I’m only as good as my team

Want to build a great fiance team? It’s not about you.

I was having lunch with a very smart CFO friend last fall, a gentleman I greatly admire for many reasons.

We’re both ass-kickers, but of two totally different flavors. Me, self-employed, urban-dwelling, consulting on a range of interesting, complex problems, with a peppering of novel human interactions. He, an MBA from a prestigious school, working with a VC-backed technology company on the 128 belt, building one company for one steadfast purpose. We were comparing notes on CFO-ing and catching up on life.

I asked him, essentially, “How is it you don’t get bored just being in the weeds, running one company?”

Yeah, rookie move.

First of all, I was a total idiot for asking this. Who am I to presume he’d get bored in his job, just because I thought I would be? Notwithstanding, his response was a wake-up call to me.

“Denice,” he said, “I have a team that manages the day-to-day operations of the finance department, so I can spend all day thinking about how to solve the next batch of problems.”


Thanks, Tom. This is why you are the absolute best.

I thought for many months about this conversation, and how his sage words capture the key to success for a CFO—or any CXO for that matter. Leaders organize people to do things that are important and valuable to the business. CFOs are no different. A great CFO is all about their people.

I’m only as good as my team.

As a CFO, I know my personal success is a trailing indicator of the success of those who report up to me. I can’t do jack without a fierce controller or my AP goddess. And don’t forget about the tax folks. And the lovely people who solve AR problems and sort out budget-to-actuals for line mangers. You get the idea. My team is everything. Period. It is not about me.

I am only as good as my ability to motivate others to do great work when I need them to be great.

Motivating people is an art form in and of itself, but I make it easier on myself by conscientiously creating roles, offering competitive pay, and not stuffing people into jobs they don’t really want. It is terribly difficult to motivate a human to be great in a role they don’t want to be in.

Here is how I design each role:

The work (w): What are the necessary tasks today that need to be accomplished?

The time (t): How long does it take to perform the tasks given the current volume?

The compensation ($): What’s fair and equitable for the volume of work and the skill level required for the work to be done with ease and grace?

Solve for (w) * (t) = $

This process is pretty straightforward when the company is at scale or growing at a predictable rate. Most seasoned managers find it obvious when it’s time to make a full-time hire. But privately-held startups often require tasks that don’t fill a full-time role.

The “right person” is the one who will be most satisfied with the role and will perform it with competence and enthusiasm. They are fulfilled by the work. They actually want the job at hand, not just a foot in the door to wait for the next opportunity. They are 100% satisfied with the position as designed.

It’s like dating. The happiest couples are those who are content with what they have today, not consumed with what they could be tomorrow.

Square pegs, round holes.

No one wants to work with someone who is not in the right role. It’s awful. Here are my rules of thumb to avoid this kind of toxicity in the workplace:

1. Never try to justify a full-time role when there’s not one.

Don’t think up extra things that could be done and give them to someone who whose main task comprises less than 40 hours week. Nobody wants that job. Nobody wants to be Gal Friday. Really. No one. Stick to real tasks.

2. Don’t hire Mr. Wolf to process Accounts Payable.

Find people who want to be in the role at hand. It’s tempting to hire someone for a job that may not suit them just because they are smart, available, awesome, and you want to use their talents at some point in time. Resist. The square peg will never fit into the round hole.

3. Stay open to remote workers and consultants.

In order to adhere to items 1 and 2, contractors and offsite part-time resources are golden. Consultants love clients who don’t require their full attention! And they usually are very satisfied with the tasks on which they’ve built their reputation and expertise.

The right person rarely matches up perfectly with the back-of-the-napkin job definition. So I may create multiple roles that each comprise less than 40 hours. Or increase compensation to attract the correct skill level to a role. Or accommodate an excellent candidate’s request to work only between 2 pm and 6 pm. To create a top team, I determine what is truly essential to the success of the work and stay flexible on things that are not.

Then, if there is turnover, I don’t jump to immediately fill a vacancy with the nearest warm body or random desk jockey. I have no desire to square-peg-round-hole a person and a role, simply for my convenience.

Building a finance team is often a bigger challenge than running it. Using the (w) * (t) = $ equation is a helpful framework for me to think about how to approach a solution. But any decision involving the intersection of people and processes is hard. The earlier you solve this equation, the sooner you can free up time to think about the next batch of problems.

Just remember, it is not about you.