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 / CFO.com 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 Contingency Plan

Or, Redundancy-Proofing. Or, Career Survival Plan. Whatever the name, the result is the same … ensuring that in these tough, very competitive times you don’t find yourself on the street before you start looking for your next position.

As the lead Finance Executive, you would never run your company on the haphazard basis most people, not just Chief Financial Officers, run their careers. With your company, you have systems and measurements in place, a 3-to-5-year plan, and shorter goals you work towards on a daily or weekly basis.

It’s like steering the Titanic. Slow and steady makes the turn. But if you’re inches from the iceberg (unemployment), it is impossible to do the things you need to do in order to avert disaster.

There is little corporate loyalty today. As the CFO or Senior Finance Executive, the bottom line on the P&L statement stops with you. The moment the Board is unhappy, the CEO starts leaning harder, credit / cash issues continue, or the diminished staff is less and less productive and more and more whiney, the bottom line is impacted and it is your neck that has the potential to move closer and closer to the chopping block.

–Do you have any contingency plan in place in the event you do lose your job?

–Have you reached out to anyone in your network in the last year?

–Will your personal marketing documents be ready should someone ask for them?

–Are you visible to your target audience?

–Have you even identified your target audience?

–Do you know and can you articulate your value proposition?

Several months ago I was engaged by a client who worked himself out of his last position. He told me when we started that his goal was to be employed in 2 months, but until his call to me he had done nothing else. He is in a tough industry and now wore the stigma of “unemployment.” Before we could work together, I was forced to disabuse him of that unrealistic expectation. That false expectation served no good purpose for either of us. It’s been 5 months and he has had no less than 6 potential opportunities for at least 4 of those months. However, while no one will tell him definitively “no,” each one of them is continuing to string him along while taking their sweet time getting to “yes.”

The corporate decision to hire is agonizingly slow for many candidates. And that agony is exacerbated if there was no contingency plan in place and the job loss was unexpected. Desperation forces candidates to make choices and decisions they would not otherwise make if they were executing a solid contingency plan. Remember, “he who fails to plan, plans to fail.”

The Sounds of Silence

The numbers around whether or not companies are hiring are all over the map. Our own SmartBrief for CFOs poll on this question indicates that close to 80% of respondents say hiring in their companies is flat. 

That doesn’t mean companies aren’t hiring. It means that the playing field is much smaller, the competition is much stiffer, you must be a high-value target, and what you are bringing  to the table (value) must make the company more money than it costs to bring you on board. 

Even then, the silence can be deafening. In a coaching session earlier this week, my client has at least 4, maybe 5, very viable opportunities on the table. He’s made it to the top of the candidate list, the companies love him and want to bring him on … but he’s caught in the sounds of silence. He is at their mercy as each of the companies wrestle with the decision of whether, in the face of economic uncertainty and waffling or stagnant revenue growth, it makes sense to bring on another employee. 

Notice, I said bring on another “employee.” Not, “hire him.” There is no question in my mind that he is the top candidate for any one of these positions, and he’s been told that if they hire, he's their choice. The questions every company are weighing, and weighing heavily, as part of every hiring decision, are … 

— can we?

— should we?

— what happens if we do?

For this Investment Banker, it’s incredibly frustrating to be so close and yet feel like the end of the road is still so far away. But as I’ve told him, until you get the “NO NO NO and don’t ever darken our doorstep again,” it isn’t over. It’s just that the company is holding all the cards and he is at the mercy of their agonizingly slow decision-making process.

Speed of Hiring Decisions

There can be great anguish, not to mention frustration, irritation, and discouragement, associated with an active job search. The process can be agonizingly slow, with a lack of clear communication (sometimes even non–existent communication), and certainly nebulous timeframes proffered by decision–makers. (Have you read my article “Everybody Lies”?)

Dr. John Sullivan, in his article “Understanding Why Fast Hiring is Critical to Recruiting Success” suggests there is a direct correlation between speed of hiring and whether a candidate is passive (employed but open to opportunities) or unemployed and actively searching.

It makes perfect sense. When a passive candidate “finally” makes up his mind to interview for an opportunity (notice how the candidate holds all the power), assuming he is “the” right candidate, a company will move quickly to bring him on board rather than lose him to a counteroffer.

Conversely, an unemployed candidate probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon (who holds all the power in this scenario?) … unless that candidate is entertaining multiple offers simultaneously.