Your Next Finance Hire: How to Build a Winning Team
Many finance leaders are brought into startups and scaleups specifically to build a successful finance function.
And it really never ends. With scale comes more payments and invoices, broken processes, and whole new functions to create. Plus team churn - an unfortunate cost of doing business. All of which means you’re never far from your next recruitment round.
And like plenty of finance leaders, I had to learn how to hire on the job. It’s always challenging, but you can be prepared and approach the task with the right mindset.
So that’s what I’m setting out here - principles and insights to help make your next hiring round more mindful, targeted, and ultimately to land the right person for the task at hand.
I’m CFO at Manna Drone Delivery. Our mission is to improve the world by making lightning fast suburban deliveries affordable, green, and safe. We’re in North Dublin today, bringing coffee, Tesco groceries, ice cream, milkshakes, chips, burgers - anything you could possibly want - by a drone. Orders arrive at your address in under three minutes, contact-free, delivered by a drone on a biodegradable tether. We’re a venture capital backed company entering into a significant growth phase.
My career has largely been focused on high-growth tech companies. I’ve built finance teams in different stages, including public markets, private equity, and venture capital. I’ve seen a lot along the way, and have plenty of positive and negative stories as a result.
There’s no right way to do it - if there was it would be easy. But here are some of the simple steps I recommend leaders adopt as they prepare for a new hire.
1. Identify the desired outcome
It’s a cliché in the business world, but always start with why. It’s tempting to say “we’re really busy and stretched, so let’s just get somebody in.” But take a critical look first at where you are and what you want to achieve, before deciding that more headcount is the best next move. For example:
Are you a rapidly-growing company, and the finance organization struggles to keep up as a result? Classic examples are process-driven, high volume tasks like invoicing and payment reconciliations.
Do you need to add capability to the finance team? For instance, you want to hire an FP&A specialist because you don’t currently have an FP&A function at all.
This is the critical first step to assess whether hiring is the right option at all. And if so, what kind of hiring process you need.
If a high volume of process-driven tasks is your major pain point, perhaps automation (and not hiring) is the best solution. And if you’re creating a new function, could you develop these skills internally with your existing talent? (More on this shortly.)
Most critically, do you have the time to onboard new people or upskill your current staff? We always underestimate the time and effort involved, and you can’t afford to do this half-heartedly.
A quick tangent on automation
You may ind yourself in a position where you think “automation would be great, but our processes are highly customized so we can’t automate.” That should be a red flashing beacon that something is wrong.
I’ve ignored that beacon in the past, and just created much bigger problems down the road. You find yourself with a large and growing team all trying to follow that highly customized process and making mistakes along the way. You end up hiring another team to check the first team’s mistakes, and so on. Not pretty!
The goal should always be to standardize processes. It’s the most positive way you can contribute to the healthy scalability of your organization. That’s perhaps even more important than the day-to-day work.
2. Direct vs indirect hire
Let’s assume you’ve gone through all of this and concluded that yes, you’re ready to hire someone. The next question is what exactly are you looking for? Is this a direct hire or an indirect hire?
Direct hire:Finding a new person to fill this exact position.
Indirect hire: Promoting or transitioning an existing team member into this role, then making a new hire to replace them.
Having a medium-to-large finance team is a nice luxury. But the flipside is attrition. And one way to counter this is to actively recognize and reward your current team with new opportunities. In most cases, choosing this ‘indirect hire’ route tends to lead to stronger finance teams overall.
It’s also a question of balance in the onboarding and upskilling phase. For example, depending on the context would it take longer to upskill an existing employee with institutional knowledge, or to effectively onboard a skilled professional who knows nothing about the business?
Very often, institutional knowledge can be more valuable but there are times when the opposite is the case - what matters the most is that you’ve considered the options and made a conscious decision.
One of my own natural biases is to give people a shot. That has worked well in the past, but it has also backfired at times. When it hasn’t worked out, it’s usually because I and the other managers haven’t given enough credit to the skills gap involved. It’s quite easy to underestimate the steps in a person’s progression.
In parallel, I recommend preparing a robust assessment of what you need the person (and the wider team) to do when they arrive. Not in a “job spec” sense, but in a highly tangible context: what will the team be working on over the the next six months, what do you actually want them to produce, how does this interplay with requirements and commitments across the wider business, and so on. This forces the discipline to make a conscious decision and go beyond simply thinking “if I had one more person, I would have more time to do more things.”
I do this exercise across my team all the time over shorter time horizons, not just for hiring. Try it now: take the next six weeks: map them out, what are we going to do and what will this bring?
3. Conduct a conscious candidate search
Next comes the search itself. And it’s vital to do this consciously and mindfully. You need to find the best person for the job, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the perfect person. Good enough is often good enough.
Recognize your biases
First, acknowledge your own inherent biases. If you have a bias for perfectionism, make sure you’re being realistic and don’t overthink things. If you tend to lean towards speed, make sure you don’t settle for less than you need.
Early in my career I received a great piece of guidance from a mentor who is a professional recruiter. People hire clones of themselves. And sometimes that’s great. You can have an inherent level of trust with someone who approaches work the same way you do.
But sometimes it’s harmful. You often need a different set of biases and another viewpoint to strengthen your team. So if you don’t want a clone of yourself, you’ll have to be deliberate in thinking broader than you might normally. Particularly in where you do the search.
Choose recruiters carefully
I’m a big believer in hiring from your network where there’s an obvious candidate. But if that’s not an option, then a high quality recruiter can be invaluable - particularly for more senior roles. Ideally someone you’ve built a relationship with over time.
Keep the bar high for recruiters. Get a clear understanding of the culture and approach of each firm you consider. For instance, early in my career it came as an absolute shock to me that several firms have internal targets for the number of CVs their send out each week. No matter how many so-so CVs I rejected, they just kept coming - I cringe a bit now at my naivety!
Trust your gut, plus a second opinion
If there was a clear formula or flowchart for all this, it would be easy. So one final tip: listen to your gut feeling. There are times where you sense you’re not following the right path or making the right decision - heed the warning signs!
This can work both waysFor example the candidate may have said and done everything right, but something tells you it’s not a perfect match… I have ignored this feeling in the past and regretted making the hire.
There have also been occasions where I’ve interviewed candidates and not quite seen what I wanted to see. Despite this, I sensed I was missing something or making an error of judgement and have asked a trusted colleague to meet the candidate and give a second opinion - on several occasions we have gone on to make a great hire..
4. A quick tip to take hiring seriously
Hiring naturally comes with a bit of a paradox. You’re typically hiring because you’re understaffed and too busy. So how do you find the time to do a robust selection process and onboard someone when you’re too busy to do the day-job as it is? Time is the thing you have the least of at the moment.
In that scenario, you often spend your day firefighting. Which means any effort for the recruitment process is typically the easiest thing to postpone until tomorrow. But the most important and valuable way to buy more time is to find that next person. That’s alot more valuable than the short-term firefighting work.
So for myself and my team, we try our utmost to make any recruitment-related tasks the first thing we do every day. Whether that’s talking to a recruiter, drafting a job spec, or reading CVs, onboarding plans, etc., we’ll do that before 9-10am, and then put out fires for the rest of the day. I’ve almost never managed to successfully do these tasks at the end of the day.
It’s always difficult to make time for this. But you’re not going to solve your bigger medium-term problem without that extra person.
And once you have them, it’s so rewarding. When they’re up to speed, all that time and effort is clearly worth it. So I try to remember this when we’re slogging through the recruitment process: it will be worth it.
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