Your first 90 days… as a Finance Director

Identify Finance Recruitment

Welcome to the second instalment of my series on finance roles in the 2020s! Let’s begin by spotlighting the leaders of the finance world - the Finance Directors.

The first days in any new role can be pretty daunting: “How will I fit in?” “Will I actually be able to master the job?” “What will my new colleagues think of me”? Now… imagine that you’re going in as a leader  someone to whom everyone immediately looks for answers. This isn’t a job for the faint hearted. Fortunately, however, there are some experienced, knowledgeable and courageous individuals out there who are willing and able to take up the task. I’ve been speaking with a number of them over the past couple of weeks and asking, “What does your first 90 days in an FD role look like?” “Within this short timeframe, what’s your focus and how do you build the foundations for a stronger finance function and business?” Whilst every answer was individual, three main themes surfaced every time: let’s look at each one of them separately.

1. Build good relationships with your fellow business leaders
Recruitment processes for Finance Directors should be long and thorough, giving the successful candidate plenty of time to get to grips with the business that they will be joining. Even so, it’s only when you’re inside a business that you really understand how it works, and what departments need from each other to achieve the business’ commercial aims. Some of the most successful Finance Directors are former Finance Business Partners who have had that early experience of working with non-finance departments, and can therefore appreciate how Finance teams can help them achieve their goals.

My Finance Director colleagues talked about fulfilling this integration and learning process through formal meetings. However, they observed that it is more often an organic process, working alongside their CEOs, HR Directors, Sales Directors, IT Directors etc, and building solid relationships in which openness and honesty prevail. Top performing FDs will know these stakeholders’ concerns, the particular pressures that they face and how they can work in tandem to find solutions.
One FD emphasised the need for clear communication. Their first FD role had also involved their first responsibility for communication with non-finance departments.

Having found a number of issues in reporting procedures, they were quick to highlight them to their fellow board members. Expecting concern or even shock, the response they actually received was… perplexion. With years of training within the Big Four and working with large corporate finance teams, they had become used to speaking in a language that is simply incomprehensible to someone who isn’t a qualified accountant. It wasn’t that the board members didn’t need to know the information they were being given. It was that it was being conveyed in the wrong way. This FD duly learned that communicating clearly and concisely was a top priority in their role.

2. Cash is king
It’s an often-used phrase for a reason, for as one FD put it, “In business, cash is everything”. In the first 90 days, the successful Finance Director will need to make sure that cash within the business is stable. Even in businesses where cash has never been a concern, controls must be put in place to make sure that accounts receivable are as effective as possible and costs are controlled. One of my interviewees reflected that, “Cash is a massive distraction if not managed properly, and you can easily lose sight of your cost base. Be very clear about which costs are essential to the business. In your first 90 days you must make sure those fundamentals are there, otherwise you won’t have the time to think strategically and grow the business commercially – crucial elements of your job as an FD.”

3. Know your team

Any leader must know their team inside out. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Are there skill gaps that need to be plugged? These questions will all need answering. However, successful Finance Directors resist any grand attempt to collect all this knowledge and provide solutions in their first few days. One much-respected FD advised that, “Going into a team like a bull in a china shop achieves only one thing: you’ll alienate EVERYBODY!” Instead, a great FD spends a few weeks standing back, quietly assessing via formal meetings and by working alongside colleagues. Through this slower approach, they earn their team’s respect and trust.

Team structure featured highly in the FDs’ advice. Reporting lines (particularly in large finance teams) could often be tweaked to get the very best from all concerned. There are often opportunities to organise training for team members who may be hidden gems, but whose value hasn’t been fully realised. On the other hand, leadership changes often reveal weaker links in the team, whether that’s inefficient team structure, training gaps or team members who simply have bad attitudes. The successful Finance Director won’t be the proverbial bull in a china shop, but they will act decisively when the time is right. When there are gaps in the team that can’t be resolved through training, recruitment plays a major role in these early days to ensure a successful future.

These three themes appeared frequently in my conversations with Finance Directors about their first 90 days in a role. Other topics arose too, of course, such as a horror story concerning bank covenants… So what has been your first 90 days experience as a Finance Director? What experiences from earlier roles have informed your approach today? If you’re willing to share your wisdom, we’d love to hear from you!

Identify Finance Recruitment is a specialist finance & accountancy recruiter for the West Midlands. Whether you would like help in your own career as a Finance Director or if you’re looking for someone to lead your own finance function, then just get in touch with Dan Hayes on 0121 429 8962 or