Who CFO’s report to

Not long ago I had a Board member of a company where I am the CFO inform me that I work for the Board, not for the CEO.  My impression is that it’s somewhat more common in larger companies to have the CFO report to both the Board (in particular, to the head of the Audit Committee) and the CEO.  I think it’s rare in build-stage businesses.

I am not a fan of this kind of reporting either.  I think the CFO should report to the CEO and only the CEO, full stop.

First of all, I am a believer that in a company, there are 2 kinds of people: the CEO and everyone else.  Others can skip the holiday party, not be on the phone with the most important client, ignore unflattering press mentions, not attend Board meetings.  The CEO cannot do any of these things.  Their jobs are demanding in a way that no others are.  So, they need to trust their teams implicitly.  It is much more difficult to do this when reporting structures are unclear.

Relatedly, the CFO role is challenging for a number of reasons I’ve outlined in other posts.  For one: you’re often held responsible for the numbers but don’t sell, develop products, handle customer service or make ad buy decisions.  It’s hard enough without serving 2 masters.  I have been in situations before where Board members, usually inexperienced ones, will approach the CFO to provide numbers to them without letting the CEO know.  I have made this mistake before and will never do it again.  The damage this does to trust all around is not worth the seeming expediency of getting certain information.  Transparency and trust are everything.

In a similar vein, I want members of my team to feel like they work for me.  There is formal reporting and there is how it feels, which are not always the same.

When they have a question, CEOs frequently go directly to the person with the answer.  I give them a lot of latitude to do this, because as mentioned above, their jobs are hard enough (see above).  However, when this inevitably happens with someone in the G&A structure, I’d hope that they would let me know, and the CEO would know that they were going to let me know.  It is more difficult to insist on this as CFO when your own reporting structure is vague.

In some cases, the investors in my companies have wanted to make a change at CEO and involve me in the process without letting him (it’s been a “him” each time) know.  This is  governance at its worst and I will never do this.  My response is always that if they are looking for a CEO exit and want my help during a transition, operationally or otherwise, first make the change and then we’ll discuss how I can help.  Until then, I work for the CEO and that’s it.  Under no circumstances do I ever want a CEO looking over their shoulder at the CFO wondering what he and the Board are up to.  Once that trust is violated, it is nearly impossible to get it back.

I’ve been fortunate not to have worked as CFO in companies where the CEO has committed some kind of fraud.  My main deliverable is integrity, so if that’s being violated by doctoring results, I’d probably react badly.  Short of that though, this rule of thumb on reporting has always served me well, and I plan to stick with it.

 

Integrity

A colleague once told me that as CFOs, we don’t really have measurable output. Salespeople have bookings, engineers launch products, marketers drive leads, manufacturing has a whole set of statistics. Our only product is integrity.

This saying is always playing in the back of my head when I’m asked to pull things in a certain direction. Can’t we show that cash will last 18 months instead of 15? Can’t we show that those months where we got rent abatements were profitable? Can we just up the size of a few deals in the pipeline so that it looks a little fatter?

It is difficult to push back against this sometimes. It is also difficult to push back against what you can show is expansion that is way too fast.

This happens all the time, and I mean all the time, in the SaaS world where companies flush with cash feel obligated to spend it as quickly as possible on a much bigger sales and marketing operation. Their investors often want this too. Sometimes growth does not materialize, for which there are usually adequate warning signs (examples – not enough leads per salesperson, salesperson tamp is taking way longer than expected). A good CFO can see this coming a mile away. But there is tremendous pressure not to “be negative”, so many say nothing. Then one day there is a reckoning, and a restructuring. For some CFOs, this is when they too find themselves looking for a new job.

I have left a client over this before, and I’m sure it will happen again. I understand the prsssures in growth build stage companies and consider myself an optimist and someone who helps management teams set stretch goals. We’re not A/P at IBM after all. But I remember always that my only product is integrity.

Skinny G/Ls

Because I work in build stage companies, and often early ones at that, the general ledger (G/L) system I encounter the most is Quickbooks Online.  Often one of the first questions I get is whether we need to make a change to a more robust system.  Always my answer is no.

My philosophy on this is that until a company is much bigger, having an accounting system that knows all isn’t worth the workflow change, the financial investment, and the upfront systems hassle.  Quickbooks Online (QBO) is fine.  It’s not great — but it’s fine.  It does the basics and has the benefit of having tens of thousands of qualified people who know how to use it.

What I would rather do is invest in smart systems around it that do their functions well, and integrate with it.  This can be A/P (bill.com), ERP-lite (Fishbowl), payroll systems (any of them), expense management (Expensify), cap table management (eShares, Carta), sales tax (Avalara), and on and on.

If a build-stage company is going to invest in systems, it probably should be in optimizing Salesforce.  Or if it’s an e-commerce company, better to get your Shopify instance really singing.  Building a sole source of truth about all things customer is way more important than implementing an expensive G/L system.

I’m a believer in keeping the G/L’s functions limited.  I use it for management and Board reporting and as a transaction repository.  That’s it.  For anything else, there is a better system out there and most are not expensive either.

I’ve seen $50M software businesses backed by some of the most sophisticated venture investors in the world run their businesses and do their reporting based on QBO.  If they can do it, I figure I can too.