Ciara is a seasoned CFO, with experience as a finance leader across privately owned and PE-backed businesses, and a range of sectors. But with every business presenting different challenges, how does Ciara handle the pre-joining and early stages of the CFO role, what are the key relationships to navigate in a PE-backed business, and what's her strategy for dealing with performance issues and bringing change?
Reflecting on your experiences to date, could you share your insight on preparing to move into a new CFO role, particularly within the context of PE-backed businesses?
There’s no one-size-fits-all, especially at a PE-backed organisation because it depends so much on the lifecycle stage of the business. But one thing I have noticed is that as an incoming CFO, you’ll often meet the CEO and HR director before you join and not necessarily many other people. I’ve found it helpful to be proactive in speaking with the CEO to identify the key stakeholders who you’ll be working with and asking (if possible) for those introductions before you start.
The PE houses I’ve worked with have also all been very different. Some are a lot more hands on than others, and I've worked with an international PE house that had very few portfolio businesses in the UK, so there were some cultural differences. Seeing if you can have someone introduce you to one of the CFOs at a portfolio business, or even asking the PE house if they can arrange that, will really help you start to understand how they work, what their expectations are going to be and what that will mean for your role.
If you have trusted advisers who can help you to do your due diligence on the company culture before you join, making use of that can also be a big help because you’re never going to be able to know exactly what a business’s culture or stakeholders will be like from interviews and introductory conversations alone.
Your First 100 Days as a CFO
Particularly in private equity-backed businesses, getting the relationships with the CEO and investors right can be a difficult balancing act. Could you share your thoughts on navigating those relationships?
Over time, I’ve increasingly found that the relationship with the CEO is different to the one you have with investors, but it’s just as important. Clear communication is a key part of that. For example, if you find you need to challenge numbers early on, but the CEO has very recently presented that plan to the board, how are you going to approach that?
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be raising issues as you identify them, as you need to show investors that you can do that in a timely manner and are able to add value. But you also need to remember how important that relationship is and be careful with your messaging to keep it intact.
You’ll be working with the CEO more closely on the everyday running of the business and delivering on leadership and driving the culture, regardless of the relationship with the investors, so it is important that you and the CEO are aligned.
What strategies or approaches do you think can help new CFOs to get to know the business and their team in their first few weeks in the role?
You’re going to spend a lot less time doing core finance tasks when you move into the CFO role, so you really need to get to know and trust your team. I always put an hour in with each member of the finance team in my first few weeks to get to know them – not just what they do but what they like about the business, what their goals are – and to establish that open-door policy, which helps a lot.
I’ve also found it increasingly important to hold back on judgement early on, because you might identify an individual or team that seems to be underperforming, but through a deep dive, it turns out that it’s the tools or processes that are the underlying problem. If there are performance issues, I want to make sure I’m making my own mind up on the situation and understanding the ‘why’ before making any decisions.
That’s important to make sure you don’t start alienating people. Especially if it’s your first CFO role, you might feel under pressure to come in and make massive change right away, when it turns out you just need to bring stability or a different strategic direction. So I’d withhold judgement and making significant changes until you know you have all the information and are able to make up your own mind.