Hiring a Finance Team: Key Qualities & Remote Tips
A crucial aspect of being a successful CFO is putting a great team around you. You know that many hands make light work, and ideally those hands will be attached to smart, caring, and diligent employees.
But the finance function has evolved and modernized, and looking at a CV and qualifications are no longer the be all and end all. Particularly for startup leaders who need staff that believe in the mission and jell with the team.
And this challenge is only growing as companies continue to work from home.
We asked Dan Hully of Quantico Financial and Jimmy Vassilas of Zappi to explore these ideas and share their strategies. They were happy to talk us through the do’s and don’ts of hiring great finance talent, especially from afar.
About our experts
Dan Hully is Co-Founder and CEO at Quantico Financial. The company provides finance operations and other financial expertise to businesses as a service. The majority of Quantico clients are series A startups, particularly those who have outgrown their accounting firm and are planning to hire a team. Quantico provides finance staff on a part-time basis to fill this gap.
Jimmy Vassilas is Chief Financial Officer at Zappi. Zappi’s platform lets brands run consumer testing and access better research methodologies. They can test quicker and learn more about their target audience, and make better decisions around their ads and innovations.
These experts bring a wealth of knowledge and experience in finance team hiring, from different perspectives. And while much of the webinar explored general best practices, we began with the current climate.
How has the COVID crisis affected finance hiring?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both speakers felt that the coronavirus had altered the state of play. And some of these changes are fairly obvious. As Jimmy explained, “you can't go have a coffee with them. You can't walk about the office and introduce them. So you’ve got to rely on technology. And it becomes problematic because you're so used to meeting and just interviewing people face to face.”
“You really want to demonstrate that employee value proposition for joining your company, which includes the office and the perks, the people and the buzz. And you just don't get that when you're virtual in a Zoom call. So you've got to really focus on articulating what that value proposition for the employee is to join your company.”
Quantico has hired two new finance staff already during this tricky time. And for Dan, the talent pool hasn’t been an issue. “On the whole, there has been a greater availability of candidates and a lot of people have been very keen to start immediately. Particularly around March and April there was a lot of uncertainty and obviously a lot of people got trapped in that. So we definitely found that there were probably more candidates than usual available on shorter notice periods.”
“But obviously the flip side of that is it makes screening harder because you've got to get through more people. And often you're talking to people who just really want the first thing they come across. You have to make sure that they really are the right person and they really agree with your company and your mission, and they're not just looking for whatever they can get.”
“The other thing is onboarding,” added Jimmy. “ For the first week or so, don’t even focus on finance. Have joint calls with sales, joint calls with operations, and let them get to know the business. Because I mean, you're going to spend the rest of your time focusing on finance anyway.”
How do you identify great finance hires remotely?
As the outside world changes, so should your screening and hiring techniques. So how can finance leaders find and vet their next great team members?
“We've added an additional layer into our process,” offered Dan, “which is to have them record a brief one minute interview with them answering a few questions. And you'd be surprised how many that actually screens out. Quite a lot of people just don't want to film a video of themselves.”
“And then obviously you're going to have to conduct everything by video call. Which can really test how well people can adapt to new scenarios. When you're doing an interview, there's a whole school of thought that says you don't really want people to be really comfortable. The more uncomfortable they are, the more under stress they are, the more you're going to see the real them. Obviously there's a limit to that, but I think it is helpful to see them in an entirely new environment, see how adaptable they are.”
In Jimmy’s view, the remote interview structure can put some healthy pressure on interviewers, too. “The recruiters and the interviewers really have to focus on that vision of finance, the vision of the team, the vision of the company to sell their value proposition. And I think before it was almost one sided. Now, you really have to make an effort to demonstrate and convince somebody that this is a good place to work. There's sufficient cash flow to enable somebody to pay them. So there are different aspects that you need to articulate and get that candidate comfortable.”
“Finally,” added Dan, “it’s always incredibly difficult in any hiring process to eliminate unconscious bias, avoid making a decision on someone based on how they look, their body language, their tone of their voice. And doing more through Zoom does reduce the exposure you have to some of these things. And perhaps that's not such a bad thing.”
How do you build a remote finance team?
For Quantico - finance ops as a service - remote work has always been core to the business model. Staff sometimes work from clients’ offices, but they’re always connected to home base. “We've had to, from a very early stage, build the systems, build the processes that are going to make it easy for them to do that,” said Dan. “And the obvious side of that is you need to get the systems and the processes correct. Things like Slack, and we use Process Street just to manage the jobs and make sure everybody's aligned on what needs to be done well.”
Today’s startups run on these tools, and finance staff need to be just as fluent in them as any other team. “But in addition to the systems piece,” adds Dan, “there's a large amount of work around communication. The first thing you need to do whenever someone's working remotely is establish trust in the relationship right from the start. And that goes both ways. You need to trust them to work independently and to come to you when they need help, but they also need to trust that you're going to be there to support them, that you're going to be holding them accountable to the objectives you set.”
Jimmy’s looking for candidates who can work independently - especially during this time. “The qualities are really around somebody who can be self motivated, a self starter, can really get stuff done without too much oversight. But again, in the beginning you’ve got to establish the rules of engagement, set out exactly what the deliverables are, what the expectation is, so that they know where they stand.”
“But it's also important, depending on the seniority of the person, take into account that when people work from home they don't have that relationship. Or even if they did have that relationship, suddenly you're far away from them. So they don't have that constant daily contact with you. So I think it's really important to give them that security, that they don't need to prove themselves 24/7 that they're working.”
Working with other companies, Dan has seen a few practical steps that seem to really work. “Startups in London over the last year or so have been using this idea of ‘fika.’ It's a Swedish term that basically involves getting together for a 15, 20 minute session each day and just chatting about anything other than business.”
“I've seen a lot of other companies do things like daily standouts like a 10 minute either on Slack or on a Zoom call at the start of each day, share weekly wins, and things like that.”
Zappi has implemented similar habits, and Jimmy makes sure the finance team has a chance to shine. “Every Friday we do a company-wide kudos board. I try and get some finance stuff in there as well, so that the company recognizes that even just doing your business as usual is a good thing.”
Where do you look for great finance talent?
Recruiting is tough in any industry, any company, and for any position. So where do our experts go when looking for that next great team member?
“The piece of advice I got early on in my career was, “always be recruiting,” says Jimmy. “You build internally a catalog of people that you can reach out to in your own network. Good people know good people, so I I go straight to the people that I've worked with in the past, first of all, to see if they're available. And second of all, if they're not, to see if they know people who are looking. And that's worked for me in the past.”
Dan explains that, despite the increase in availability he’s experienced recently, “the pool is actually incredibly slim compared to the demand at the moment. We're in a unique position because I basically only hire accountants. We bring someone new into our team every six weeks or every eight weeks.”
“We’ve found that working with recruiters is great if you just desperately need a quick fix, and money is no object. But if you need to keep doing it, you really have to build up that skill set and those processes internally.”
“In terms of the best places to find people, AngelList is really strong. WorkinStartups and LinkedIn as well. We've had some very good applicants through there. We also have an employee referral scheme, and that's been successful in the past as well. So if you can get that working, it tends to do a good job.”
What does a good finance hiring process look like?
Once you have a list of candidates, how should you assess and validate them for the role? Dan lays out his exact process at Quantico:
“During COVID we've added an additional step, which is a video of yourself. That was because we had to screen a large number of people, but normally it would go straight to a screening call. Then there’s a 30 minute call to explain on the one hand what we're looking for. It really is hard to capture everything in a job spec, especially in a startup role where inevitably things are going to change very quickly. And the other purpose of that is to just make sure that they've got the skills and it's worthwhile you progressing them to an interview.”
“We then have two, one hour-long interviews. The first one is a technical interview. We've built a case study exercise in Xero. So they'll get 30 minutes to log on and click through the whole Xero entity. And then the second half is a 30-minute debrief going over questions, talking it through with someone in our team. And that really addresses whether they understand how to use an accounting system. And where they don't, are they able to pick it up quickly?
“But it also enables you to see how easy they are to coach, how they receive feedback and criticism. If you can actually get them to do it in a real life scenario, that's much, much more effective.”
“The second of our two steps is more like a management-based interview. It's based around how they would act in a team, how they manage other people. And we also use that to try and stress test their alignment with our values and our culture as well.”
“The only other thing to say throughout that process is we give them opportunities to have short phone calls with other people in our team as well, to try and make it as collaborative and give them as much information as possible to make a decision.”
For Jimmy, “the technical assessment is key for what we do and who we're hiring. I think what's also important is really get them to speak to somebody else on the leadership team - not just finance - and see how they perform with questions that are potentially unrelated to finance. See how they respond. I try to flush out the positive attitude and the curiosity they have. Because those are the two criteria that I think almost trump everything.”
“And the final thing is just get the whole team in on the Zoom call and just have that social, almost virtual coffee with them. So that everyone can introduce themselves and they can introduce them themselves to the team. It’s really important as part of that whole team dynamic.” Discover even more valuable hiring insights
Those were just five of the top takeaways from this fascinating session. And really, they’re only the tip of the iceberg.
The conversation covered other vital ideas, such as:
- Looking outside your own bubble for more diversity and different experiences
- How to build the finance function for growth
- How to sell the finance team hiring plan to HR and senior leadership
- When and how to use external experts within your finance team
CFO Connect is a global community of finance leaders. We host regular meetups in Europe and the U.S., have a private Slack channel for CFOs, and produce helpful content on our blog. Join Us!