Kevin Appleby helps run GrowCFO, a community and development resource for finance professionals. A PwC alum-turned instructor, Kevin realized that what CFOs really needed was a support system. He joined me on The Modern CFO podcast to talk about the challenges facing CFOs today, the importance of seeking out mentors, and how to embrace imposter syndrome by conducting thoughtful self-assessment.
Kevin’s experience runs the gamut from CPA work to the chemical industry to working as a consultant for PwC. Ultimately he ended up in the classroom. When COVID hit, GrowCFO was the perfect segue.
“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 and often working with his team trying to find information for the project. And I found over time there are lots of stuff that I knew the answer to, but the client's own finance team didn't. I ended up spending time in the classroom teaching a lot of that stuff.”
Almost every industry has numerous networking and educational resources. Kevin saw that the CFO world was an exception.
“There's nothing really out there for CFOs, senior finance people to communicate with each other and to help each other solve problems. There's plenty of space here to go to the big advisory firms, but nothing really here to allow CFOs to cooperate with each other and share learning.”
A major challenge young CFOs face is breaking into the C-suite. GrowCFO helps prepare aspiring CFOs to succeed in the application process and beyond.
“What we found was there's a big glass ceiling. It's very difficult to break through into the C-suite...95% of the roles out there are looking for experienced CFOs, right? How do you ever get through that? So we put together the Future CFO program. We've got it accredited for 40 hours of CPD, continuing professional development, and it takes you on a nine module or a nine-step journey between being a very good, very accomplished head finance professional through to landing your first CFO job, how to move into that job. And it finishes with creating the plan for your first hundred days in your new CFO role.”
New CFOs are often in for a rude shock. The breadth and amount of work expected can be staggering.
“Why does GrowCFO exist? One of the things that we're very definitely seeing Andrew is that the kind of breadth of skills that a CFO needs to have these days is huge. And there's no way that any one person can be expected to be rounded at absolutely everything. I think communication is one of those interesting ones that you've got a guy who's used to being in the back office, used to be behind his favorite Excel spreadsheet, he's used to running the finance team, become CFO. 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.”
Strong CFOs are often tactful and inclusive. Today, that means doing a quick check of your assumptions before communicating.
“The equity house looks for people like themselves. You as the CFO you're constantly thinking of communicating to yourself...one of my regular weekly tasks in GrowCFO is to write the weekly newsletter. Normally I write it. So the last few weeks I've written on a Sunday evening with a schedule set to go at about eight 30, Monday morning. And 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.”
Since you can’t possibly do it all, what’s the answer? Kevin says 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...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.”
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.
“Nearly everybody that gets promoted to the top of your game, top of their game, whether it's to the C-suite, whether it's to partner level in one of the big four accounting firms, they get to a point that they're going to think, what am I doing here? I haven't got all the skills and the talents that are needed for this role. I'm going to get found out at some point.”
“That's perfectly normal. And 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...The CFO suddenly has to be the man who understands business strategy, has got to be the man that understands the finance numbers. That's probably easy because he's done that all his time, but he's got to be able to communicate. You've got to know about investor relationships. I think in the CFO role the potential to have imposter syndrome is probably doubled over any other role in the C-suite.”
Once you’ve realized that you have questions to ask, a good mentor can help you think through the answers.
“One of the things in GrowCFO that we passionately believe in is the role of a mentor. 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...One thing I loved about consulting was that 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?”
New CFOs have a unique opportunity to understand and embrace new technology in the finance space. The pandemic exposed the shortcomings of legacy systems and the lack of tech knowledge among leadership.
“People were suddenly learning how to work remotely. that gave some people a shock, because they realize that and how the old, really old-fashioned systems that they thought were still gonna work for them just didn't work remotely.”
“It's not unusual for a brand new company to start off and they just keep the accounts on an Excel spreadsheet. 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.”