[CFO Weekly] Episode 10: Advice From a Young CFO - Getting to the Top & Making Your Mark

July 28, 2020 Lydia Adams

advice from a young cfo

This week's topic: Advice From a Young CFO - Getting to the Top & Making Your Mark.

What does it take to get to and succeed in the C-Suite? While there is certainly a well-documented array of innate skills that most C-level execs seem to possess, what makes a less seasoned (read: younger than most) chief financial officer stand out?

How does someone young and hungry get the attention and credibility to fly up the ladder? Dustin Prager, CFO at Olympic Companies in Minnetonka, Minnesota sits down to discuss his experience going from Controller to CFO much earlier in his career than his peers. 

Top three things we cover in this episode of CFO Weekly:
  • How to set yourself apart
  • Taking chances and being bold
  • Leading with the lessons in mind

Hunger, Confidence and the Talent to Back it Up

The 'chicken or egg' paradox was first proposed by philosophers in Ancient Greece to describe the problem of determining cause-and-effect. Chicken? Egg? What’s first? According to a team of physicists from The University of Queensland and the NÉEL Institute, as far as quantum physics is concerned, the chicken and the egg can both come first. 

Dustin Prager was bumping into another age-old paradox: He didn’t have enough experience for the CFO chair, but in order to get the experience to get there, he needed well; experience. So now what? 

Wel, if you are hungry, confident and talented, like Dustin, you walk into a meeting about a Controller position and you come out with a path to the C-Suite.

Olympic Companies was losing their veteran CFO to retirement and were a little unsure of what things would look like moving forward. The plan was to have an interim CFO from their accounting firm and an in-house Controller work side by side. 

Dustin proposed coming in as their Controller as a trial run to being hired as their CFO. He didn’t care what they paid him, and he wasn’t intimidated by the prospect. He laid out his offer and expectations, and they gave him the shot. As you can see by his current title, things went pretty well.

Never Stop Learning - A Young CFO vision

Inc. magazine lists a willingness to take calculated risks as a top personality trait of C- level execs. While not everyone has the vision or the confidence to be quite as bold as Dustin was, his overall approach unfolds like somewhat of a playbook. 

Here are 7 things Dustin shared and more importantly, did and continues to do in his role as CFO:

  1. Always hand your boss a finished product.
  2. Make your boss's job easier. 
  3. Assess above you. Is there room to grow?
  4. Layout your expectations.
  5. Improve processes
  6. Communicate your value to leadership 
  7. Go all in.

View the Organization and Your Role From 30,000 Feet

Open a dialogue with your supervisor. Ask questions. Have a plan. Analyze, strategize and go after what you want! 

What if you realize there isn’t a path for you there? Should you stick it out to bolster your resume? Dustin says, no. Jump ship or stay put, but either way, trust yourself.

The general thought is employers get a little nervous when they see short spurts at different companies. If you aren't getting where you want to be, and there is no clear way up for you, do you sweat the resume aspect? Dustin didn’t.

Getting to the top & making your markHow you handle maneuvering yourself early on says a lot about your leadership ability. Taking chances, building relationships, and thinking out of the box (all on Inc’s top 10 C- level traits) may just lead you to hop around a little until you find the right fit.

Decide how you will carve your path, don’t let others decide for you. Maybe staying at your company is the right move. Maybe it’s not. Read the room. We can all sense a bad fit if we are paying attention. 

Something Prager has learned along the way was that not everyone sees the end vision, and sometimes they need to come to things in their own time, and in their own way. 

Early on in his career, he recognized that his impatience and desire to fix things right away would sometimes be coming across in a negative way. He has strived to be more sensitive and conscious of how he can convey ideas and direction in a more constructive manner and incorporates that into his leadership style as CFO.

“I think it did a good job of listening, but I think there was always room to improve on how I brought up change,” Prager said.

Sitting in the CFO Seat - Advice From a Young CFO

You’re finally in the seat! Now what? Dustin shares two quick and impactful things to start with: examining your partnerships and cross-training your staff. 

“You use the resources around you, but in the end, you're kind of isolated and you gotta be able to trust yourself and your decisions," he said.

Examine Your Partnerships 

The insurance broker, your bank, the accounting firm, those are your partners now. Those partnerships can help or hinder. They can make you look really good or not so much. He suggests judging partnerships on these three merits: Quality, Service & Price.

In Dustin’s case, many of those relationships were established by the CFO he was following, who had been with the company for 30 years. With Dustin at the helm those partnerships needed to be evaluated, and not all of them made the cut. 

Cross-train Your Staff

If one person leaves for a vacation, or forever, the whole department can’t collapse. To reduce exposure, make sure your staff is cross-trained and able to move forward despite any abrupt or even planned changes. They may feel threatened by this like they won’t be “as important”, but no one ever said sitting in the chair was easy. Assuring your team, communicating the reasons why and supporting them in their efforts are all ways to wear that C in your new title with strength and compassion. 

you gotta be able to trust yourself and your decisions

Listen to all episodes of CFO Weekly wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcats, Spotify, Google Play or Stitcher.

Are you a financial leader with something to discuss, get in touch with our host, Megan Weis.

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