Working as an Interim CFO: Tips for Success From an Expert

Andrea Tiller

The role of the chief financial officer is increasing in importance and influence in many organizations. Andrea Tiller has had a front-row seat to the “CFO evolution” during her nearly three-decade career working in finance. She’s served as a CFO for a diverse range of public and private firms including a biotechnology company, a consumer products business, a Software-as-a-Service provider and an online demand-generation firm. In several cases, Tiller has worked as an interim CFO, on a consulting basis.

We recently asked Tiller to share her insights on what it takes to succeed as a CFO at a time when expectations for this executive-level position have never been higher, and more specifically, what aspiring finance leaders should know about working as an interim CFO. Here’s what she had to say:

What do you find most fulfilling about working as an interim management consultant? And how is the experience different from working in a full-time position?

Consulting positions allow you to bring skills, tools, strategies and experience to an organization, and to be viewed and listened to as an expert. You can make a huge impact working on a consulting basis. If you have a native desire to solve thorny problems, and enjoy helping people and businesses succeed, this is a great path. However, keep in mind that you may not still be with the client organization when they realize the rewards of your recommendations.

Full-time positions, meanwhile, allow you to take the long view and build solid performance over time. You get to enjoy the fruits of your work. And you can fight for your ideas “in the arena.”

What skills do you think any CFO needs to succeed in business today?

Leadership and team-building abilities are essential, of course. Strong technical skills and solid operational knowledge are very important, too. A CFO also should be inquisitive, and have an analytical mind and outstanding problem-solving skills.

In addition, a CFO should have a strong strategic vision for the organization, along with a general desire to drive continuous improvement. He or she should also be transparent and collaborative.

What types of technology tools do you think are most important for your job? 

Most organizations look for CFOs who can work with technology and collaborate effectively with their counterparts in IT. During my career, knowledge of enterprise resource planning (ERP) as well as industry-specific systems such as customer relationship management (CRM) solutions has been essential. Experience with big data and business intelligence tools, and with team collaboration and communication tools such as JIRA, Slack and Trello, is also becoming more important.

How do you keep your own skill sets up to date and further your professional development?

I try to take two to three classes, at minimum, each year. I am a voracious reader, with an abiding interest in big data, business analytics, and financial planning and analysis. I always love to learn a new piece of software, a new tool or a new methodology. I’m also a member of several Silicon Valley incubators, so I get to stay on top of what’s new.

How would you say the CFO role is changing, in general? 

I see five types of CFOs in the business world today:

  • Traditionalist: These CFOs tend to look backwards and are all about compliance.
  • Analytical: These executives are focused on transparency. They have a deep understanding of the numbers, can explain things clearly to leadership, and are quick to sound the alarm when there’s a problem with the data.
  • Strategic: This type of CFO understands the marketplace, can predict environmental changes, and is comfortable suggesting remediation or recommending new capabilities to management.
  • Tech-savvy: This CFO leverages technology for competitive advantage and to boost productivity, and is proactive about transforming an organization’s business systems landscape.
  • Disruptive: These CFOs are focused on the future — seeing around corners, anticipating change. They’re prepared to play offense and help the business create disruption in the market.

In the past, the traditionalist CFO was the only option. Now, every CEO I know wants a CFO who is a little bit of all five CFO types I described.

When working as an interim CFO, what are some hurdles that you must overcome when joining a team at such a high level, and for only a finite time? 

This is an area where I have learned so much from the millennial generation. Lean in. Don’t take things personally. Build goals in consensus. Push the pace. Be transparent. Be authentic. Find how you can best help the organization. Teach. Mentor. Be accessible. Don’t just share the credit, make others look good. Be the person who reaches a hand out to help, not the person who kicks others when they’re down. I call it doing the job with “fierce grace.”

Looking back on your experience to date working as an interim CFO, which accomplishment would you say you are most proud of?

I worked for a client that is committed to innovation. The firm created an internal startup to provide services in an entirely new way, from the client interface to business analytics to new pricing, including employment models and measurements of performance. The startup team had tried three times, without success, to wrap all this innovation into a stable, operationally focused, agile, internal financial performance platform. 

When they brought me in, the assignment was to assist in building a profit and loss statement for the internal startup in three months. That led to the client asking for my help in developing the financial reporting package, key performance indicators, a business dashboard, forecasting, compensation incentives, close methods and more.

Eighteen months later, their new idea has reached considerable size, with year-over-year growth at hyper-growth levels. Pretty cool, huh?

What key tip for success can you provide to professionals who want to work as interim CFOs?

Most important is understanding that even an interim CFO needs to form a successful partnership with the CEO. You must be able to help the CEO realize his or her vision. So, can you build that partnership? Can you visualize the path to achieving that vision? Can you build trust? If not, don’t force it. Find a CEO who will love you and your skills.

Working as a consultant with Robert Half Management Resources can help you to expand your professional network and find diverse and challenging projects that align with your specific skills and experience. If you’re interested in the consulting path, search our site for opportunities.

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Tags: CFO, Consulting