growth. Running a search process in parallel to a temporary promotion of a number two can pay dividends for all the parties: the CEO, the board, and the person in the seat. It can provide an objective test of the market to make sure the right person is running the show and that careful consideration is taken for all parties.
In only a few occasions have I seen a CFO go from pre-public company CFO to passing $1B in sales. It’s rare. CEOs need to be diligent to make sure they have the right CFO partner as their companies evolve in complexity and size. If you would like a consultative review or even more information about when to hire a CFO, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 408-205-7373. As a corollary to this subject, my next blog will be about the importance of agreeing upon a good position specification when starting a search, “The Spec!” Stay tuned.
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