Archives for posts with tag: CFOs

The Journal of Accountancy (yes, there really is such a publication) had an article about the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) bringing and enforcing fraud cases over the last decade. The largest cases involved either improper financial reporting or violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act which deals with bribes to international officials. Not surprisingly the financial services industry had, by far, the most cases and fines followed by natural resource and energy firms (think mining and oil and gas).

But what was very surprising, and more than a bit disturbing to me, was who the SEC prosecuted and fined.  Corporations themselves were at the top of the list which made sense. But, what did not, was that Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) were second followed by a firm’s Chief Executive Officer (CEOs) as a far distant third. Worst of all was that the Board of Directors were barely fined at all! Now, I know I was a practicing (and never indicted CFO) and I know CFOs certainly play a major role in a fraud of any kind. But, let me tell you this: nine times out of ten when a CFO does something bad, his or her CEO not only knows about it but probably pressured the CFO to cook the books in the first place! I could understand if CFOs were fined a bit more than CEOs, but not ten times as much in this study. CEOs are always responsible and often behind what goes on, period.

And, the Directors in these firms should have know something was going on! I have written on several occasions about the often limited involvement or usefulness of many members of Boards of Directors. But remember the corporate officers from the CEO to the CFO all report to and are responsible to the Board. The buck, and on average, $250,000 per year of bucks for large company directors, stops with the Board.

As many readers know, I hate fraud and especially fraud committed by senior managers who are paid a lot of money. So I am all for prosecuting and fining those who commit fraud. But if the SEC and the U.S. Government focus the bulk of their efforts on CFOs and almost ignore CEOs and their Boards, the occurrence and magnitude of fraud will only continue and probably get worse.

Think of this like a National League Football team. When a team, like my Cleveland Browns go winless, they fire the coach. When the team only wins a few games in several years, you fire the General Manager, the Director of Player Personnel and everyone but the Owners. So, in corporate terms, when major fraud occurs, fire the Board. This is how you send a message and how things might have a chance to improve in the future.

That was, more or less, the headline from a Wall Street Journal article. The article explained that the role of most CFOs was becoming more big picture and strategic and less number oriented. Thus CFOs sought out these non-traditional type of people for their finance organizations. The fact that colleges teach you basic accounting but not leadership or decision making was really starting to hamper some accountants from getting hired. The other single skill noted as often missing was the ability to communicate and present findings to your peers or bosses.

As I have written before, business and even accounting is really Not About the Numbers. Being able to generate the raw data is only a very small part of the job. The key is being able to summarize and clearly present this information to your audience. This means that business and life is about People and figuring out how to communicate with them. Often we can learn this with experience but there are other ways.

As an old Accountant myself, I have some suggestions on how young people can learn some of these more advanced CFO type skills while they are just starting out or at least early in their work career.

The best places to learn more strategy, decision making and presentation skills early are the following:

One is to go into public accounting. It can be a local, regional or one of the national firms. Here you learn to sell yourself as you travel to meet different clients. You can also move into a management role quickly by being in charge of a client engagement. You do not have to stay forever although obtaining your CPA certificate, which requires a couple years practice in most states, is a good idea. So two to four years is great. And you can leave for a Manager or Director job in a private or public firm.

Second is to join a smaller, private firm or, harder yet, to setup your own private business. In my first job outside of public accounting with Donn Corporation, within a few years I had done the entire financial gauntlet of duties-treasury, accounting, tax-and I was working on acquisitions and part of the firm’s overall strategy group. This may be a bit fast and unusual but in smaller, private firms you have a much better chance of getting involved in a very wide range of activities. And you can make yourself more valuable there or to the next firm you join.

The last place you will learn this diverse skill set is to join a large, public company. You will start out as a very detail, number crunching analyst and usually move up or around slowly. Often those who start in the Corporate Accounting group stay there, with some moves up over time. Those who start in Treasury the same thing. It is often unusual or even difficult in some large companies to move between the various financial groups. The exception are firms like General Electric that have a two year rotating financial management for some high potential people. Then you can learn a lot and get great exposure within the large firm.

So remember that Accounting and Business are really not about the numbers so learn the other people-oriented skills that can help you move up rapidly in your career!

Note: my book The Business Zoo is finally about to be launched this month on Amazon and Kindle. I will let you know!

The Wall Street Journal has a weekly half page devoted to my former professional as a CFO. In a recent edition, they highlighted a new trend of corporate Board of Directors getting actively involved in their firm’s search and hiring of a new Chief Financial Officer. The reasons cited included the increased importance of the CFO role in everything from regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley reporting, to  strategy and deal-making. A final reason was that former CFO’s are increasing looked upon as candidates to become a firm’s CEO.

My reaction to all this? Well, it’s about time! Time that CFO’s are getting the respect so many deserve, as they are often quiet and low key, yet are often the second most critical person in a public company. But more importantly, it’s about time that Boards of Directors are actually acknowledging this and getting involved in this hiring activity.

Historically, in many old line firms, the path to CFO was internally determined. Often it was a matter of paying your dues and moving up through various financial roles in treasury or controllership. If a business and its industry remained stagnant over the 20 plus year period it took to groom a CFO, that was a fine strategy. But businesses and their industries are not stagnant. Competition changes, mergers occur and technologies leap ahead. So the perfect internally- grown candidate of the past may not be best suited for a new environment.

The second way CFOs, and most other internal Officers were chosen, was solely by the Chairman or CEO. This was usually decided by the CEO alone who then informed the Board of his choice. The Board then dutifully elected the person to be CFO. Perhaps the Board knew a little about the person from HR succession charts but the Board rarely got involved in the selection or even with a token interview. This, in my mind, is wrong.

All public corporate Officers, including CFOs, are legally “elected by and serve at the pleasure of the Board”. Directors need to perform some due diligence on this critical personnel task. To do this properly, Boards need to spent time, not just in Board meetings or group dinners, with the senior officers. In fact, I would suggest that most of the countless, large, quarterly Board dinners I ever attended were worthless. Private one-on-one dinners between the various Directors and members of senior management would be invaluable to both parties. This would also allow the Board to have a much better of idea of who they were electing to be the next CFO or CEO. And if the current CEO objects because he or she is paranoid of what a Board member could learn in private from one of his team, then the Board better look very hard at that CEO!

Directors of large public company Boards are paid over $200,000 a year. Many of the problems Directors encounter when senior officers, like CFOs or CEOs, either abruptly resign or are fired for cause could be eliminated if they spent more time upfront getting to know these key people. So, Directors, get involved in hiring new, CFOs and, in some cases, other corporate officers. But also spend some quality time with the senior officers you have in place; it will be well worth your while.