7 Bits of Advice That I Am Grateful for as a CFO

A while ago, someone asked me what leadership advice I would give finance professionals for their (international) career.

While jotting down a draft of my personal shortlist, it struck me that most if not all of the items that I feel were essential for my own career are insights or tips imparted to me along the way by others.

To them - mostly mentors, fellow CFOs, one or two former bosses, and my wife - I am grateful, because it sometimes took patience and efficient timing to see me on my way with the right pearl of wisdom.

Their tips and insights have shaped my career. They served me well in my 12 years as the CFO of a multinational manufacturing company with more than a dozen in-country finance teams on three continents.

And on some days, I had to remind myself of every single item on the list.

So here are my favorite seven gems of advice that I received over the course of my career in global accounting and finance.

If I don’t credit each source individually in this post it’s because a) sometimes there were several for the same point, and b) to protect the innocent - only I should be blamed for the ways I have applied their advice.

From conversations, I know that many fellow finance professionals have accumulated similar lists of “words to live by.” What would you add - or dispose of? Which rule is overrated, which is underrated in your experience? Let’s compare our lists on LinkedIn!

1) Cash is King.

We talk about EPS and PE ratios and even Ebitda. But in the end, cash is king. Even Ebitda, which is a measure widely used to value privately owned (especially private equity-owned) businesses, is often full of add-backs and exclusions in accordance with a Credit Agreement somewhere. What really matters is the real cash generated by a business, as that is the best indicator of its health.

2) The customer is not always right.

Yes, taking cues from your customers is key to business success. But I've also seen or read about many examples where the customer said they wanted "x," but when the company developed “x”, it was considered too expensive or otherwise not suitable.

It is important to work with customers - and that includes your internal customer or process partners - to understand what they really want, and only then come up with a solution that makes sense for both parties.

3) You can't please everyone.

I learned this as a new manager many years ago. Sometimes you please 50% of the people you manage, and sometimes 75%. And sometimes it can be 90% or 95%.

But there will always be people that you cannot please. Have your priorities straight as a manager (manage!), seek advice, do the right thing, and then be satisfied with the outcome even if you don't please everyone. Because you never will.

4) Make a decision. No paralysis by analysis!

In some cases (not all), making a bad, wrong or incorrect decision is better than making no decision at all. In cases where bad decisions are made, people often become quickly aware that it was a bad decision and this necessitates a course correction.

Making no decision, on the other hand, is a guaranteed waste of time and money. It often results in lack of confidence in a manager, which has bad long-term consequences. If you make a bad decision and correct it quickly, it inspires confidence.

5) Surround yourself with great advisors and hire people smarter than yourself.

I owe my success to this rule more than to any other. I hire good people and let them do their jobs. We set goals together, and I hold them accountable and provide direction, but I let them do their jobs and don’t look over their shoulders. I hire people with complementary skills. Why hire people with the exact same skill set as yourself?

6) Fix your own mistakes quickly (including a bad hire).

This is the “people and culture” version of rule #4. While during the interview phase someone may have looked like a good fit, sometimes things are going off track early in the hire. Try to fix it right away.

And if the fix does not work, then make a change. I cannot overstate how much negative or positive impact the wrong or right hire can have on your organization.

7) An army of deer led by a lion will defeat an army of lions led by a deer.

Be a strong leader. Don't be scared to make decisions. If you are, then you may not be cut out to be a leader. Be bold. Set a course. Inspire people.

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