Why Strong Financial Teams Begin With a Strong CFO Leader

October 5, 2022 Mimi Torrignton

business leaders discussing the best strategies to build strong financial teams

The CFO role has evolved and transitioned from accounting to operations and leadership. All modern CFOs should treat their work like their businesses, and they have to care about all the internal teams and customers. That is a challenging task, considering CFOs were taught they should focus only on finance. So how can CFOs get fantastic and strong financial teams?

In this episode of the CFO Weekly podcast, Adnan Mughal, the Chief Financial Officer at Cherry Coatings, joins us to discuss how to find and retain top talent to build a strong financial team and why CFOs should focus primarily on people instead of just numbers.

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Welcome back to CFO Weekly, where we're talking with financial leaders about how to build efficiency in their teams, create time for strategy, and ultimately, get results. With your host Megan Weis, let's jump right in.

Megan: Today, my guest is Adnan Mughal. Adnan is the chief financial officer at Cherry Coatings, the largest commercial-focused industrial services company based in the US, leading all its functions from accounting, finance, human resources, information technology, and business transformation, to optimize profitable growth and company valuation.

Mr. Mughal is also an operating advisor of Patron Capital, focused on Patron's residential services and market strategy. Mr. Mughal helps identify, evaluate, and due diligence potential partnership opportunities, and collaborates with management teams of their partner companies to help scale their businesses, including helping define the value creation strategy, assemble the necessary talent and resources for accelerated growth, and execute operational improvements.

Prior to Patron and Cherry Coatings, Mr. Mughal was the chief financial officer of Service Experts, a private equity-backed HVAC business, with 95-plus centers and over 4,000 employees. At Service Experts, Mr. Mughal was a member of the senior management team that planned and executed a growth strategy focused on organic growth, margin expansion, greenfield expansion, and acquisitions. During his tenure with Service Experts, the company successfully closed and integrated over a dozen add-on acquisitions, while organically expanding services offerings across North America.

Prior to Service Experts, Mr. Mughal was vice president, finance at BrightView, a private equity-backed landscaping business that he assisted take public in 2018. Prior to BrightView, Mr. Mughal held senior leadership roles at a variety of residential services and infrastructure businesses, including SunEdison, General Dynamics, and General Electric. Mr. Mughal received a bachelor of science in business management from North Carolina State University, an MBA from Texas A&M University, and an executive education from Harvard Business School. Adnan, thank you so much for being on today's episode.

Adnan Mughal: Thank you. Thank you for the invite, and thank you for having me on this episode. It's a great opportunity and looking forward to the conversation.

Megan: It's an honor. Today, we're going to be discussing your career journey and the insights you've gathered along the way, specifically regarding the role of a CFO. I'm looking forward to hearing your story and learning from you. Let's get started.

Adnan: Great.

Megan: First, let's start with your story and how it is that you got to where you are today.

Adnan: That's a good question. I guess for that I'll go way, way back. I come from a family of business-oriented people. Growing up, never thought that I would go work for anybody. I always had this plan that I will have my own business, and that's how I was wired. I made my plans. I had a structure in place. I even started venturing towards it. While I was in college, I wanted to open or start a chain of eye care centers. Then after that, I decided to go to grad school. When I graduated, this was the time when the dot-com bubble had burst. It wasn't the best time, needless to say, to start a business.

I ventured into looking for an opportunity and ended up joining one of remote facilities for General Dynamics out in Western North Carolina. I guess right place right time, moved up quite a few times. Then eventually, through different various companies, roles, opportunities, kept on moving up, challenged quite a few times, learned quite a few things along the way, some the hard way. Very fortunate to be in a position where I'm leading a team. I'm being inspired every day by my own team members, and hopefully, I'm doing the same for them as well.

Megan: As you look back on your career, are there moments or stories you can point to as turning points?

Adnan: One of the big one, for me, that stands out is when I decided to leave General Dynamics and join General Electric. I had a pretty amazing run at General Dynamics, where the seven years that I was with them, I think I got promoted five or six times, and I was overseeing close to half a billion dollar P&L. I wanted to join a company that truly invested in their employees and focused on developing them as leaders. At that time, in the mid-2000s, early 2000s, GE had a very, very strong name in terms of developing people. I knew about this leadership program, and I wanted to be part of that.

I decided to leave General Dynamics, where a lot of people were surprised, a lot of people were, actually, shocked that, "What are you trying to do?" I was one of their youngest directors of finance, but I wanted the opportunity to invest in myself, so I made a change. I'm so, so glad that I did because it was the perfect platform for me to develop myself and truly learn, you could say, the basic fundamentals of being a business leader, not just a finance leader but a business leader.

That pretty much then going through a leadership program, one of their most prestigious leadership program called Executive Financial Leadership Program. That set up an amazing platform for me to then experience live projects, take courses in Ivy League schools. It opened a lot of doors for me, not only within the company and then after me moving on further opportunities.

Megan: I've heard so many stories about that leadership program at GE. It sounds like it must have been an amazing experience.

Adnan: Absolutely. GE is or was-- hopefully, it still is, was one of the places where people truly would go into work with the mindset that they are going to make impossible possible today. You're surrounded with people who have a similar focus. When you're surrounded with very smart people, you have to push yourself beyond your limits, and then get to create new limits for yourself. In that environment, you learned a lot. Then especially being highlighted or being recognized to be in a leadership program, that's one of the biggest, I should say, motivations within the company to do even more or better.

Megan: You mentioned having moved up the ranks quite quickly. What is it that you credit for being able to do that?

Adnan: Apart from, I would say, being right place right time, then I guess a little bit of [crosstalk]

Megan: It's got to be way more than that. [chuckles]

Adnan: I would say that it's the basic fundamentals. I think one of the key things for me, again, was growing up in a household of business or being part of a business-oriented environment right from the beginning. Then after that, every business that I've been part of, I've treated it as if it's my own work, my own business. I take it seriously the same way. If it's managing costs, I would view it just like as if I'm managing my own cost at my house and doing a budget at my house. I would manage the business cost with the same rigor. That's one part of it.

Then it's also something that I've learned from one of the leaders at GE, my mentor, her name is Candy Carson, she told me, "Surround yourself with smart people. Surround yourself with people who know more than you." That is a trait that I've taken with me in any role that I go through that. I spend the time in finding the right people to help the company move forward and be successful. If you're able to bring the right people on the team, then my job is to just get out of the way.

Megan: Let's talk about that for just a minute, so people. Today, the staffing situation, it seems to be at the top of everybody's mind. How is it that you are continuing to find the right people? How do you make sure that you're retaining those people once you've found them?

Adnan: People, it is certainly a challenge. It's a huge challenge. From my regard, it's I take the time to find the people. Majority of the people that I'm currently working with are the people that I've been working with for the last 10 years, or somewhere along the process. I stay in touch with them, even if I've changed roles or if they've changed roles. When I find the right opportunity, I stay connected with them either through LinkedIn or personal email and keep a pulse on how their careers are going, and trying to find opportunities, how we can cross paths again.

Along the way, it's also, while you're working with them, treat them the way you would like to be treated and creating that positive environment for them, challenge them so that it's an environment where they learn. Along the process, you also learn as well, get to learn about their personal side. It's extremely important to invest the time in learning about your team, because if you don't, then somebody else will come and scoop them up. It's not always about, "Hey, am I getting the right salary or compensation package?" Sometimes there's a balance of, "Is the working environment healthy for me or not?"

How you protect them, shield them, and providing the environment where they can excel is extremely important. I guess I must have done something right that they still like to come work for me. So far, things have been progressing well, but don't get me wrong, there's still challenges. There's still roles that I'm still trying to fill and it's not the easiest thing in the world.

Megan: Yes. That speaks volumes when people are willing to follow you throughout your career. When you look back when you were first starting off as a CFO, what was one or maybe a couple things that you found to be more challenging than maybe you expected?

Adnan: They were I would say the balance between your internal customer, your external customer maintaining that balance I would say that was something tough or tougher than what I thought it to be. Everybody has this imagination that as you continue to move up it senior people, they only delegate and they're not doing a whole lot and it's just making decisions and everybody else is the one who's working hard. It is so opposite of that. Or at least that's how I've experienced.

Maintaining that balance, when I say internal external customers, whether you're external customer are banks or auditors or your private equity sponsors, or people above you and internal, as in either it's working with operations, working with sales or to a certain degree, your own team. How you continue to maintain that balance? That's a challenge that I've seen because all of them are wanting things in a different way. How you continue to maintain that equilibrium is very important. Another one that I would highlight is, again, goes back to people. Everything starts and end with people. If you don't have the right team members or quality people as part of your team, it's going to be a pretty significant challenge.

If you do feel that at some point that you have a team member, who's not the right fit, who's not the right cultural fit, I should say, then either try to correct that as quickly as possible or maybe find somebody else.

Megan: That's great advice. You've been in the role of CFO for a while. How have you seen the role evolve? Let's say maybe in the last decade or so.

Adnan: I would classify it. I've viewed my role always in a way that I'm a business leader who happens to have a focus in finance and my role is to influence operations to deliver positive financials. What that means is anything in everything that is in between to deliver positive financials, I have a role to play in that. If there are execution gaps in operations, let's go work with operations to find out where the pressure points are. What can we do as finance to help them make better decisions? Maybe it's some analytical support that we can provide. Also highlight the fact that if we're seeing trends, how we can equip them with information that would make them more efficient?

Again, if their pressures from a sales perspective, let's do some analysis around, "Hey, how can we bring on more salespeople to drive more volume in a specific area where we've seen success in the past?" Our convertibility rate has been higher. It's all about, and even from managing costs hiring, firing people, if working with HR, anything and everything. It's more of a CFO/COO-type environment that I've always operated in and that's how I was trained from companies like General Dynamics and General Electric. That's what I tried to execute on.

I've seen that to be a successful trick for me. I've seen this transition people coming from just reviewing, seeing spreadsheets, and only focused from an accounting perspective, transitioning over to more operational finance-type roles. That's what I would say that I've seen the transition from a traditional accounting-focused CFOs into more operational finance CFOs.

Megan: It seems so important these days for CFOs to get closer to operations. How would you recommend maybe a new CFO goes about developing a relationship or getting themselves more familiar or closer to operations?

Adnan: I would say it's extremely, extremely important for them to establish that relation and come across as if you are their partner and you're here to help. Because if we have that strong, lack of a better word, like attitude about, "Hey, I'm a senior finance leader, you will do, as I tell you," that's not going to go far at all. You have to come across that I'm here to help, we're in this together, and we'll figure out a solution, and we'll together execute on that. If something doesn't go right, then both of us are going to be held accountable, but at the same time, we will find a solution and work on it together.

You have to understand their pressure points. If you don't, then they're always going to be some degree of friction. Friction is not a good environment to have, or culture to create within an organization where you're trying to move forward, deliver positive financials it becomes a challenge. That's what I would say, spend the time learn the business, reach out to operations people, and say that, "Hey, I want to learn, and the more you help me, I'll be in a better position to then turn around and help you."

Megan: I'm just curious when you did the leadership program at GE was part of that program to go through operations in some way or another?

Adnan: Absolutely. GE was all about that we are developing business leaders. Some people may have different focuses but the primary thing was we're developing business leaders. Some may have a focus in finance. Some may have a focus on the IT side. Some may have a focus on the sales side, but eventually all of the people who are being developed as business leaders.

If you pull yourself out of one particular focus, you should be able to understand and lead a team of specialized individual in a different environment as well. Because from a business perspective, fundamentals are the same and sometimes we say in finance, the fundamentals are the same, same thing applies on the business side. That was something that GE focused heavily on. It was quite common for finance people to transition over to operations within GE in many divisional roles. I've seen that finance people becoming from CFO roles in divisional CFO roles to divisional CEO roles, or also being part of sales team on the commercial side as well.

I've seen a spectrum of people even outside of General Electric, who were trained by GE and doing roles that are outside of finance. I viewed myself to be one of those business leaders who just, for now, it happens to be a focus in finance, but I always tend to view and put myself in operations position that if they are facing these challenges, what would I do?

Megan: Again, I'm just curious, once you were done with that program, did you take anything away from it? I'm sure you did, but do you put your own people today through the similar rotational program, or what lessons did you learn from that, that you continue to implement today for your own people?

Adnan: One of the things that I've learned was people are the most important asset that you have. Helping them in terms of their career aspiration, giving them opportunity to understand what other opportunities that they have just around the corner or within the organization is extremely important. At the same time set the goals, set targets for them, challenge them to do more than what they've done in the past. Do it in a way that there's some degree of balance as well. Especially in this day and age, work-life balance extremely important. In the past, we used to talk about it, but now people are focused on trying to somehow have that as part of their expectation.

How you help them create that kind of environment, but again, it goes back to the people aspect. Am I able to replicate what GE was doing? GE, of course, was a huge organization. They had the resources to develop people in that fashion. What I tend to do now is the target opportunities that we can if there's some specialized leadership courses in our close by, educational institute, or even anything that is online. I strongly encourage my team members, the more education that you can get the better it will be for your own personal development. It's always going to help you if not right away but in the long run.

That's what I try to instill in my team and they're doing the same with their own team members. That was something that I would say that I certainly learned coming out of that program that education always helped. Networking is extremely important. The more you network I think it also helps you build the confidence to be able to have the interaction with different team members and learn from what they're doing in their own roles.

Megan: As you look back on your career, are there mistakes that you've seen other people make, or maybe that you've made yourself that you'd like to help other CFOs avoid?

Adnan: That's a good one. From a perspective of-- I've made many mistakes in my career, first of all. I would also classify them as opportunities for me to learn. Opportunities for me to then reflect on and see that I don't repeat them again. I've made mistakes about timing from a strategy perspective that I completely missed out on a potential risk that is popping up. I've made mistakes like hiring the wrong people. I've made mistakes like taking on a role at the wrong time but then feeling that, hey, I'm under pressure, but I've learned the most out of those roles.

It's all about converting the, you could say the mistake that you think and converting it into an opportunity. If you feel that you've made a mistake, put your head down, focus on the role, and prove yourself wrong. If you truly believe you made a mistake, prove yourself wrong by overcoming that. When you come out of it, you're going to be way stronger than where you were when you started that role. I've made some of those mistakes and I'm better because of those mistakes.

Megan: That's some great advice. Mistakes they're inevitable. We are only human, but it's what you do with the learnings after those mistakes, it's so important.

Adnan: Absolutely.

Megan: As you look back on your career, do you ever regret not going into opening your own business, or is there something you would've done differently along the way?

Adnan: Yes, no. As I'm getting older, yes, I do think about it. I think about it a lot that, hey, I could have started the chain of high care center and I would've been my own boss. Again, those were some plans. I used to work at land scrapers while I was in college just so that I could learn the trade and be able to apply that when I started my own work. Sometimes we make our plans and they don't pan out the way we want to. Also, in my case, it was that I finished grad school, I got married. I had a worry about paying bills so I ended up taking a role with General Dynamics and starting a business at that time was not the best idea. You get dependent on a paycheck.

You just don't want to take that risk. Your plan sits there in the corner collecting dust. Yes, there are times when I think about it, but then I think about what I have achieved, what I've accomplished. I'm not sure if I would've been able to do it if I had started my own work. I'm not trying to discourage anybody and not thinking about starting their own work. They absolutely should. Consider that whatever makes them feel more comfortable in the space that they're in and they have a passion about it, please do so, experiment, and try it out.

In my case, I then eventually got comfortable with the role that I was in and I decided to work the hardest that I can to do the best that I can in that time. That opened more and more opportunities for me. I never thought that I would get to a position where I'd be a CFO for a billion-dollar organization or so on and so forth. I feel one of the fortunate ones and I feel that I just am blessed with so many things around me. I'm blessed with my family, my kids, my parents, I'm in a happy space. Sometimes you just think about that if I would've done this, the reality could have been different, but currently, I'm happy where I am. I'm glad that I chose this route.

Megan: I love also what you said about that you had a passion about maybe running your own business someday, but you took that passion and applied it to your corporate world. You ran that business. I'm sure that's helped you greatly throughout your career.

Adnan: Absolutely. Absolutely. Again, I'm very fortunate. Like I said, in the beginning, I guess, right place, right time, a little bit of hard work. It certainly did help me.

Megan: Let's talk about your work environment right now. Are there any tools, or apps, or technologies that are helping you that you'd like to highlight, or maybe you feel like they're making your life easier, and they could be making someone else's life easier as well?

Adnan: There are all sorts of tools and I don't want to name it by-- I'm not trying to be their sponsors or have not being paid to mention any particular tool. There are tons of tools out there, but I would say the biggest tool out of all of them is, again, going back to having the right kind of people. Having the right kind of people as part of your team, I would say by far is the best tool that you can have. Of course, even being in finance or business apart from having tools. A lot of times, fortunately, unfortunately, we still refer back to Excel in so many different ways to conduct our analysis. That is always going to be there.

It's having the reference point in terms of how your actuals are coming in, comparing with your prior year, comparing with your budget, and then establishing the forecast. Those are some traditional mechanisms which have worked really, really well. Then establishing scenarios depending on what kind of risks that you're evaluating or seeing in the business. Having scenarios in place and mitigation plans, and also plans that you can trigger based on if you are in a position where you have to start looking at cost or if you're in a position to bring on more salespeople, you should always have your plan B, C, D in place.

Megan: I love what you said about people, because oftentimes, the focus is so heavily on technology and automation, and someday there's going to be no need for people. I think at the end of the day, it still comes down to creating strong, talented teams that perform exceptionally well. I agree, people are important. In times like these when they're in such short supply, I think it's just highlighted.

Adnan: Yes, no, absolutely. You may call me traditional or old school and I very well may be one of those people, but I see tremendous value. Again, having the right kind of skill sets around you makes a huge, huge difference, and they make you a better leader. That is also something important that it's not that you have surrounded with people who only follow your direction. You need to have people who will challenge you as well and this way, you are cultivating that environment that they can freely express what they're seeing as opportunities and risks.

Megan: Maybe not just people who are like yes people, but also compliment your weaknesses, which some people don't want to admit they have weaknesses, but we all do.

Adnan: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Megan: You've had a very successful career. What would you say to someone who's maybe just starting their career or a few years into their career that's wanting to reach the role of CFO?

Adnan: I would say that having the passion of what you're doing is extremely important. You need to absolutely love what you're doing and are willing to make it a big portion of your life. If you have that fire in you and if you have that passion that I want to excel, then spend the time learn about what other leaders have done in the past. One of the great things for me that has helped and I'm not saying that's the only thing.

One of the things that I early in my career especially right when I was joining GE or after joining GE, I used to watch some of Jack Welsh's videos on YouTube. I would try to learn gauge in different scenarios, different environments, how he was making decisions and how he would encourage team members, how he would try to challenge team members to do better than what they've done in the past. That was something that I used to get gravitated towards trying to understand leadership skills from proven leaders and then try to apply your own flavor or mix to it.

You don't have to do exactly what they're telling you, but try to understand what their focus is and implement it, execute it with your own way of doing things and try to personalize that but again, you need to have that passion that's what you want to do, but also, it's okay, that along the way if you feel that you want transition into something else, just follow where your passion is and you'll be successful if your passion is that, hey, one day you want to be a CFO, you'll figure out a way to get there.

All I would suggest is the way I viewed it from a CFO perspective was when I was graduating from college, I felt, or in my mind it was more like I have now bought myself a toolbox, which is empty and now throughout the career, as you're doing different roles, you are gathering different tools and some are good quality tools, some are not, but you're putting all the tools in that toolbox and then eventually you'll come to a point where you will say that, "Hey, you know what, I've gathered all the tools to be an enterprise level CFO." All the roles that you do as in controllership, FP&A, internal audit, or treasury, those are all the tools that you have been gathering.

You just need to make sure you're gathering the right tool and the right quality tool over a period of time for you to be in that CFO role. [crosstalk]

Megan: That's great advice. Last question, as a CFO, what, as you look out into the next six months to a year, is your greatest concern?

Adnan: There are a number of risks that are certainly out there, there's the people risk like we've already talked about, then there's already a big risk around inflation. Everything is becoming very, very expensive especially in the last couple years with COVID coming into the picture and then the fear of a potential recession. During these times, it's how we navigate through these. It's going to be a little interesting. I'm spending a lot of time following various economists greeting about how our federal reserve is evaluating the overall economy.

Although those things may be at the macro level, but they eventually will come down to impacting your own business as well. Keeping up pulse on what's happening in the macro-economic environment, also, what's happening globally as well. I'm not trying to get into politics, but also what's happening in Europe. Those things also impact you so fuel prices, so on and so forth and just to name one, so keeping the pulse on those, I think is important. I see them as potential risks, but like I said, again, people are the biggest piece. It starts with that. It's already a challenge.

The rest of the challenges are going to be there from an operational perspective. Hey, our leaders or sponsors want to see things in a certain way, but those you can figure out how to manage and as you get to interact with them frequently, you'll understand the ways on how to communicate and how to maintain that balance but it's these external factors, which can make it a little more Interesting.

Megan: Great answer. Adnan, thank you so much for being my guest today.

Adnan: No, I appreciate the opportunity. It was great spending time with you and I appreciate the time. Thank you for again for letting me share what I have learned and letting me tell you my side of the story.

Megan: I really enjoyed hearing that story and all of the resulting insights that have come from your experience and I wish you all the best. To all of our listeners, please tune in next week, and until then, take care.

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You've been listening to CFO Weekly, presented by Personiv. Please subscribe wherever you get your podcast to hear all of our episodes. Want to learn more, check out personiv.com. Thanks for listening.

In this episode, we discuss finding and retaining the right people, how CFOs can familiarize themselves with operations, why CFOs need to put people first, among other exciting topics.

Finding and Retaining the Right People for Strong Financial Teams

Quote finding the right financial people

Getting the right people on your team is time-consuming and challenging. But once you have found them, keep them engaged, stay connected with them, and try to find opportunities to cross paths again. Furthermore, create a positive environment and challenge them so that they can learn and grow along the process. And invest the time in learning about your team.

“Treat them the way you would like to be treated”

Getting Closer to Operations

Quote adnan mughal CFO

A CFO is a business leader who focuses on the financial aspect of a business and influences operations to deliver positive financial results. To become a successful CFO, you have to establish a positive relationship with the operation team, understand their pressure points, learn the business, and help them achieve their goals.

“I've seen the transition from traditional accounting-focused CFOs into more operational finance CFOs”

Putting People First

Quote putting strong financial teams first

Help your people in terms of their career aspirations. Allow them to understand what other opportunities they have. Set challenging goals and targets for them, but do it in a way that focuses on work-life balance.

“People are the most important asset that you have”

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