Microsoft Finance Director’s ‘Aha’ Leadership Moment

With the role of the CFO expanding to include more organizational strategy, it naturally follows that the finance department as a whole will be expected to make a similar shift from “number historian” to a strategic driver of growth. David Elrod, finance director at Microsoft, spoke with me to explain what makes a trusted leader and how we can develop leadership skills in accounting students and young professionals.

This interview has been edited and condensed

Jeff Thomson: You’ve talked about a skills gap in accounting and finance. How do you see the skills gap at work and how does it affect business?

David Elrod: There is a skills gap because a lot of recent college graduates have great technical skills but don’t always understand the importance of telling the story behind the numbers. Accounting staff members play an important role in painting the big picture for their business partners so organizations understand how to make the most effective decisions.

I think back to when I was in undergraduate and graduate school and how many of the issues we discussed were approached strictly from a finance perspective. When I graduated, I thought I would be successful at financial modeling, but I had a hard time communicating the story told by the models I created. Often we get hung up on the numbers, but what our business partners want to know is how it all fits together and what we can do to put the company in a great competitive position.

Thomson: You’ve argued there is a difference between “trusted advisors” and the term that you prefer, “trusted leaders.” What’s the difference?

Elrod: It can be boiled down to one word each; a trusted leader is someone who is proactive and a trusted advisor tends to be someone who is more reactive. Trusted leaders are broad business thinkers who are fluent in the competitive dynamics of their industry. I like to think trusted leaders can look around the corner and see what’s coming to lead their business to the right decision. On the other hand, trusted advisors tend to look at a situation and give their business partners options of how to react to an oncoming situation.

Thomson: Which skills are most needed to become a trusted leader?

Elrod: Having interpersonal skills and being able to communicate the bigger story behind the numbers is very important. Demonstrating a strong willingness and desire to be a partner will reinforce your drive to excel to superiors. Also, leadership skills are very important. There are a lot of soft skills required to be a trusted leader, and financial professionals should develop those skills if they want to advance in their careers.

Thomson: Classroom versus on the job: What can be learned in a classroom and what can be taught on the job? Perhaps it’s a hybrid model?

Elrod: I think it’s always going to be a hybrid model. On-the-job experience is very important for being a trusted leader, but I also don’t want to minimize the educational aspects of leadership. The reality is that many colleges just focus on teaching students to be technically good, but that is just table stakes for being a trusted leader. I think there are actions we can take in school to get students prepared for the workforce, whether it is focusing on leadership, interpersonal communication, or understanding the nuances of influence.

Thomson: A trusted leader sounds as if he has crossed the existing skills gap and gained all the competencies his colleagues may be missing. Was there a defining moment where you decided to become a trusted leader?

Elrod: I don’t think there was initially a specific point in time where I decided I want to be a trusted leader; it was more of an evolution. When I was in internal audit, I would work through the various steps and ensure high quality results with the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed. From a technical perspective, I was doing an excellent job.

However, as I met with different people, I realized a lot of folks didn’t understand why they were doing a particular control or why they were important in the process. It would have been easy for me to say, “You’re either doing it or you’re not—here’s what you need to do.” But I started to realize it was much more important for me to engage with the people I was auditing to help them understand the importance of their role and how they fit into the bigger picture.

That was when I first started thinking about being more than just a technical auditor or finance person. The experience was a genesis for me in terms of understanding how you can be a great technical accountant, finance person and auditor, but if you don’t relate to the broader group of people in which you work, it’s very difficult to be effective. While I can’t say that was the point I felt I was going to be, or wanted to be, a trusted leader, I can say it was when I first started understanding this concept of trusted leadership.

The 6 Must-Have Skills For A Startup CEO

Chief Executive Officer? Chief Visionary? Chief Cheerleader? Chief Salesman? Chief Funding Officer? Chief Communications Officer? Chief Team TISI -1.07% Builder? Chief Lightbulb Changer? Chief Coffee Maker? Yup, all of these titles apply to the role of a startup CEO. It is perhaps one of the hardest jobs to do in the business world, given the wide range of skills required to excel. This is one of the reasons only 10% of startups actually succeed, as it takes a really special person that has the right combination of skills and startup DNA. In many ways, a much harder job than a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, minus the big salary.

When it comes down to the core skills required, a startup CEO needs: (1) a clear vision of where the ship is sailing; (2) a finger on the pulse of the industry and competitive trends, to navigate the ship over time; (3) solid team management skills to keep all employees sailing in the same direction; (4) impeccable sales and motivational skills, while maintaining credibility with clients, investors and employees; (5) to keep the business on plan and budget; and (6) keep the company liquid. I’ll tackle each of these points below.

1. Set the vision.

The first two points really go hand-in-hand. In order to create the clear vision, you need to have a good sense to what is going on in the industry and with competition. That is really the first step to building a winning business plan. It is not enough to say, “we are building a great travel website”, as there are tons of travel websites out there. You must shape the vision in a way it is more unique and competitive than current solutions in the market. My previous startup, iExplore, positioned itself as a niche killer for adventure travel (compared to the general online travel agencies like Expedia EXPE -2.04%). And, within the adventure travel sector, iExplore marketed “privately-guided, made to order” tours (compared to the traditional packaged group tours with set itineraries) at a price point 25% less than similar tours being offered (leveraging the cost efficiencies of the internet, compared to brick and mortar agents). This vision for the business created a unique product in the market place, which consumers ultimately flocked to with over 1MM unique visitors per month coming to the website.

2. Monitor key trends and pivot accordingly.

But, the CEO’s job is not done setting the initial vision. He or she must stay on top of key trends in their industry or competition to navigate the ship over time. For example, after the economic impact of 9/11/01, iExplore needed to evolve from a travel agent of other tour operators’ trips, into an iExplore branded tour operator of its own, in an effort to get more margin to the bottom line during a difficult economic climate. And, at the same time, iExplore opened up a whole new revenue stream from online advertising, to get the company to profitability while people were not traveling. It is the CEO’s job to constantly watch these kinds of economic, industry or competitive movements over time, and to respond accordingly to keep the ship afloat.

3. Keep the team focused on the same goal.

Another job of the CEO is to make sure all employees are clear on the vision, and that all staff are sailing in the same direction. In the iExplore example for adventure travel, you can’t have your tech guy building a cruise seller, your operating guy building a hotel seller and your finance guy building an airfare seller. Everyone is building an adventure travel seller, and the CEO’s job is to make sure all staff have contributed in building that vision, so all players are on the same page as to what they are building. Therefore, the CEO is not only the communicator of the vision, the CEO is the consensus builder for that vision. You will never be successful if your team does not buy into the vision, or if they feel their good ideas for improving the vision are not being listened to. Then once everyone is firmly on board, keep them clearly focused on the goal.

4. Evangelize and motivate.

Once the vision is set and being maintained over time, now comes execution. And, one of the key execution requirements for any startup CEO is to be its Chief Evangelist. This includes cheerleading the staff, from top to bottom, and getting prospective business clients and investors excited about getting involved with the company. Everyone has been around that infectious personality that lights up the room, and you can’t help but be excited by that person. That is who you need to be. But, and this is a big but, everyone has also been around that person who you feel is trying to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. So, it is important that your sales and motivational skills, are tempered with equally important business judgment and intellect to come across as credible and backable to all parties involved.

5. Manage to key targets and budgets.

Keeping the business on plan, on budget and liquid is a no brainer requirement for any startup CEO. The CEO needs to set acheivable proof-of-concept points, and put key managers in place for hitting those goals. That means building a management dashboard of the key drivers for your business, that are going to dictate its success or failure. For iExplore, it was all about: (i) driving traffic to the website; (ii) getting those visitors to contact us; and (iii) getting those contacts to convert into a sale. So, all energy went into driving those three datapoints, with one key manager in charge of each datapoint (e.g., head of marketing drove traffic, head of web design drove contacts, head of call center closed transactions). Figure out your key drivers, and get the right team members to manage them accordingly. But, more importantly, you need to be able to quickly identify when things are not going to plan, so you can put new initiatives in place to make up for any shortfall. The longer you let cash-using problems go unfixed, the shorter your liquidity runway, and the higher odds you will run out of money and potentially go out of business. So, plan accordingly.

6. Keep the company liquid and in business.

The worst thing that can happen to any startup is running out of capital mid-launch or prior to full proof-of-concept, that would attract additional capital. So, it is the CEO’s job to make sure those proof-of-concept points are clear to the entire staff, a reasonable timeline has been created to achieve those points and the company has enough cash (including a cushion) to get to those goals. The best people to solicit proof-of-concept input are your prospective investors. Ask them, “what are you looking for before you would be willing to fund our business?”, and firmly focus on hitting those targets. And, when raising money, always raise more than you think you will need, to leave a material cushion for when things go wrong, as they always do with startups. And, if necessary, make the hard decision to cut payroll or overhead, to give the company a long enough runway to live another day.

There is no single right answer for “who makes for the best startup CEO?”, as everyone is different in terms of skills, style and personality, and every business is different in terms of economic, industry and competitive dynamics. But, the above is a good summary of the types of people that have the best odds for success in becoming a successful startup CEO.


The 3 Jobs Your Startup Should Outsource

If you’re running an early-stage startup, chances are there are some knowledge gaps in your core team. You may be strong on the technical side or a product whiz, but what about financial strategy, administration, HR? Are you prepared to manage the day-to-day of your startup, from recruiting new talent to bookkeeping to financial planning?

If you have a knowledge gap within the ecosystem of your organization, you need to fill it. But your in-house startup team needs to focus on developing your products and service, creating partnerships, and earning revenue. Your internal resources should be focused on your core competencies, not on these side tasks.

So, what should you do? Outsource — to professional consultants or groups.

The best plan is to outsource whatever services you can so as to save on the highest business costs of all — staffing costs — while getting the support you need and the assurance that these functions are being taken care of by professionals.

Specifically, you can outsource the following 3 functions:

1. CFO: If your company has closed a seed round of funding or is earning more than $250K per year, you need a CFO to handle your financial strategy and run your accounting team. Even if you’re not yet funded or earning significant revenue, you may still be in need of CFO services. For example, if you’re in high-growth mode or have a lot of activity or expenses, you definitely need a financial professional to oversee your financials.

Depending on your needs, a consulting CFO may be able to help with financial projections, cash forecasts, operating budgets, financial plans, pricing, reporting, debt management, M&A, equity and debt negotiations and liquidations. Overall, CFOs help you with business planning, providing your business plan with essential rigor. Your business is creating a product or service; finance is not your business. Look for a professional CFO who has experience working with startups.

2. Accountant: If your financial status doesn’t warrant hiring a CFO, you still need financial support; at the very least, you’ll need help with your day-to-day accounting and regulatory compliance. Outsourcing your bookkeeping to the right firm will give you the support you need for cash management, AP/AR, financial close and taxes.

You can also hire a consulting group to provide accounting support on a project basis. So, whether you need help with audit preparation or generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), your accounting partner can give your accounting issues the attention they need — so you can focus on other things.

3. Human Resources: Any entrepreneur can attest to the fact that HR can be a total time suck. From recruiting to managing personnel issues, from compensation to benefits, from payroll to employee policies and procedures, human resources management can take over your entire schedule. And HR costs include much more than wages — all HR functions, while non-revenue driving, have an associated cost. Outsourcing your HR functions is definitely a cost as well, but when you calculate it out per employee (and figure on the invaluable savings of staying in compliance) it becomes clear that this is a necessary business cost.

While your company is in its early stages, it’s essential to get support, but only as you need it. To outsource doesn’t mean you just hand over a function and forget about it. You’ll still want to be apprised of all aspects of your startup; hiring the right consulting groups will insure that you stay informed.

Remember, you don’t outsource to make a service disappear; you outsource to reduce your cost structure and keep your internal resources focused on your business. When you outsource necessary functions on an as-needed basis, you can concentrate your internal team efforts where they are most needed: growth. And the companies you hire will help you stay on track as your company grows to the next level.


Signs a Small Business Needs a CFO

When should a small business owner hire a CFO? While there is no right answer, there are certain indicators. I spoke with Marc P. Palker, CMA, about this topic. Marc is Director of CFO Consulting Partners, LLC – a firm that provides interim and part-time CFO services to small and midsized public and private companies – and a member of the IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) Board of Directors.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jeff Thomson: What are some internal indicators that a small business owner should hire a CFO?

Marc Palker: An important internal tipping point is when information that helps the business make timely and important decisions is not being prepared. Business owners make decisions at the pace of the business and must be able to rely on the accurate and timely information provided by CFOs. It‘s never too late to make a change.

In many small- to medium-sized companies, the CFO is responsible for the interpretation of the results, cost control measures, capital acquisition, and forward-thinking due to economic, industry, tax, government regulation and social issues. In some cases, the CFO can also be the OFO, or Only Financial Officer, and must rely on bookkeepers for accurate processing of financial information. The CFO must also be critical of the banking relationship – there can be no slip-ups.

JT: Should a business owner hire a CFO when the company hits a certain revenue figure?

MP: It will largely depend on the business and/or industry. A company generating $10 million in revenue might be ready for a CFO while a company generating $20 million may not be. One client could sell its product for $1.5 million each but only sells five units in one year, while another client might need 28,571 transactions to reach $10 million with an average transaction of $350. The complexity of the transactions can also determine the need for a higher level of experience or knowledge.

JT: What external indicators should small business owners look for?

MP: The critical external point is when respect must be gained outside the company. That could be from customers, suppliers, banks, shareholders or government regulators.

Rapid growth is another important indicator. Growth requires an expansion of automated systems to handle the growth, and additional capital and/or financing to finance the growth. A CFO is best suited to handle rapidly increasing growth due to the complexity involved. He or she must be able to interpret the investment and technology, and the terms of acquiring capital.

One final indicator is when a business is preparing for a merger or acquisition. In this situation, the CFO must be able to choose the correct team to evaluate a target acquisition. In many cases, that will result in outsourcing to a firm to perform the financial and regulatory due diligence. The CFO is the best person to interpret the report issued by the due diligence team so the terms can be tailored to the findings. A very important skill required of CFOs is the ability to feed a potential investor or lender. Preparing the information and anticipating their questions will shorten the process and eliminate further digging.

JT: What specific responsibilities should the CFO of a small business have?

MP: A CFO in a growth-oriented small business must be hands-on. Being in the weeds is critical to controlling growth and communicating results to those with money at stake. That could be the owners or shareholders, banks, insurance companies and – let’s not forget – the employees. As growth occurs, the company and its key customers, suppliers and employees will face new risks. Managing risk involves not only having insurance, but the CFO must also protect the company from regulatory, environmental and human capital risks.

This column offers CFOs and their teams insights and ideas related to challenges of the position, in light of market demands and global economic conditions. Jeff Thomson, CMA, is president and CEO of IMA (Institute of Management Accountants), one of the largest and most respected associations focused exclusively on advancing the management accounting profession. Follow IMA on Twitter and visit IMA’s YouTube channel.


CFO or CEO: Who’s in the ‘Driver’ Seat?

What sort of personality should a CFO have to be influential and effective? A collaborative one, for sure.

But according to research by Deloitte on working relationships between finance chiefs and their CEOs -– research that breaks personalities into four main types — success depends a lot on the personality pairings between CFOs and CEOs. According to Deloitte’s CFO study, titled “The Chemistry of CEO/CFO Relationships,” here are the four personality types that CEOs and CFOs fall into:

  • Drivers. Analytical, logical, experimental, determined, decisive, direct, tough, competitive, pragmatic.
  • Guardians. Concrete, process- and detail-oriented, traditional, socially connected, loyal, conscientious.
  • Pioneers. Adventurous, creative, interested in new experiences, high-energy, spontaneous, optimistic, adaptable.
  • Integrators. Web-thinking, intuitive, imaginative, empathic, expressive, diplomatic.

In a recent survey, researchers at Deloitte asked 91 large-company CFOs which personality type they themselves identified with, as well as the type that described their CEO. Just over half the finance chiefs self-identified as drivers, while 29% said they were guardians. The other 20% split evenly between integrators (11%) and pioneers (10%.)

And the CEOs, in the eyes of the finance person? Well, 34% said the boss was a driver, while 33% called the CEO a pioneer -– even though that was the category were the fewest finance chiefs saw themselves. CFOs saw CEOs as guardians 22%, and integrators 11% of the time.

In terms of CFO-CEO pairings, it appears drivers are the key component in amicable, and lasting, partnerships. More than three-quarters of the pairs (77%) had at least one driver. According to Deloitte, this suggests the versatility of the driver type; it’s harmonious in pairings with any personality type. It may also be that the decisive and practical styles of drivers are simply an essential part of an effective CFO-CEO partnership.

Driver CFOs -– presumably being able to pair well with different CEO types — enjoy important benefits among other CFO types, in this Deloitte view. The drivers’ versatility affords them more career options, better partnerships with their CEOs, and the ability to adapt to CEO changes.

That same flexibility, meanwhile, might even help ambitious CFOs “drive” toward the CEO role in the future.

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