Kevin Appleby on the challenges facing new CFOs

Kevin Appleby on the challenges facing new CFOs

The CFO role is an increasingly demanding one. CFOs are expected to have a mastery over not just finance, but everything from high-tech software to perfect communication skills. 

Kevin Appleby at GrowCFO aims to bring together and empower CFOs at all levels - from green CFOs just taking to reigns in the C-suite, to seasoned veterans ready to share their wisdom.

Kevin’s journey: from CPA to the classroom

Based in the United Kingdom, Kevin began his career as a chartered accountant. After working in high-level roles within the industrial chemical industry, he became a management consultant for PwC.

Thanks to his breadth of experience, Kevin found that he could often figure out answers to problems that his clients could not. 

“I became a management consultant and ended up working for PwC, mainly doing finance transformation projects, my client would typically be the finance director, the VP finance, or the CFO,” said Kevin. “I found over time there are lots of stuff that I knew the answer to, but the client's own finance team didn't.”

This led him first to the classroom, and once COVID-19 hit, to a partnership with Dan Wells, the founder of GrowCFO.

Creating a dedicated CFO network

The GrowCFO vision was simple: almost every industry already had numerous networking and educational resources. The CFO world was a glaring exception. 

“There's nothing really out there for CFOs, senior finance people to communicate with each other and to help each other solve problems,” Kevin said. 

In the spirit of learning, GrowCFO aims to include both new and experienced CFOs. 

While the sweet spot for GrowCFO participants runs from three years prior to becoming a CFO to about five years after, a networking community is a two-way street. 

“We want as well to involve as many really experienced CFOs in the network as possible because we're seeing those as the guys that are useful to learn from, useful to be mentors,” Kevin said. 

“We really want to give those experienced guys a platform to give back.”

Helping CFOs break through the glass ceiling

Part of the support young CFOs need is help breaking into the CFO world in the first place.

Earning a spot in the C-suite is a major challenge at most institutions. Job postings often request that experienced CFOs apply, which is a major setback. 

“What we found was there's a big glass ceiling. It's very difficult to break through into the C-suite,” Kevin said. “95% of the roles out there are looking for experienced CFOs, right? How do you ever get through that?” 

GrowCFO helps prepare aspiring CFOs to succeed in the application process and beyond. 

The Future CFO program includes 40 accredited hours of continuing professional development, and takes you on a nine-step journey from accomplished head finance professional to landing your first CFO job. 

“It finishes with creating the plan for your first hundred days in your new CFO role,” said Kevin.  

CFOs are asked to do it all

After landing a coveted CFO job, new CFOs may be tempted to break out the champagne. 

But the truth is that they are often in for a rude shock. The breadth and amount of work expected of a CFO can be staggering. 

“I don't think until you've actually got the role do you understand the breadth of skills that are actually needed, the number of different directions you're going to be pulled into,” Kevin said.

The truth is that it’s impossible to be superhuman and do everything perfectly. But honing and broadening your skillset as a CFO is certainly a must.

“You've got a guy who's used to being in the back office, used to being behind his favorite Excel spreadsheet, he's used to running the finance team, become CFO,” Kevin said.

“Suddenly, he's going to talk to customers, to suppliers, to investors, to shareholders, countless other stakeholders. He's gotta be the right hand man to the CEO. Now suddenly he's got a whole new world to play in.” 

Learn to specialize & delegate

Since you can’t possibly do it all, what’s the answer? 

Kevin said the solution is to learn when to dig in - and when to pull back. 

“You can be weak in something. And part of it is recognizing you're weak and maybe getting somebody else to help you rather than learn the skills yourself,” Kevin said.

“The CFO cannot be good at everything. But if you've got a few strengths, then strength is the sort of thing you can take the mastery. So why not put your personal development into stuff that you are good at, and become better at it? And that becomes your kind of specialism. I think that's a far more sensible way of approaching things. Especially since things that you're strong in, things you good in, tend to be the things that you enjoy doing as well.”  

There’s no point in working your way up the corporate ladder if you can’t find enjoyment in the day-to-day. By learning when to specialize and delegate, your battle is halfway won. 

Dealing with imposter syndrome

Anyone in a new leadership position deals with degrees of imposter syndrome.

Kevin noted that CFOs often have a higher degree of it than most. “I think in the CFO role the potential to have imposter syndrome is probably doubled over any other role in the C-suite,” he said.  

It’s no surprise; the CFO suddenly has to be the man who has mastered business strategy, finance, communication, and relationships.

The only way to deal with imposter syndrome is to face it. Kevin explained that admitting how you’re feeling is the first step to banishing it. 

“The first thing you're going to do with imposter syndrome is actually admit that you've got it. And that's a very hard thing to do, but once you've made that admission, then you can start to do something about it.”

Finding a mentor

When Kevin ran into problems during his consulting days, he would ask one of his senior colleagues out for a beer. 

“We always had a consulting team of fellow, reasonably senior people. [If] we had a problem around a project - yeah, let's go have a beer and work out what we're going to do about this. I don't see the CFO having the same kind of peer group. So why not have a mentor?” Kevin asked. 

Once you’ve realized that you have questions to ask, a good mentor can help you think through the answers. 

GrowCFO believes passionately in the power of mentors.

“I think CFOs as well feel as though they should know it all, and probably think, Oh, if I have a mentor, it's a sign of weakness. But actually again it's recognizing that you can't possibly know and know everything,” Kevin said. 

Promoting inclusion and diversity

Strong CFOs are often tactful and inclusive. Today, that means doing a quick check of your assumptions before communicating. 

While weighing in on the new listing requirements at NASDAQ, Kevin made the point that equity houses often look for a mirror in clients and partners. But today, you’re fortunate to be communicating with people of all backgrounds. 

“The equity house looks for people like themselves. You as the CFO you're constantly thinking of communicating to yourself,” Kevin said.

In his own work, Kevin tries to remain self-aware when doing things like writing his weekly newsletter.

“I do find myself looking back on this and suddenly realizing, Oh, Kevin, you've written this for another male CFO. Go back, take out all the references to he or him or whatever, and realize that probably 40-45% of the people that are reading this newsletter are female,” he said. 

Embracing technology

Naturally, our discussion with Kevin touched on something close to Nth Round’s heart - technology.

New CFOs have a unique opportunity to understand and embrace new technology in the finance space. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many of the shortcomings that come from working with legacy systems and the deficiency of tech knowledge among leadership. 

“People were suddenly learning how to work remotely. That gave some people a shock, because they realized that, and how the old, really old-fashioned systems that they thought were still gonna work for them just didn't work remotely,” Kevin said. 

Past research showed Kevin just how tech-ignorant some finance teams can be. He described teams who assumed that they had cloud-based system, but didn’t.

He also cited how many firms didn’t even have technology workflows in place at all. 

“It's not unusual for a brand new company to start off and they just keep the accounts on an Excel spreadsheet,” he said. “The number of companies that we found out that kept going that way and never quite flipped over to buying themselves some proper accounting software, that surprised us. It was more than we imagined.”

In the end, we never truly know what the future of finance will hold.

But there is no doubt that confident, well-rounded CFOs will remain the backbone of the financial industry. 

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