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Elena talked about the evolving role of Finance in an organization and the practices and mindset she believes are most important for CFOs and finance leaders at modern, growth-minded companies.
Elena’s experience as a SaaS finance leader spans over two decades, with an impressive track record at top Finance and SaaS firms. After spending her career with Big Four accounting firm KPMG, she applied her skills to leadership roles at Charles Schwab and Visa.
During her session, Elena shared insights from her decades working in Finance and SaaS, including advice for up-and-coming finance leaders.
Here are three of the biggest takeaways:
1. Don’t compromise on talent
Talent is the heartbeat of your organization. Without the right team, growth becomes much more difficult. Building and cultivating a strong team for the long haul is vital.
The talent you need will largely depend on the goal you’re trying to reach. Without continued cultivation, the same team that got you from A to B might not be the team that helps to scale further.
She often looks for one of two “types” of candidate: Either a deep subject matter expert or an adept generalist with a breadth of experience.
Experience is not only about technical chops, either, says Elena. The ability to translate know-how across departments and the organization is vital.
“I used to think [communication skills] were ‘nice to have' in finance. I no longer think it’s ‘nice to have,’ but mandatory.
There are a lot of people who have so much analytical horsepower, but if they can't translate that horsepower and analytics insight into something tangible for the executive team, they might as well not be there.
Getting the team together is one-half of the equation. You also have to keep them. This was a big lesson of the pandemic for Elena at Zendesk. While the company moved into action to support its customers, it also invested in the well-being of its staff.
“What we did for our employees, I’m really proud of.” Offering perks like flexible Fridays and meeting-free “Wellness Wednesdays” helped employees maintain balance.
It’s a concept Elena continues to champion at Toast.
“One of the biggest challenges is acquiring and retaining talent. We invested in certain things and that really paid off.”
Give the team the perks, flexibility, and opportunity to learn. Doing so will ensure they remain valuable team members for the long term.
2. Nail the company narrative
In some respects, a company owes its success to the stories it tells. Customers and investors alike learn about a company through a narrative lens.
For this reason, knowing and embracing the business narrative is one of the most important practices for a CFO and company focused on growth.
When coming into a new organization, spend time in the early months learning the corporate story from different angles. Upon arriving at Zendesk (a public company with a big reach and well-established narrative) Elena spent time understanding the story from both an internal and external lens.
Internally, talking to different stakeholders within the company will give you a broad view. Talk not only to the executive team, but gain perspective from Ops, Marketing, and others within your internal network.
Stepping outside of the corporate structure, look to those who have an intimate but distanced understanding. Elena learned Zendesk by “talking to board members and investors to understand the business from a different angle.”
This practice isn’t only for the C-suite. Everyone can benefit.
At the exec level, you’re responsible for not only knowing and sharing the business narrative but crafting it. This is where the practice of good relationship building is valuable.
“The CFO can be [one] orchestrator and narrator, but there are other key stakeholders in the organization that you’re going to partner with. Having those relationships solidified will help you allow you to influence the narrative and be a key player."
Finally, appreciate the customer and investor experience of your narrative.
“Get a level of understanding on the product they sell. What’s the value creation for the customer? How do we make money?”
The customer is the ultimate barometer for the success of your narrative efforts.
3. Thread the needle on short and long-term action
No one has a crystal ball, but a great CFO might make you wonder if they do. Elena stresses the importance of seeing not just the present, but “shining the headlights further ahead.”
The better your information, the easier it will be to see what’s coming the next year, or even years beyond.
Seeing the present starts with structuring the day-to-day, both with data and talent. For startups, the work can begin early — even before your CFO arrives on the scene.
Though Elena recommends bringing on a CFO “before you think you need one,” you can lay the organizational groundwork early by hiring a VP of Finance.
This important player can create infrastructure to support your organization as the org chart deepens. Once your CFO arrives on the scene, they can turn their attention to important strategic work. They can further develop a world-class team, rather than spend excess time within the Accounting function.
Understanding the long-term plan also means looking beyond your own four walls.
Finding out where you fit in the landscape can help you plan effectively for the mid to long-term.
Once you have team, structure, and competitive intelligence in place, you are free to be more strategic. For the modern CFO, that freedom isn’t a nice-to-have.
“The modern-day CFO is spending their time with the exec chain, day in and day out, to grow the business. There will always be pressure for a CFO to be more strategic.”
This ability to forge relationships with your executive team and rely on the structures you’ve put in place will help the organization weather the storms growth-minded businesses all face.
Elena is now turning these experiences into success for Toast. The restaurant tech startup is experiencing post-pandemic growth and has its sights on a possible 2021 IPO.
As a Vendr customer, we’re excited to partner in their success.