Where Military Leadership Meets Finance with Sandline CFO Glenn Hopper
“If everyone in the company can use data and make their own decisions, I love that. Because that’s not just a top-down data-driven organization. Everywhere in the company, people are making decisions based on data.”
The typical CFO comes from a background in accounting, M&A, market finance, or something close to all of those. Which makes Glenn Hopper’s journey so interesting.
Glenn is a former Navy journalist, filmmaker, and founder. He left the military and spent two decades helping startups operate at scale and prepare for fundraising and acquisitions.
Today, he’s CFO at Sandline, which provides digital discovery services for legal teams. He’s also the author of two books, including Deep Finance: Corporate Finance in the Information Age, which we discussed at length in the podcast episode below.
We also spoke about building data-driven organizations, machine learning, and the exciting era the finance world is stepping into. Keep reading for the highlights, and listen to the audio for all the juicy details.
An unusual journey to the CFO role
I was a product manager and battling with limited resources, trying to get more development time for my product. And I ended up diving into the budget and trying to find ways to make the budget work.
I sort of transitioned into being the budgets spokesperson for the marketing group. And that got me in front of the C-suite. And I was poached from actually the Chief Operating Officer at a telecom company who wanted me to be the finance representative for his organization. I started my first true finance role working for the Chief Operating Officer and trying to get access to financial data.
It was interesting for me to come from a business unit and be outside looking in with finance. But it structured how I work with the business units to this day. Anyway, I got to a point where I was managing about a $170 million budget annually, and had been through several M&A deals and had an opportunity to go to a much smaller company in a CFO role.
Historically, there's this idea of the CFO as being the “CFO no.” The CFO only looks at the numbers and their job is to tell you, “it's not in budget,” or “give me the ROI on this.”
So coming from marketing, seeing the challenges they had and what they were doing to fill their sales pipeline and meet quotas means I understand the budget better.
Lessons from the military
My management style comes from the military. But it's not what's portrayed in the movies. In the military, everyone has such specific training. And you know when someone reports to you that they have some basic training and they've shown proficiency to that point. You just have to show them how they fit into your organization.
So when I hire, I'm looking for this base level of skills. They come to it with a background. And then my management style is “set it and forget it.” I tell them what to do - I don't tell them how. I give them the vision and the why. And then they can figure that out on their own.
The other really big thing is that promotions make a lot more sense in the military. You put in some time; you take a test; you pass the test; you move up a rank. So if you’re a leader, a big part is coaching, mentoring, and upscaling to help people move up to that next level. That approach has stayed with me through my entire career.
And the last part from the military is that everyone understands the needs of the organization. There's core values. And, and when everybody knows that they're working towards a common goal, it makes teamwork much easier. So that's the sort of culture I want to drive in a company.
Why finance is already way ahead on analytics
I've only realized this in recent months, but the analytics and data science and even business intelligence - everything that everybody's talking about right now - us finance people, we've been doing this for years.
We may not have been using Power BI or other modern tools. But we've been using linear regression and doing seasonal forecasting and trending information. So the basic data scientist skill exists in finance.
Look at Spendesk. There's automation for just about every function in finance, whether it's bank reconciliation, expense management, accounts receivable, accounts payable - there’s cloud-based software for it. So as more and more of the finance function becomes automated, how can you add value to the organization?
You're gonna add value by helping the organization be more data-driven. Consolidating all this data and using that as part of the strategy for the company.
I'm a huge proponent of data democratization. There should be no gatekeepers of information. If you have a forecast, or you have this industry information and can apply it, it shouldn’t be hoarded by the finance team. Put it out to all the other groups, because they may find things that they can use.
Maybe I'm encouraging a sort of “citizen data science” here with different people in the company. But my dream finance department goes beyond just dashboards. You've got the pretty dashboards that show you what your pipeline is and what your trends are, and the various things that you're measuring in the business.
But if everyone in the company can use that data and make their own decisions, I love that. Because that’s not just a top-down data-driven organization. Everywhere in the company, people are making decisions based on data.
The new age CFO
The stereotype of the CFO is the curmudgeon who sits in the iroom, just staring at the numbers. Providing report cards for the company in the past. And I think there are very few CFOs out there today where that's all they're doing. The new age CFO, to me, is much more strategic.
Historically the CFO would have a whole lot of depth in finance and accounting, but no breadth. The new age CFO has to sacrifice maybe some of the depth in finance, but get very broad and understand the business. The expectation now is that you're not just the person who's providing the report card or the referee - you’re a strategic partner to the team.
It's not just financial, you're making correlations between financial performance and other areas of the company. I've always been responsible for KPIs across the company. When you can take that and apply it to financial data, it helps in the forecasts.
And really it's going to be expected across all jobs in the organization. You need a better handle on the data out there and to be able to turn it into something useful that can drive the company.
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