Leadership tactics & moving from SVP to CFO with Alka Tandan of Gainsight
Alka Tandan joined Gainsight as VP Finance in 2019. She moved from SVP Finance to Chief Financial Officer in 2022, just as business worldwide hit a slump. As we’ll see, this became both her biggest career challenge to date, and the catalyst for better communication and leadership.
Alka’s a 20-year tech industry veteran, having worked in operations and finance. She’s also active on the investor scene, where she’s an angel investor and a limited partner for a venture fund.
Read on to learn how Alka and Gainsight managed the major impact of an economic dip, what companies should double down on now, and her best career advice.
Gainsight, recently voted #1 place to work on Glassdoor, is a customer success (CS) solution that empowers companies to increase customer acquisition, decrease customer churn, and drive advocacy.
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Choosing a career in finance
In your career, you need to figure out all the things you're good at and then the things you like, and find where those intersect. As a child, I was always really good at math, and I like numbers because they always tell a story. And I really enjoyed the business aspect in addition to numbers, so I settled in finance.
So I started my career as an investment banker, but soon realized I really didn't want to do that. And then it was the great financial crisis of 2008-9. Somehow I found this opportunity in FP&A, which I actually didn’t want at all. They told me they had hundreds of resumes and chose mine.
It ended up being a good company - it gave me the opportunity to build the function from the ground up. It was like my functional MBA.
I now tell people to be open and look at sort of different things, not just maybe how you might be feeling in the moment. So I gave it a shot, and really enjoyed it. And it’s been a natural career path from there.
Your biggest challenge as CFO?
That one's easy: when I became CFO and we entered this current economy. We're not in a technical recession, but entering into the land of high-interest rates and slowing growth where tech was hit pretty hard. And that started happening about three months in for me as CFO. It was challenging in many respects.
Being a leader when everything's going well is one thing. But when you have to slow things down and have those difficult conversations with people is another beast. My leadership style had to change very quickly. We had to get really strategic in terms of what we wanted to do financially. Nick [Mehta, Gainsight CEO] and I got together, and one of the first things we did was decide to slow hiring.
We did it early on; I know a lot of people may have done it later, but we started looking at it in September 2022. We started slowing down our open headcount. Then we looked at some of our costs, particularly around marketing – a lot of the non-essentials.
Since September, we’ve been doing continuous planning. And when I say continuous planning, we were running the forecast every single week, whereas normally, it would be about once a month. I also got the executive team a lot more involved. So in our executive meetings, we regularly looked at the P&L and revised estimates, when required. We have new plans in place that are much more realistic
To face this challenge, I’ve been focusing on changing my leadership style, continuous planning, creating a methodology and getting strategic about which costs we want to slow down. Finally, a lot of transparency and discussion with the executive team in particular.
Will that continuous planning be year-round?
Now that we've revised the target downwards for this economy, we can probably go back to maybe every month, if not every two weeks.
But I don't think it'll be as intense as it was before, because now we have a real hold on what's going on. We've also changed things like our operating cadence to look at different data, because the old data wasn't really working. We reexamined some of our metrics and got a bit deeper into our segmentation for things like pipeline as well as bookings.
We're also going in with a different cost space now, too. That gives us a little breathing room. If anything, I think as we continue into this year, growth is going to come back. So the question is: when does it come back? It will either be the second half of this year or early next year, and I just want to make sure we're ready for it. That’s the flip side: making sure you don't cut too much.
What’s the difference between SVP of Finance & CFO?
As SVP and interim CFO I owned accounting. I also now own legal as well as IT and security. So operationally, the breadth of my responsibilities is a lot more.
But the biggest thing is just the sense of responsibility. Both good and challenging at times. The good part is that I can make decisions as I sort of see fit. And those decisions are not just in the short term, but even long term. You can’t do that when you’re interim.
It’s also a very public role. It wasn't until I was in the seat that I realized actually there are not that many high-profile female CFOs. In the beginning it was a little bit overwhelming. And then I realized that there was a lot more responsibility with it than I actually understood.
My goal is always just to use this responsibility for the company's benefit but also for the broader environment.
Lastly, a CFO adds some stability. I think it's great for the teams to have that person who is going to be here for some time. Which comes back to making long-term choices, too.
How did your leadership style change in response to the current economic climate?
I had to go in and just take a bigger role and get much more direct. My method was to be super transparent. It’s still very collaborative, we're all in this together, but there is no more leeway.
In the good times, you are encouraged and you have the ability to do a lot of experimentation. And it's okay if some of those experiments don't work. We suddenly didn’t have that leeway anymore. Everyone had to get more informed about the numbers. It’s my job to track this number, but fiscal responsibility is everyone's job here.
I became much more vocal and increased my communication. I started CFO office hours for the company where people could come and ask me questions. I started a finance newsletter for the company. In my newsletter, I started doing a lot more education about what happens in a turbulent economic climate because I realised many of our employees had only seen the good times.
Any advice for other CFOs?
Everyone should be focused on customer success right now. If anything, you should invest a little bit more. It’s also the most efficient way to grow your business, because it's the cheapest. We feel customer success has had a bit of a push in this sort of economy because everyone’s getting back to efficiency.
I do think smaller companies should be wary, because most of them had raised funds and they had a nice long runway. Now I'm starting to hear about valuations going down. The reality is that many companies will still come out stronger. On a personal level and professionally, these times, although very difficult, provide you with opportunities to learn.
They can be a time of personal reflection, a lot of learning in terms of business and how you might want to think about your career. It's not a bad thing that we're all going back to the fundamentals of really good business, where companies have to be profitable and cash flow positive.
It's a good thing long term, otherwise the economy would've just simply burned out and it would've been a much harsher fall. So in the long run, even though this is a little bit painful, we’re ripping off the bandaid: the healing part of this journey is starting to happen.