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 email@example.com 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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My CEO clients are always asking me, “How long will it take to find a CFO, Dave?”
By industry standards, an executive-level search takes between four and five months to complete, on average. This is backed by search industry statistics, as well as data from our project management software provider, Clockwork Recruiting, as noted in a memo they sent their customers last week.
The Clockwork memo stated: “Over the last two years, Clockwork has been growing fast. We’ve signed up a lot of new executive search firms and we’ve migrated over 7,000 search projects from other systems like Bullhorn, Encore, Invenias, and Filefinder. Over that same two-year period, you—our Clockwork users—ran over 7,000 search projects inside Clockwork. This gave us two large, similarly-sized datasets to look at. We looked at “Days to Close,” a top Key Performance Indicator (KPI) in our industry measuring how long it takes to run a search project from start to placement. Thanks to you guys and your great work, the data show that projects run on Clockwork close 48% faster than the other guys.”
Arnold Partners Beats the Clock
We discovered that Arnold Partners is running 30% faster in “Days to Close” than the average Clockwork user. So that puts us at the top of the industry for a key measure that almost every CEO asks me about. By the time most of my clients call me, they are feeling like they should have started the search to find a CFO months, or sometimes years, before. They generally have a strong sense of urgency and want to know that the project will be thorough AND timely.
One major reason we can move more quickly than our competition comes down to focus. We meet CFOs every day. When we are called on to find that needle in the hay stack, we probably know where it is, or only need to move a few straws to find it. It’s never a new search in the sense of having to build an entirely new database of connections every time—it’s really an organic outreach to people we already know, warm calls to people with whom we have influence, who gladly take our call. Even if the role is not for them, they are quick to make referrals. This is why we never outsource candidate calls to associates or third parties. The CFO community wants to hear from Dave. Period.
More Important than Speed: Accuracy
However, I want to emphasize: more important than speed is accuracy. In fact, I don’t really want to be known for being fast or the fastest if people associate that with recklessness, sloppiness or lack of lasting results. What I want to be known for is our accuracy when we find a CFO. The truth is, over the last 20 years of recruiting experience, we have placed only one CFO that did not work out—far less than 1% of all our placements. And honestly, the reason had nothing to do with our process.
The Bottom Line: Value Creation
Our placed CFOs are extremely well tenured post-placement, creating massive value creation for their companies and stakeholders. Over the last 10 years our placed CFOs have created over $11B in value and counting. (Did you see our client Roblox just raised $92MM?)
So if you want to find the right CFO—the right way—right away, email me at Dave@arnoldpartners.com or call 408-205-7373. I look forward to helping you with a successful, long lasting CFO hire with the help of Arnold Partners’ connections and experience.
I was in a client meeting this week and was taken aback by my client’s view of retained search professionals. Maybe he was burned a few times by executive search firms? Not sure, but out of our conversation, what differentiates my firm Arnold Partners from most other retained search firms became clear: some firms just don’t know how to correctly hire a CFO.
While at an investors’ conference the week prior, my client ran into a partner from a large executive search firm and they got into a debate about the relative value of the search process vs. the outcome of the process. The search exec. stressed the value of the process and the insight gained, but could not sway my client; the only value he saw in the search process was the end result – a great hire.
Gems Gleaned from the Process
I agree that the search process itself can provide a great deal of valuable information to a company, specifically discoveries about how the company is perceived by the professional community and how the specific role is received by the potential candidate pool. These are truly important things; the candidates you are seeing and the prospective candidates your search partner is approaching are not yet “drinking the kool-aide” as we like to say here in the Valley. If the response to the company story is not positive and needs to be re-tooled, this is valuable insight especially when the story is being presented to CFOs, who are by their nature conservative and a tad skeptical, in my experience.
Beware the Purple Squirrel
Another possible discovery that can be a real show stopper: the person you are looking for does not exist! I have heard this called the unicorn or the purple squirrel. This is a frustrating discovery, but it can also provide insight for the executive team and board. If the specification for the role is too far outside the lines or tries to combine too many “must-haves” there needs to be a reconfirmation with the search partner and the client to reassess the needs of the business and the goal of the search. I like to say, “In search, you cannot find what you are looking for unless you know what you are looking for, but, if you are looking for a purple squirrel, you may be looking forever!”
Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Completion and Stick Rates
My view is that process is important and discoveries can provide insight, but the real drive and goal is the successful hire ─ to find a CFO that who will create a lasting, positive impact for all stakeholders in the organization. A process without consummation is a failure. This is where I pride myself in our 100% completion rate. Yes, searches can be tough; in fact most of them are. But for the best outcome what should a CEO or VC look for in a search partner? Two metrics: completion rate and stick rate (how long the placed candidates stay in the roles). One national firm boasts on their website of a 77% completion rate, which means they do not complete 23% of their searches ─ almost a quarter! And yet their clients are out 100% of their fee for service.
If you are contemplating how to hire a CFO and seeking a search partner for your search, you will find Arnold Partners to be 100% committed to both a useful process AND a successful outcome with long-lasting results. If you would like to share your experience on how to hire a CFO, or want to learn more about how Arnold Partners hits its numbers, call me, Dave Arnold at 408-205-7373 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most professionals (and many recruiters!) are never really trained in How to interview a CFO candidate. They learn from trial and error how to hire a CFO, or perhaps they learn anecdotally. Unless you find yourself in a huge corporation, there may not even be a resource to help you get better at interviewing. I have hired and trained many recruiters over the last 22 years as well as interviewed hundreds of CFOs. As VP of Operations in a national recruitment practice, I co-developed a very detailed process for conducting effective interviews. Here I’ll share some insights I’ve gained on how to hire a CFO.
My Muse: Charlie Rose
Charlie Rose is the most impressive interviewer in the public domain today. He has conducted thousands of interviews with the most highly placed figures in all walks of life including heads of state, politicians, rock stars, movie stars, and business heavyweights. I don’t know how many CFOs he has interviewed (probably a few), but I do know that his style is one that ALL interviewers should learn from. Part of what makes him unique is his ability to truly listen.
The old adage in sales is to listen twice as much as you speak. This holds doubly true with interviews. If the interviewer is doing all the talking, how can he/she learn about the interviewee? Charlie is a master of this. His follow-on questions are sublime. He has a script of questions at the onset of every interview, but depending on the answer, he is quick to change gears and ask an appropriate follow-on question. He can only do this by keenly listening. He is also a master of getting people to answer the question. Many of his guests are good at not giving a direct answer, but Charlie won’t let them off the hook. Watch his interviews with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for inspiration, such as:
The New York Times has a twice-weekly column, “The Corner Office.” Each article is an interview with a CEO. Excellent information is exchanged, and in most cases the CEO is asked about his interviewing style. I am fascinated by the lack of consistency in how CEOs interview (which supports my point that people aren’t trained to interview), and the excellent questions CEOs ask candidates. This column is no substitute for interviewing training, but can help you formulate probing questions.