What is a CFO? A lighthearted look at this mythical beast

To many, a CFO is a mythical creature. Rarely seen outside the hallowed grounds of big business. They are sometimes perceived as evil beings that sell their services to the highest bidder. And while the perception is not really accurate, I understand this perception. Afterall, they ARE rarely seen outside the halls of big business. Most of them are actually pretty nice guys

Who are these mythical beasts? From a historical perspective, CFO’s are descendants of the early accountants, a beast commonly known as “bean counters”, which was not really an accurate name for the species but was derived from a very small subset, the genus: Homo-Beancounterus, who were, in fact, responsible for counting beans. Accountants (Homo-accounticus) like the subspecies beancounterus, are generally solitary creatures, preferring to spend time alone, especially during the period from January 1st through April 15th. Some other subspecies like to be alone at other times of the year as well.

The skills of CFO’s (accounticus-CFO) developed at an accelerated rate and they became less likely to spend time alone. Their ability to spend time around, and work closely with, those with other business specialties developed much faster than their accounting brethren. While they retained their accounting skills they took on new skills. In fact, they were the first to give up their pocket protectors, sleeve guards, eye shades and office cubicles in favor of the executive suites. But these highly developed beings, while accepted by big business, have not always been accepted by the SME business community.  This is most like because of two things.

  1. Little is known about the benefits these beasts bring to the SME business.
  2. Until recently is simply cost too much to feed these beasts because once you placed them on your team you had to feed them every day. Accouticus-CFO is a ravenous beast. If they couldn’t be fed enough they simply left.

This is changing rapidly now. There is a new species of CFO (Accounticus-CFO-partimicus). These are not simply CFO’s who have fallen from the grace of big business. They have developed a taste for working with SME’s and the special set of skills required.

This new breed is comfortable in the land of IT (no, not Stephen Kings Pennywise’s land), Human Resources, Legal, Risk Management as well as Accounting and Finance. While they do not create software programs, are not lawyers, HR managers or loss prevention specialists, they have become adept at folding these areas of business into the strategic fabric of the business overall. They have seen much in their travels in the land of big business so they can teach much in the land of SME’s. They work exclusively at the behest of the owner, the boards of directors, CEO or presidents of these companies.

So what do they do, these mythical beasts? They come in and help an owner, or manager of business get more out of that business. They will coach, or dissect, or even manage parts of the business if that is what is needed. They will find areas that can be improved and they will help the business to develop processes that allow that to happen. And yes, they will still make sure the accounting is correct, that financials are timely and make sure that you always know what your cash position is and is expected to be. These beasts don’t look back, They see no real value in what happened yesterday. Your accountants can do that.

Beware however of the imposters. Those accountants that are CFO’s in name only. How can you tell if they are imposters?

  1. They have no experience working as the senior level accountant (CFO, VP of Finance, Division Controller in some cases) with large business
  2. In many cases they have no practical business experience, having never worked in industry but rather only in public accounting. I am a CPA and I love my profession. However, I left public accounting many years ago. I did not learn all of what I know from working on tax returns and performing audits. That is not to say there are not exceptions to this rule. Just beware.
  3. They have little or no strategic planning experience
  4.  They will only tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear in order the keep you as a client. They will often talk in generalities, not specifics.
  5. They use all the current buzz words without knowing the real meaning behind them.
  6. They do not get to know your needs before they share their’s (often in the form of an invoice)

What are the characteristics of CFO-Partimicus?

  1. They should be honest. Even to the point of delivering the cold hard truth. Even if it is uncomfortable.
  2. These are ethical creatures, or should be. They should not be comfortable letting you do something that is wrong simply to keep you as a client.
  3. They are strategic thinkers who have an eye on your future as much as on their own.
  4. They have worked as the Senior Financial Manager in big businesses (CFO, VP of Finance, Divisional Controller in some cases). All of their experience need not have been in big business and in many cases, experience working with SME businesses is a strong advantage. But, this should not be all of their experience. They really need to have spent time up where the dragons are to understand how to get the fire.
  5. They are adept at working with Human Resources, Legal, Operations, IT, as well as other parts of the business. In many cases, they have had the responsibility for managing these areas. Some of us have been the COO’s for the business as well as the CFO.
  6. And, dare I say, some of them like me have a sense of humor, albeit strange at times.

If you need them or want to see if they can help you, CFO-partimicus is around.

I am Patrick Cowan and this has been a humorous look at the Part-Time CFO. If you would like to learn more about CFO’s, Conceptualized Dynamics or would simply like to let me know what you think of this article please reach out to me.