From Big Companies to Small: The Changing CFO Role

March 4, 2021 Lydia Adams

cfo changing role from big company to small office

As we navigate our way through our careers in the finance world, many of us may find ourselves changing from or to a new CFO role and going from large companies to smaller ones. And few things can be as jarring and hard to deal with on a professional level as moving from one to the other. You get used to certain cultural norms in one, and then you move to the other and find that you feel completely out of place. Because remember growth opportunities come from all places, all angles, and in this case, all sizes.

On this week’s episode of CFO Weekly, we talked with Jeff Lasher. Jeff is the Chief Financial Officer at Coravin, and has held a number of different leadership positions for just 1 finance team or multiple teams at a number of different sized companies, from small companies to companies like Ford Motor Company.

 
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Our conversation touched on the most challenging and rewarding parts of moving from large to small companies, advice for successfully transitioning from one to the other and why mentorship is so crucial to professional development and the finance function as a whole.

Leading at A Smaller Company: Challenges & Rewards

jeff lasher quote

According to Jeff, the most challenging part of a smaller company can also be the most rewarding. Smaller firms are certainly more stressful in a lot of ways, but every day is usually different. You wear a lot of hats in a smaller company, as opposed to just being siloed in one function, as is often the case with a larger company.

That doesn’t mean that everybody can make that transition. Oftentimes, people will think that moving from a large company to a small one will be good for them, only to find themselves unable to handle the reduced amount of structure and guidance, the ambiguity, and the competing priorities.

That doesn't mean that one is better than the other, but there are most certainly differences to consider when making the switch from a large company to a small one.

“It's clear to me that the biggest career transition challenge is moving from a big company to a small company, or from a public accounting training program into a position at a commercial for-profit business,” Lasher said.

Making the Switch To A Smaller Company - Changing CFO Role

business culture is a key success factor for every cfo changing roles

If you are considering making the switch from a large company to a smaller one, there are some things to consider in order to make the transition easier for you, and to increase the likelihood that you’ll enjoy your move.

“The culture of any business is a key success factor for the long-term entity growth and business success," Lasher said.

First, look for a well-thought-out mission statement and guiding principles.  Too many company cultures have been ripped apart by too many priorities such as supply chain, data analytics, data visualization, etc. Leaders often have a view of what the mission and guiding principles SHOULD be, rather than what they ACTUALLY are.

It’s also critically important that leadership walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If leadership is preaching one thing but doing the opposite, that’s usually a pretty clear sign that mission and vision aren’t at the center of the company’s strategy. If a leader is preaching frugality and saving money, but flying a private jet to meetings, it’s going to be hard to follow their lead or trust what they have to say.

Building a Winning Accounting Team When Changing CFO Role From Big to Small a Small Organization

Once you’ve made the switch, it’s time to start building your team and work on a risk management plan, but what should you look for in order to build a winning team, specifically at a small- to mid-size company? What should you be seeking out in your hires?

Jeff and his team have four major criteria that they look for. The ability to learn what you don’t know and to have the intellectual curiosity level to learn continually. The capability of working independently and having self-motivation. Good communication skills and the ability to write a coherent email that gets the point across. The proven ability to speak truth to power. Can they stand their ground and make their case when it goes against popular opinion?

But just because you hire a good team, it doesn't mean you’re always going to agree with everyone all of the time. Which brings us to the last part of our conversation: How do you build a team to compensate for your own weaknesses, and how do you get comfortable with people who may not always agree with you?

Managing Conflicts As A Financial Leader

Because we all work with humans, conflict is going to be inevitable. We’re not always going to agree with everything that all of our colleagues do, and that’s okay.

What’s important is learning how to get comfortable with people not agreeing with everything that we say or do. The key is self-awareness. Know yourself well enough to know that you don’t have all of the answers, and ask for feedback often from your peers. But here’s the trick: Don't just ask, “how am I doing?” That question will be met with positive feedback 90% of the time.

If you’re really wanting constructive feedback, you’re going to have to get specific and vulnerable with your colleagues. Ask for feedback in a way that demonstrates your desire to understand how you can improve. How you specifically can better contribute to the success of the organization and the health of your team.

If you’re the smartest person on your team, you may have a problem. Our conversation with Jeff also touched on mentorship, the role it plays in professional development, and the ways in which leaders can inspire those around them on a daily basis, but for that content, you’ll have to listen to the episode.

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