How to succeed as a first-time CFO

As companies increasingly turn to first-time CFOs in response to record levels of churn, four finance leaders share their advice on what it takes to thrive in the role

Starting a new job can be daunting, especially for those stepping into a leadership position for the very first time. For new CFOs, the pressure can be particularly high.

The evolution of the role from number-cruncher to strategic leader and critical partner to the CEO means finance executives must master a broad set of responsibilities, at a time when economic and political uncertainty clouds the business world. For those embarking on their first CFO role, the change in remit and mindset can be challenging.

Businesses have traditionally sought candidates with  CFO experience, but record levels of churn at this level has led to a surge in untried hires. More than half (57%) of recently appointed finance chiefs in the FTSE 350, DAX, and the Euronext 100 are new to the role, according to research by leadership advisory firm Russell Reynolds.

This new cohort of inexperienced finance leaders are asking themselves: what will it take for me to succeed as a first-time CFO? Four first-time CFOs share their tips for success.

Challenge the status quo 

Vineta Bajaj 
CFO, Rohlik Group 

My advice for first-time CFOs, or those who wish to eventually take on that role, is to always challenge the status quo.

I don’t fit into the stereotypical CFO box. I’m a 37-year-old brown woman and I’ve had to fight against people telling me I’m too young or that I don’t fit the mould throughout my career. 

Bajaj’s career path

Expand Close

Despite the doubters, I knew I had the experience to become a CFO. I’ve raised money, I’ve helped a business expand overseas, I’ve run an audit for ten years, I’ve acquired two businesses and I’ve built a finance team. I was confident I could take that step to the next level but I had to learn to trust myself, own my space and stop listening to everyone else. 

My second piece of advice is to find a mentor. To get the right guidance, you need to actively seek out individuals who will not only encourage you but also highlight your blind spots. My old CFO is my mentor and their guidance has been invaluable. They’ve helped me to decide what kind of leader I want to be and what companies would best fit my personality, skills and experience. 

It sounds clichéd but it’s lonely at the top of the corporate ladder. There isn’t always someone to reassure you that you’re doing well. In my first few weeks as CFO of online grocery delivery service Rohlik Group, I had to bring in strong financial controls and I’d barely had a chance to build relationships with the leadership team or the shareholders. This is not ideal, but you need to be prepared to bring in change that ultimately helps the business and trust that you are making the right call, especially as the caretaker of the wallet.

That being said, taking the time to build and strengthen your relationships with your fellow executives is critical. The C-suite is a high performing team – not five people who work individually on separate divisions.

Put people first and stay curious 

David Larson 
CFO, Feedzai 

My advice to first-time CFOs is to understand the importance of people – it’s not just about the numbers. 

Larson’s career path

Expand Close

A good finance leader should understand the value of teamwork and the importance of delegation; I wish I’d learnt this lesson sooner. You can posses many skills and capabilities as an individual but, if your team is average or unmotivated, you’re going to struggle.

In order to be an effective leader, CFOs must become great communicators. Historically, there’s been a perception that finance professionals are introverted and just sit quietly crunching the numbers before sharing a report. That way of working won’t get you very far today. You need to be able to use those numbers to create a compelling story in a way that ensures the entire organisation understands what they mean and what insights can be gleaned. 

The first few days as CFO also presents a unique chance to think critically and challenge the status quo, rather than defaulting to what has been done in the past. 

Lastly, stay curious and open-minded. The most effective and enjoyable way to step into the role of the CFO is while maintining a sense of humility and not assuming you know all the answers.

Build credibility and find balance

Anusha Ramraj 
CFO, CCI South Africa 

As a first-time CFO, you will likely feel pressure to make huge changes straight away. But, in my experience, it’s best to work on a strategy slowly by making small, incremental changes and putting in place the necessary building blocks over a longer period of time, as opposed to rushing to make a big splash. 

Ramraj’s career path

Expand Close

It’s critical that you start to build credibility and trust early on in your tenure as CFO. Building a strong team will help with this, enabling you to focus entirely on doing your job as effectively as possible. 

Stepping into the role can be a culture shock. When I was a finance manager, I lived in the detail of the numbers and spreadsheets, but as CFO my focus has to be on more strategic areas of the business. Taking a step back from those finance tasks was difficult, I found that I wanted to check everything and be everywhere. But there’s so much to do that this quickly became overwhelming. 

You absolutely must find a balance and sometimes that means taking a step back. It took some time to adapt to a new mindset, it won’t feel natural straight away.

As CFO, people will be coming to you constantly with queries and requests. When you are new to the role, there is a lot of pressure to meet these expectations but it is important to draw boundaries and say no sometimes. 

It is a hugely demanding and rewarding job. Without prior experience, first-time CFOs may feel ill-equipped to deal with the heightened level of pressure, responsibility and leadership ability required. But do not feel discouraged, you have your own experiences and strengths to draw on. 

I had a very unconventional career path to becoming a CFO, having initially studied law and then worked as a call centre agent before finding my way organically into finance. But I found that this equipped me with the mindset and maturity that’s required for the challenge. 

How to overcome imposter syndrome

Nadine Errington 
CFO, Sapphire 

Overcoming the imposter syndrome that comes with the CFO title has been one of the most challenging aspects of the role. While the job itself is quite similar to my previous position as finance director, the added weight of the new title created a sense of pressure. I’ve had to remind myself that I didn’t get here by chance. 

Errington’s career path

Expand Close

What has really helped is taking time to get under the skin of the business. It’s really important to understand the overall business strategy, and not just from a finance perspective. You need to be able to collaborate with all areas of the business, so it’s vital that you know what each department does and how it contributes to the strategy.

A critical first step is to start building rapport with the rest of the C-suite as soon as possible. I booked in one-to-one meetings with everyone in the C-suite in my first week to understand how they are working to deliver the business strategy. Without that insight, a CFO cannot deliver any value. 

Alongside this, a new CFO needs to be able to form an independent view of the business, its resources and support structures in order to scope out any challenges that may need to be addressed. 

What are the advantages of hiring a first-time CFO?

Expand Close