What Growth Companies Want from the CFO Role: Leslie Boudreaux, BVOH
Leslie Boudreaux has been placing top-level finance profiles for over 20 years. A finance professional herself, she spent her early career in accounting & audit at KPMG and earned her CPA, before becoming an executive finance recruiter.
She founded her search firm, BVOH, in 2004 to help fast-growing companies in the U.S. strategically build their finance teams with top talent.
It’s rare to meet a finance recruiter who can walk the talk, so we were delighted to hear Leslie’s unique perspective on how finance professionals and aspiring CFOs can develop the most in-demand skills and own the evolving scope of the modern finance leadership role. Check out our conversation…
You have a finance background, and earned your CPA — how did you go from corporate finance to recruiting?
I spent six years in public and private accounting, but it never felt like it was my passion and something I was excited about doing. But I didn't want to waste all of that time, and plus I had studied hard to pass the CPA exam. So I wanted to leverage my finance experience and education in a more people-facing role that was more dynamic, and I stumbled into recruiting for accounting and finance professionals.
It felt like a good match to mirror my personality and drive. That was in 1998 and I never looked back.
It's been a really fun journey. At the core, I love recruiting, helping people and interfacing with finance and accounting executives, and trying to add value for them through what I've learned along the way.
Is the CFO role the most in-demand position you get asked to place for?
No, it's actually the Corporate Controller. And that's primarily because of the space that we play in - we own a very niche specialization in finance, and so our relationships are with the CFOs.
And that's why we're usually working one level down, unless it’s a very early stage, like a Series A, Series B company. We usually get that business through a referral to place the head of finance or the CFO, and that definitely happens. But more often than not, we are placing VPs of Finance, the Corporate Controllers and then their teams.
In your 20+ years of recruiting experience, what’s been the biggest shift in the skillset companies are looking for in a finance leader?
I think there's a shift happening right this second that is very new. Right now, CFOs are under a lot of scrutiny in how they're handling this crisis. And I think there's going to be some backlash on that in terms of, “did they make the right decisions? Did they invest quickly enough or pull back too much?”
We're really in unchartered territory and CFOs have a lot of pressure. I've talked to CFOs who've done eight forecasts in eight weeks. They're relied upon to guide the companies through this situation - these are emerging companies where cash is king - and they have really different pressures than a big public company does.
So companies are asking: do we have the right person in the seat? Do they have enough experience with crisis management?
Founder at BVOH
In the last, say 10 years, I feel like there has been this bias to get young, hungry, upwardly mobile, talent who are growing into the role and almost a slight bias against the grey-haired CFO. And I suspect that appetite might change a little bit given that the CFO's of today in these high growth companies more often than not have never actually led through a bad time and are having to figure that out on the fly. And so that value proposition might change.
To have been a sitting CFO in the financial crisis of 2008, that CFO today has a huge advantage. Even though this is different, it's still a crisis nevertheless and I think that's a big advantage.
Beyond the technical skills that are required, what are some of the soft skills that make a candidate stand out?
I'd say just leadership ability. Sometimes your best doers are not your best leaders.
Really for any type of executive finance role, the people that stand out have incredible leadership instincts. It comes out in the way that they talk about their own work and their team. They're able to really inspire and build the next generation of finance talent.
They don't feel like they have to do everything themselves, and they counterbalance their own weaknesses with the strengths of the people that they build around them.
And then, they're able to inspire those people to really rise up. I think that skill is the most lacking, and it's the one that's most apparent when people get it wrong. But it's also the most impressive when they get it right.
There are a lot of people that are really awesome at what they do. They may be a really capable CFO, they may be able to manage really well, they're highly intelligent, they're really technical, they can grind out an incredible amount of work. But how are they actually impacting those around them? That's the piece that's a lot harder to get.
How do you vet for that leadership quality?
I think a savvy interviewer can read the tea leaves. You can have an hour-long, in depth discussion with a financial leader, literally just walking through their resume top to bottom. And just the way that they explain their accomplishments and their teams’, even without asking the direct question, you can gather that from the conversation.
I think oftentimes that leadership strength comes from a passion. It's like, when you really enjoy doing something, you're usually pretty good at it. You could package it all up under the concept of EQ.
Can you talk more about how EQ shows up in the finance role?
Well, you’ve got your outward facing CFO and your inward facing CFO.
So outward-facing CFOs manage investors and The Street, fundraising and the messaging. And usually those CFOs are typically more strategic. They don't always come up through a traditional internal finance and accounting, CPA, MBA background. A lot of times they come from investment banking or somewhere in a client-facing role, but they still have that analytical acumen.
The inward-facing CFOs, they're more managing the financial statements, tax, audit, treasury, FP&A, risk. They're also more focused on the internal workings of finance, having really accurate financial statements, forecasts - all of the internal mechanics to support that fiduciary responsibility of the company. As opposed to representing the company alongside the CEO and really crafting the message, which has got a little bit of a sales piece to it.
You placed many high-profile roles at fast-growing startups. What does it take to succeed as a “startup finance leader?”
To be successful in a startup, you have to wear a lot of hats. You've really got to understand the business and be able to step in like a CEO or COO would.
You have to understand the underlying business model and the risks and opportunities, and adopt the mindset of a customer. There's a product piece that comes into it.
Because finance and accounting in a startup can be relatively simple. That’s not where the sophistication is. You might have one product and one entity and one currency, without a ton of depth. You might not have a trillion transactions; you may not even have revenue yet. There's not a lot of stuff to “count,” for lack of a better word.
It's more about “how do we actually approach the market?” Do we have product market fit? And again, this is not very hard to see when you're interviewing a candidate — it comes out in the way they talk about the business.
When you ask them, "Okay, what did you do there?" And they immediately explain, “this is something we had to overcome,” or “we're hearing this from our customers, we're finding that we went into this marketplace that this particular strategy didn't work, but we were able to achieve higher margins when we worked through this channel partner in this way…”
Founder at BVOH
I mean, it's amazing how far high-growth startups will get without a real accounting and finance department, because the basics are getting done. If their clients are getting billed - if they even have clients yet - and they're getting paid for their work, they're paying their people, and have enough money in the bank, that’s enough for the CEO.
Every leadership search we’ve worked on in the last 10 years, that has been the number one requirement - to find someone who has led their team through a growth time. Because it's very different to live through a hyper-growth company than not. And I think that companies really, really value that expertise.
At what point does the CFO become valuable to a startup?
More often than not, I think startups go too long without a CFO because founders & CEOs don't really value it. They view it as a back-office thing, but really amazing strategic CFOs could help the company really lay the groundwork to achieve the success the CEO wants.
But not every finance person can do that. It’s a rarity to find somebody who can really add value in that strategic way, above and beyond just creating and reporting and presenting numbers that are accurate. Those are the basic table stakes. The expectations on the CFO have gotten bigger and bigger.
You’ve seen a lot of finance resumes - is having a CPA or an MBA seen as more valuable?
I mean, that really depends upon the decade and the role. For CFO, right now I would probably say an MBA. But back during Sarbanes Oxley a CPA became very highly valued for the CFO. Today I’m not really hearing that - unless its a Corporate Controller role or something technical in the accounting department. Those roles almost always require a CPA.
Founder at BVOH
Not because they were put in a job to do it, but because they saw an opportunity in the business with sales, with product, with engineering, with critical components of the company, and they were able to - from their CFO seat - make and actually create impact in those organizations outside of their own.
And that's where you see those people really getting that next seat. It’s about rising to the occasion and adding value way outside of your job function before anyone's tasked you to do it.
What are some common hiring mistakes or team structuring mistakes that you would advise against?
When companies are building their teams, we see a lot of dysfunctional finance org charts, and that creates hiring problems moving forward. And it always comes down to one thing: they have built the org chart around the people that they have.
They have good people and they want to keep them, but it actually doesn't make sense if the company is going to efficiently scale-up. At some point they have to go through the pain of making the tough choices to restructure their department in a way that is scalable and can meet the demands of the business.
It happens all the time and I get it. You have a good person who doesn't fit into the role they should be in. And you want to keep them around. So you try to create something, but then when you start to grow and go to the external market, you can't hire that top candidate you need to hire, because your structure is messed up.
And it's really, really tough because it’s going to be hard and is going to cause immediate pain, but it’s actually the best thing for the organization long-term. But no one wants to put themselves in immediate pain.
I think that's also another sign of a really effective leader: if they’ll put themselves in pain today for the betterment of themselves and the company as they build their teams. And they have the constitution to do that.
You’ve shared some fantastic advice with us. What's the best advice you've been given in your career?
The best advice in my career was given to me by Graham Smith, a CFO I worked with as a recruiter at three of his companies, building his finance and accounting teams while I was at Kforce.
After 5 yrs of working together he asked me what I was still doing there - that I could do so much more. This is what ultimately inspired me to start BVOH. He went on to become the CFO at Salesforce and I continued to partner with him there.
Without that push from someone I trusted and respected immensely I don’t know if I would have considered making a big change like this (things were going very well for me at Kforce), or had the courage to do it, and it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.
Can you share a favorite resource, podcast, book or something that you recommend all finance leaders should check out?
The podcasts I listen to weekly are:
Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris – this is primarily about meditation and wellness, but they cover a wide range of topics including everything social justice, the pandemic, how to get more sleep, relationships, etc. It helps me to be grounded and work on myself, which in turn helps me to be a better leader, parent, spouse.
The Goal Digger by Jenna Kutcher – this showcases female entrepreneurs. It’s focused on starting and growing your own business, and all things digital marketing. Because I run marketing for the company, I’ve learned a lot about launches and digital marketing. But the guests are also very inspiring women, and it keeps me motivated to keep pushing and challenging myself.
How I Built This with Guy Raz – interviews insanely successful entrepreneurs (Canva, Soul Cycle, Lululemon, Tom’s, etc.). Really relatable and inspiring, particularly to hear the humble beginnings of so many successful people and how they pushed through the tough times
Editors note: we highly recommend checking out some of Leslie's own interviews with rockstar CFOs like Ed Tang of Lever, Elena Gomez of Zendesk, and more on the BVOH blog.
Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on modern finance leadership with the CFO Connect community, Leslie!
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