A Calming Presence in the Boardroom: The CFO


Some of my best friends are bean counters ... I mean finance guys. No, I’m not trying to be funny; it’s true. In fact, they’re some of the best senior executives I’ve worked with over the years. And some of them went on to become highly effective COOs and CEOs.

Thinking back on it, I count no fewer than eight CFOs and finance VPs I would love to work with again anytime, anywhere. And there aren’t many fellow executives I would say that about – far fewer CEOs, to be sure.

Why does that matter? Executive management teams are unique. They run corporations and that’s a pretty big deal. Between the constant pressure to perform and the inevitable conflict over critical issues that pop up almost daily, boardrooms can sometimes feel more like pressure cookers than conference rooms.

In the midst of the melee it helps to have friends who have your back, especially the ones you don’t expect to.

As a senior marketing and sales executive in the high-tech industry, I didn’t always get a lot of respect from the geek crowd, so it took quite a bit of effort and political positioning to gain credibility and make things happen. The last place on Earth I expected to find support was from the CFO.

Not only did those guys get what I brought to the table, they always brought a sense of calm and stability to the management team. And believe me, that was often needed to balance out the typically mercurial founders and their penchant for changing direction on the fly.

My camaraderie with finance goes back 25 years to the first startup that hired me as an executive, Stac Electronics. Our CFO actually doubled as operations vice president. I thought I was a workaholic, but this guy worked all the time. And his Zen-like demeanor proved indispensible as we grew, went public, and engaged in a high-stakes competitive and courtroom battle with Microsoft.

Even as I moved on to bigger companies, wherever my career took me, I’ve always found the finance guys to be great partners on the road to business success. I’m not exactly sure why, but here are my impressions of the unique benefits they bring to leadership teams.

Equilibrium. Corporations have a lot of moving parts and the action never stops in the fast-paced and highly competitive tech industry. While CEOs push the envelope to stay ahead of the game, it’s good to have a little yin to balance out all the yang-dominated personalities and motives. It’s often better to listen and wait than to act on impulse.

Planning. CFO-led planning processes are necessary for any company of any size to grow profitably. Besides operating and budget planning, I’ve often partnered with finance to run strategic planning processes, as well. Granted, companies want to retain their entrepreneurial spirit but some structure is needed.

Metrics. I may be the first and only marketing guy to say this, but I’m pretty big on metrics. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. One of the reasons that marketing has a bad rap is that marketers play it fast and loose with their budgets without demonstrating ROI. Finance is big on metrics. Marketers should be too.

Perspective. Not to generalize, but lots of finance people do seem to be introverted. While I feel at home going out and conquering the marketplace, their comfort zone includes sitting at their desks crunching numbers. In the heat of competitive battle, management teams need someone to take care of business at home and provide much-needed perspective.

Order. While I do believe that inertia – the status quo – is the silent killer of companies, that’s not to say that stability and consistency play no role in business success. It’s a balancing act, to be sure. Every finance guy I’ve ever worked with was like a calm in the storm: a solid, substantial presence in the chaos of corporate America.

What precipitated the sudden need to tell this story? The annual ritual with the CPA who’s handled my personal and business books and taxes for ages. We got to talking about why we’ve always gotten along so well and I started thinking back to all the corporate finance people in my former life.

You’ve got to admit, next to the attorneys and HR folks, finance people get the least amount of love in any organization. In my experience, they deserve far better. They certainly deserve recognition as a stabilizing force among the corporate chaos.