Knowing what to look for in a CFO — and when to hire one — is crucial to building a financial strategy that accelerates your business.
Financial planning and analysis (FP&A) becomes more complex as your company grows. In the early stages of business growth, many founders rely on strategic financial guidance from their advisors while outsourcing tactical tasks such as bookkeeping.
Eventually, high-growth companies hit a point where they need a full-time strategic resource. This is when a chief financial officer (CFO) becomes essential.
As the CFO of York IE, I’m responsible for guiding our company’s overall financial strategy and ensuring we have robust financial reports and models that keep the team accountable to their goals. The role of a CFO also typically includes leading the finer points of scaling: financial modeling, KPI reviews, organizational structure and planning for fundraising. It’s a job that requires number-crunching skills, deep financial acumen and the ability to communicate and contextualize financial information for the rest of the organization.
Perhaps you’re not ready to think about hiring a CFO. No problem — there are plenty of FP&A resources available to bridge the gap until you’re ready.
But if you are ready — or you’re looking to get a head start on planning — we’ve got you covered on what to look for in a CFO and the CFO qualifications to prioritize.
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Table of Contents
- When Should a Startup Hire a CFO?
- What Are the Most Important CFO Qualifications?
- What To Look For In a CFO
- Where to Find Financial Expertise
When Should a Startup Hire a CFO?
A startup should hire a CFO when its in-house finances are complex enough to require a full-time, dedicated strategic resource on a daily basis. Companies that are consistently welcoming new employees, regularly launching new products, preparing for a second round of equity financing, experimenting with different forms of debt financing or planning for international expansion should strongly consider hiring a CFO.
Strategic initiatives such as these are signs of a high-growth company — and it’s totally fine if you’re not there yet. Many companies are able to function without a CFO in their earlier stages. Before they hire a CFO, founders should look to advisors and investors for strategic financial guidance. Early on, you won’t need this advice every day.
Startups can outsource tactical initiatives such as bookkeeping before hiring a CFO. Some companies will make a more tactical hire — such as a controller or accountant to manage bookings and handle minor strategic matters — before finding their full-time CFO.
What Are the Most Important CFO Qualifications?
The most important qualifications for a CFO include:
- deep finance and accounting knowledge;
- strong communication skills;
- natural leadership ability;
- industry understanding;
- technical and business acumen.
1. Deep Finance and Accounting Knowledge
Your CFO should have a strong understanding of the financial side of company building, backed by real-world operational experience. Chief financial officers should have a mastery of forecasting, scenario modeling, performance analytics and investor communications.
They should know how to create and maintain relevant and reliable financial models, projections and other collateral. Beyond the spreadsheet, your CFO must be comfortable identifying and driving strategic initiatives such as process improvement and system implementation.
2. Strong Communication Skills
This might be the most important of the essential CFO qualifications. A CFO could build the most robust financial statements, forecast analyses or KPI decks in the world. If nobody knows what they’re talking about or what those numbers mean, then all that work is for nothing.
Crunching numbers is only half the job. The other half is making those numbers meaningful and actionable for the leadership team — and the rest of the organization. For instance, if the CFO reports a trend of increasing customer acquisition cost, they must also help the team understand what that means, why it’s important and how to improve it.
3. Natural Leadership Ability
This quality is necessary for anyone in your C-suite — the CFO included. As you grow, your CFO will be responsible for building a great team, developing talent, empowering their direct reports and delegating responsibilities to accelerate output. They’ll also have to make difficult decisions as your company faces the inevitable obstacles of scaling. Effective leadership is a must-have and an area for continuous development.
4. Industry Understanding
The C-suite is responsible for defining and executing the strategic goals of the organization. To do this properly, they must understand the industry — especially if they are keen to disrupt it. The CFO needs to understand industry trends, product and pricing strategies, contract structure and regulations. While deep expertise can be learned, a strong understanding is an important place to start.
5. Technical and Business Acumen
Every year, new FinTech tools and platforms emerge in the finance and accounting world. Your CFO should be adaptable and tech-savvy, able to easily learn new tools while also identifying which tools boost your efficiency and are worth investing in. Be wary of any CFO candidate that insists they’ll only use Microsoft Excel 24/7.
What To Look For In a CFO
Your company’s CFO should exhibit the following qualities:
- an eagerness to drive your company’s goals;
- the versatility to handle different aspects of the job;
- a commitment to clarity and communication;
- skills that complement your leadership team; and
- alignment with your company’s needs.
A Goal-Driving Personality
Some people are more inclined to drive change, while others thrive in a more consistent business environment. If you’re leading a high-growth company, find someone that’s not just looking to manage a financial situation but also wants to play a pivotal role in building the next version of your company.
We often talk about startup DNA when hiring for growing companies. Look for a CFO that’s comfortable setting business goals, living amongst change, scrapping norms and changing strategies on the fly.
CFOs are called on to handle a lot more than finance. At York IE, I’m also handling topics related to business operations (human resources, IT, legal, etc), strategic planning and goal setting, performance metrics and risk management/mitigation. Make sure you find a candidate that is up for that extended role and ready to adapt as the business environment changes.
Commitment to Clarity and Communication
Your CFO must deliver reliable information with clarity and consistency, including a financial model that’s truly reliable. In many ways, the CFO is the person most in charge of holding everyone accountable, because accountability should be data-driven.
In a volatile business environment, tough decisions will need to be made. Clarity is a prerequisite to getting that right. Hire someone that is great with the numbers and equally great at contextualizing and communicating them.
A Complementary Skill Set for Your Leadership Team
I like to think of a company’s leadership team as a superhero squad. No mortal person could handle all of the things they collectively manage. However, when you combine their varied skill sets and personalities, the leadership team is able to tackle whatever comes their way, together.
Evaluate what strengths are already covered in your existing leadership team. Understand what complementary skill set the CFO should bring to the group. You’ll want a diverse group of thinkers that can challenge each other.
If you’re a technical founder, you might want a CFO with more operational experience. If you’re a founder with a sales or marketing background, it might be nice to have a more analytical thinker to balance out your creativity.
The Right Fit for Your Company
No single person will save your company or hack your growth. It’s not about finding the best person with the biggest corporate names on their resumé; you’re better off identifying the best fit for your situation.
Too often, early-stage companies hire the CFO for the logos on their resumé rather than their skills, strengths and hands-on capabilities. I’m not saying a big-name CFO can’t succeed at a startup, but make sure you’re hiring a CFO that fits the requirements for your company’s stage and growth trajectory.
Where to Find Financial Expertise
Now that you know what to look for in a CFO, it’s time to start finding the right candidate for your company. If you’re not quite ready for a CFO — or you’re looking for strategic resources to help your existing CFO — you can turn to York IE’s Corporate Strategy and FP&A practice.
We help companies address complexities in financial planning, forecasting, budgeting and modeling. Our team also supports strategic planning for organizational expansion, fundraising, bookkeeping and overall growth.
If you’re looking for hands-on, strategic guidance with your company’s finances, let’s talk.