World Class Positioning

My roundtables at the CFO Core Concerns conference on Tuesday morning were on the importance of attaining world class positioning. My first table was full. My second table was overflowing.

I’m delighted to see that Finance Executives are attuned to the paradigm shift of career management. Who wants to be a hunter when you can be hunted? But it takes world class positioning, and they are beginning to understand that premise.

A lack of positioning is a bit like the cliche “if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” If you are the greatest thing since sliced bread but no one knows about the great contributions you’ve made, does it matter?

Here are a few of the things we discussed:

Begin by creating a plan and working your plan. Another old, but appropriate, adage … “failing to plan is planning to fail.” Run your career like you run your business and you’ll never be caught unprepared or ill-prepared.

Understand your positioning. What are your strengths, skills, and passions and how have they contributed to your success? What do you love doing and want to do more of? If you have to work, shouldn’t you at least be doing something that is meaningful and enjoyable and honors your values?

Identify your target audience. Who needs the expertise you bring, and would be willing to pay – well – to get it?

Once you have clarity around these three areas, consistently raise your visibility among your target audience. If the people who need to know about you don’t know about you, you don’t have world class positioning. Conversely, you will know you’ve been effective when recruiters are calling you, regularly, for the kinds of positions that are a good fit with your expertise – and – fit with your senior executive stature.

Lessons from Leaders

One of the most interesting panels at the recent CFO Core Concerns conference was the one offering lessons from some of the country’s most fascinating, and perhaps less known, leaders.

Take Jackie Berry, for instance. She is the CFO / COO of Zorch, a rapidly-growing, tech-enabled, branded merchandise agency. How rapidly growing? How does 20,000% over the last four years sound? And yes, 20,000 – it’s not a typo.

Her energy and enthusiasm were contagious throughout the room. Jackie says the focus on brand protection is a top priority and a key focus, and her company executes a continuous interviewing process. While they are not always hiring, they are very transparent about where Zorch is in the hiring process. The “always interviewing” strategy allows them to bring on top talent within 2-3 weeks when necessary, and a vibrant training & development program follows each new hire.

Another unknown – at least to me – was Ted Vincent, Vice Chair and CFO of FordDirect. He, too, advocates continuous interviewing as “the” way to ensure you have the right people in your network when it comes time to hire. He indicated the “entire executive team needs to be a part of the recruiting process.” I totally agree!

Harold Earley is the EVP and CFO of Foamex Innovations. Another fast-growing and, as the name implies, innovative company. They make foam, which is everywhere, and apparently, Foamex is the industry leader.  Sadly, according to Earley, great finance talent is absent from the Philadelphia area.

The lack of top finance talent statement reminded me of the Duke University / study results that indicated 21% of companies are in hiring mode; 16% would like to hire but don’t have the resources to do so; and 9.3% can’t find qualified employees. That 9.3% stat is telling. The question is, how do we bridge the gap?

CFO Core Concerns Conference Day 1

What a jam-packed day!

The conference actually kicked off last evening with a great reception and the opportunity to meet a few of the attending CFOs. My little group was joined by one of tomorrow’s speakers, Tim Giehll, CEO of Bond Talent US and author of “Human Capital Supply Chains.” An interesting, and very lively, conversation around hiring, retention, and the conundrum of finding skilled talent in a 9% unemployment environment ensued.

This morning began with Dr. John Graham, Co-director of the Center of Financial Excellence of Duke University providing an overview of the Global Business Outlook survey. Lots of great information and you can find all of it on my Facebook business page.

With projected growth in domestic full-time hiring at an anemic .7% (yes, that is point seven percent), we are looking at a minimum of another 12 months of 9+% unemployment. Here’s the kicker. Despite high unemployment, US employers are having a difficult time finding skilled workers.

The survey revealed that 21% of employers are in hiring mode and 16% would like to hire. Of those 37%, 9.3% can’t find the talent they need and 25% can’t hire due to a lack of resources or an inability to find the right talent.

One CFO I talked with indicated finding good finance talent in the Philadelphia area was next to impossible. Another CFO from California said starting salaries for new grads in finance was $80,000 and they can’t find the talent they need.

Now, for some good news.

Of those surveyed, 61% expect to restore hours worked per week and 46% intend to restore training & development to pre-recession levels.

And my own personal PS … the CFO market is still moving!

Job Search is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

A recent FENG newsletter contained this quote …

“Unfortunately the search process is more like a marathon than a sprint.”

While the author was referring to the length of the job search, it is also a true statement when you think about the search process as a career management strategy rather than a “find-the-next-job” strategy.

As soon as the job seeker lands, the focus is on doing his job … lulled by a false sense of security and/or even misguided corporate loyalty. And far too often, the passive candidate does nothing to prepare for an eventual move … whether that results from working himself out of a job or losing a job.

Instead of training for the marathon while he had the luxury of time (gainfully employed and well-positioned), almost every future candidate chooses to wait until he’s unemployed and then tries to sprint, completely unprepared for the challenge of the job search process, into that next position.

Here’s the new paradigm … shorter tenure means more frequent moves so good, consistent career management habits need to be developed and executed consistently long BEFORE a new job is needed.

What hasn’t changed, and may never change, is that passive candidates are still the most high-value targets. That makes marathon conditioning and training so much more valuable than the short-term sprint (which it rarely is) to the next position.

Learn more about why social media is important for your career as a Finance Executive and what you need to do to leverage it’s power … particularly while you are a passive candidate … at the webinar on April 12 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. You’ll learn how to begin training for the marathon of proactively managing your career!

CFOs: Moving or Staying?

Long searches, short stints, and position experience vs. industry experience. That pretty much sums up what’s going on nationally for Chief Financial Officer careers today.

First from WSJ

Central Garden & Pet Co. (CENT) named Lori Varlas its new chief financial officer, completing a 10-month search that lasted more than twice as long as the official predecessor’s term as CFO. (emphasis added)

Ten months to replace a CFO who served only 5 months. It is quite possible this will not be atypical over the next several years. Realistically, CFOs should count on a search taking 9-12 months. The savvy CFO will understand that he has the most power and the best positioning for that next move while he is still gainfully employed and entertaining offers from recruiters who are beating down the doors to scoop one more seemingly unattainable high-value candidate.

And from

–a growing majority of those CFOs who are hired come by way of internal promotions.

… 78% of the external hires had been either sitting CFOs or divisional finance executives. That kind of experience was far more relevant than industry experience, as 56% of those brought in from outside came from a different industry. (emphasis added)

The first trend is to promote internally. The article cites 57% of Fortune 1,000 companies doing just that, and that figure is up over the previous two years. Good news for that 2nd in finance command – if the CFO is planning to move or retire anyway.

The other trend is what I find very interesting. The Strategic Finance Leader skill set, rather than industry experience, accounted for more than half of all external hires. This isn’t surprising to me. Companies are recognizing that part of their current challenges might stem from the fact that they are immersed in the industry mindset. If they continue to do what they’ve been doing, they will almost certainly continue to get the same or very similar results. A Finance Leader with an outside perspective might just bring the breath of fresh thinking they need to get unstuck or to reach their goals.

Again, savvy CFOs who are considering a move in the next year will be thinking today about who their target audience is and how to get on their radar screen before they need, or want, to make a move.


How, or even whether, finance executives “unplug” while on vacation has been a hot topic this summer. 

In June, reported survey results from Robert Half Management Resources

More than two-thirds, 69%, said they typically check in with work at least once or twice a week during their summer vacations, only a slight dip from the 74% tallied five years ago. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed check in at least once a day and sometimes more. Only about a quarter said they don't check in at all.

With only 26% of CFOs reporting that they unplug totally on vacations, Accounting SmartPros listed five tips to help finance executives plan their unplugged getaways.

Interestingly, a tweet from one of my followers in mid-summer said this …

My wife and I, on vacation, kids asleep, sitting on the couch, & what are we doing? Checking our Twitter feeds on our phones!

Although they weren’t “working,” they weren’t unplugged either. It describes our new culture of constant connectedness which is somewhat anti-socially social. 

Our poll at SmartBrief for CFOs last week asked about being unplugged during vacations. It apparently struck a nerve with that audience, eliciting a very high number of responses. While the numbers were quite similar to the RHMR survey, I found the 25% who said they were really just working in a vacation environment very telling.

That response may speak to a bigger story … and that is succession planning. The most brilliant of leaders are always grooming their successor (and I by no means am implying anything here). While this doesn’t preclude a CFO from having to handle a major issue while on vacation, it might allow him to feel confident that short of a “true emergency,” he, his company, and his career are all on solid footing while he’s incommunicado. And that security and freedom to totally get away can be a much needed refresh and recharge for finance leaders today.

The truth is that ensuring you have a well-groomed successor, rather than being a threat to your position, actually frees you to make the next move in your career, adds to your leadership skill set, and looks great on your resume. 

With Labor Day and the end of summer right around the corner, what can you put into place today that will allow you to have a fully, unplugged mental health holiday on your next vacation?

Growth Strategies … Business & Career

Sometimes the whole “managing a career” process just seems confusing, baffling, and maybe even unnecessary to CFOs. Today, more than ever, it is definitely necessary, and it does not need to be confusing or baffling. 

Run your career like you run your business. I’ve said that for years, but thanks to “Ready, Set, Grow” in CFO Magazine, let’s frame it in business terms to turn the fog into a crystal-clear 35,000-foot view. Quotes from the article are in italics, followed by my commentary. 

… How can you help them make money or save money?

This is key to your value proposition. Finance skills aside, the bottom line is really … how can make or save a company more than it will cost them to bring you on board? It’s not about responsibilities, credentials, or even education. 

… Focus on “developing products tailored to the specific needs of individual developing markets… Don't provide an American or a German solution to India; they need an Indian solution.”

The latter sentence is, in career terms, what I call the “spaghetti strategy.” Throwing your resume into any black hole and hoping and wishing for a response. Niched positioning to a targeted audience is a much more effective career management and job search strategy. 

You don’t have to be all things to all people … you have to be the right person for the right company.

"Good growth companies," says the Darden School's Hess, "tend to make acquisitions that are small and very strategic …

In proactively managing your career, you aren’t forced to do everything as soon as possible … as opposed to an active job seeker. It’s much easier and much more effective to execute a plan that is strategic and consistent.

… investing in areas that make sense for us, particularly in innovation.

Innovation! Web 2.0 technology. Online visibility. Reputation management. How can you leverage all the great new technology to stand out from other Chief Financial Officers rather than blending in with them?

Having your name on Linked In isn’t the same as having a branded, completed profile. Having a presence on Linked In isn’t the same as “networking” with people who need to know about you. 

Innovation means you already have an online reputation. The question is, will you control the message or be forced to respond to the message?

"The world has got more opportunities than issues right now. We need to make sure our organization looks at the opportunities and doesn't complain about the issues …"

Issues, from a career perspective, involve relying on posted positions. Too few postings for far too many candidates. It’s a frustrating and unfair screen out process. It’s also easy.

Opportunities abound through your online and offline networks and all the great technology available today. However, it’s not easy. So the earlier you get started, the easier a future career transition will be.

And, finally, this from one of my favorite authors/bloggers, Seth Godin

If you only pay attention to the world when you need a new job (your channel is stamps and your message is your resume) you'll spend your day differently than if you are leading a tribe, participating in organizations or giving local speeches all the time.

It’s time to give serious consideration to running your career like you run your business … today, finishing last isn’t a viable option.

How Fast Do You Fail?

It’s a serious question. Do you fail quickly, recognize what you might be doing wrong, and then move on? Or, do you keep doing the same thing even when your results are not what you want, hoping today will be the day that delivers a different outcome?

I was reading the latest CFO magazine and this headline jumped out at me …

“We fail fast, learn, and move on!”

It was particularly compelling because I had just finished reading my “Ask the Headhunter” newsletter (which if you don’t get, you’re missing great information) in which Nick talked about the importance of initiative in a job search. 

Here are my thoughts on the differences …

With initiative and a fast fail mindset.

These CFOs recognize that they have the most power while they are passive candidates. They are happily employed, not looking, AND on the radar screen of recruiters who are looking for high-value targets. They understand their unique value and can clearly articulate their message. 

They are proactively managing their careers, often collaborating with a career expert and/or mentor to fill in the gaps around what they don’t know in order to keep the momentum moving forward and pivot quickly when necessary, thereby avoiding an all out “face slam to sidewalk” failure.

If these finance leaders are in the midst of an active job search, they have done the hard work to clarify a differentiated, clear, and compelling message; they are networking online and offline; and they are targeting companies and people, not posted positions.

With a false sense of initiative and a slower learning mindset.

These CFOs are often active job seekers who were lulled into a false sense of security in their previous position. They felt safe and secure. Sadly, job security today is an illusion. These finance leaders may have even worked themselves out of a job, in which case they were so busy wrapping up details they shelved their careers thinking, often incorrectly, they would get their next job quickly.

After a few weeks, feelings of discouragement, anxiety, and rejection begin setting in, and then procrastination happens. Which often leads to one of two things. This job seeker gets sucked into the job posting vortex – or – convenient excuses are constantly in the way of actually conducting an effective job search. Both serve to protect the relentless assault on one’s ego from hearing nothing or being rejected.

The lack of a fast-fail-and-learn mindset means he will keep on doing what he’s been doing hoping for a different outcome. It “can” happen; it just doesn’t “often” happen … or happen quickly.

What will you do today? Fail fast, learn, and move forward; or fail slowly, learn nothing, and then repeat?

CFOs in the Board Room

In case you missed it, published an article summarizing panel comments on who should be in the Board Room. Yes, the consensus by retired-CFOs is that Chief Financial Officers must be a part of the conversation.

If you’re interested, I have a few thoughts from, of course, a career perspective …

— CFOs make GREAT additions to Boards and if you are interested in those positions, Board membership can certainly enhance your resume and differentiate you from the competition. 

— The panel was mixed on how Board positions are filled, but the top 2 ways are networking and recruiters. 

Regardless of whether you are seeking a Board position or not, networking and building relationships with recruiters are a key part of proactively managing a career. Networking only when you “need” to networking is self-serving and often unproductive.

And remember the new definition of networking … who knows about you! Who you know is important. Who knows about you is even more important! Raise your visibility internally and externally.

— Move away from finance speak. This not only applies to the Board room but to interviewing. It’s not the technicals that win the job … it’s the fact that you are a strategic problem solver and can clearly articulate your value proposition. What are you selling that a company is willing to pay to get.

— Collaboration, communication, and confidence. Whether you are part of Board conversations through your CFO role, serving as a Board member, or merely positioning yourself for that next career move … these three soft skills are a critical part of your arsenal. 

Your finance acumen will only take you so far. Then leadership, vision, strategy all come into play. If no one is following, you’re not leading. Leaders are great communicators who inspire confidence and foster a collaborative environment.

The Secret Weapon for CFOs is the Intangible

One of the discussions by the recruiter panel at the CFO Rising conference was around the intangibles of being a Chief Financial Officer. Intangibles … as in presence. It won’t matter how great your finance acumen, skill sets, and deliverables are if you can’t, or don’t, communicate it compellingly. You won’t be able to sell it. If you don’t believe your greatness, no one else will buy it either. 

In addition to the solid finance skill set, operational contributions, and perhaps even the CPA and MBA designations, strategic CFOs who desire a seat at the executive table must bring personal presence, charisma, and the ability to inspire confidence. This is NOT an extrovert / introvert issue. It IS about having confidence combined with stellar communication skills. 

If you’ve been the catalyst that has led transformative initiatives, how are you talking about the problems you solved along the way?

If you’ve been a game changer that has led to growth, what’s the behind-the-scenes story that looks at the challenges and issues you waded through to deliver the growth?

If candidates can’t articulate these compelling stories with confidence, the stories will fall flat. 

Digging deep to uncover a compelling value proposition is hard work. However, as in most things, the hard work inspires confidence and confidence leads to self-belief. When you believe in yourself and your ability to do great things based on a solid record of contribution, you can sell it and companies will buy it. 

CFOs typically call me for the tangible … a resume. What they get is the intangible … a clear, compelling, and authentic value proposition that they can say, believe, and sell.