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Step boldly, and other tips for becoming a great CFO

How can you become a great CFO? Following are some best practices I have observed as a Mergers & Acquisitions specialist:

Be fearless. A great CFO must be fearless when it comes to telling the truth to ownership. If the numbers don’t add up, it doesn’t matter how much ownership loves a new piece of equipment, additional warehouse space, a particularly qualified new hire or a tempting potential merger.  A great CFO will clearly demonstrate to ownership why the numbers don’t add up, and bravely support his or her thesis.  

Be creative. While honesty may be the best policy, creativity is also a desirable personal attribute. If at all possible, develop a revised thesis when the numbers don’t add up. The CFO’s office shouldn’t be the place where dreams go to die. A great CFO will work with ownership to help make dreams come true.

Build strong relationships. Just as a rainy day is no time to walk outside to purchase an umbrella, a somewhat pressing need for additional capital is no time to begin lining up financing sources.  Know whom you are going to call before it is time to call. When it is time to make the call, make sure the person on the other end of the line will know who you are.

Be a good storyteller. Very few financial executives are hired because of their ability to tell a good story.  But while I will concede a great CFO must first be technically proficient, the ability to tell a good story is also a critical skill. While marketing will tell a company’s story to the consumer marketplace, it is finance’s job to tell the company’s story to the financial community.  Numbers will lay the foundation and a compelling narrative will build the super structure.

Be a true believer.  In order to persuasively tell your company’s story, you must fully believe in the company’s mission.  More than this, you must believe your company is making the world a better place for customers, employees, vendors and strategic partners. If you don’t believe this to be the case, work with ownership and senior management to change the mission. Consider changing jobs if, following valiant effort, you are unable to help effect this change.

Have vision.  Great companies grow and adapt to shifting market conditions.  Great CFOs possess the broad vision to help these companies grow and make necessary course corrections. Dexterity with balance sheets and income statements will get a CFO on the payroll.  However, doing what it takes to make today look like yesterday isn’t enough when tomorrow is guaranteed to change. Disruptive technology, climate change, fragile supply chains, shifting customer preferences and fierce international competition require a CFO to be able to see around the bend and over the horizon. He or she must then be able to boldly take necessary corrective actions.

Claim a seat at the kitchen table. Resist the easy temptation to be a financial manager. Instead, step up to become a fully credentialed financial strategist. Numerical equations, when expressed by a financial artist, are another kind of poetry.  Refuse to be typecast as a bean counter and numbers cruncher. Step boldly into the light as a change maker who helps to set your company’s course.

Be voracious. Change has always been constant; it is just that it happens more quickly today.  Don’t become lost in a sea of numbers. Take time each day to learn about emerging trends and technologies. Keep a steady eye on markets as they evolve. Soak up as much information as you can, and then try to determine how this information should drive your evolving financial strategy.

Take time each day to look out the window. If you don’t have a window, take a walk. If you don’t have time to take a walk, lean back in your chair to stare at the ceiling. Greatness will only come with deep reflection. While decisive action is mandatory, action must be led by careful thought.

Have soft hands. Just because numbers feel solid and appear to be set in stone, this does not mean financial strategy should be rigid. Imagine you are a third baseman fielding a short hop.  Wait for the ball to come to you, and glove the ball from where it wants to go.

I earlier offered the advice to be a great CFO you must believe in your company’s mission. Of course, the first step on the road to greatness is to believe in yourself. Enjoy the journey.

Michael Lamm is a Managing Partner at Corporate Advisory Solutions, a boutique merchant bank headquartered in Philadelphia and serving Lehigh Valley businesses. Michael can be reached at or 202-904-7192. 

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