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CFO Interview Questions & Answers

Sam Kain, now CFO of Cunningham-Limp Co., was once taken aback by a recruiter’s question. The Robert Half recruiter had asked Kain what a previous supervisor would say about him, but since that supervisor had later been fired, Kain instead talked about what the owner of that employer would have said. Sidestepping the question did not sit well with the recruiter, Kain recalls.

“He told me that the most important thing to prepare for an interview is a personal inventory of your career and to be able to respond to any question honestly,” Kain says. “He went on to say that in every decision, good or bad, there is the opportunity for personal growth. You should be able to say honestly that whatever you have done you have learned from it and grown.”

Kain nails what executive recruiters and members of the Proformative community say repeatedly about job interviews: honesty reigns supreme. There’s just too many ways for recruiters to verify whether you are telling the truth. “If a candidate had an issue with the departure and is really upfront about it and we can verify it and if the issue that led to the departure isn’t a deal killer for the job, we can work through that,” says Alan Kaplan, president and CEO at executive search and consulting firm Kaplan & Associates. “But if the candidate tries to hide it and then we find out about it, the candidate is done because it’s a trust issue and you have to wonder what else they are hiding.”

Since it’s very hard to get around the truth in this day of LinkedIn and incredibly easy access to references, the only way to deal with a hard truth – that somewhat shady aspect of your past or the innocent but easy-to-misinterpret blip on your resume – is to prepare. Have answers at the ready that are forthcoming, substantial, and show that you have the right attitude.

Kain has recalled the words of that Robert Half recruiter ever since that awkward interview question. “I have followed that advice in several successful job interviews, including a return to the company where my supervisor had been terminated and to my current position where an executive from that company works as well,” Kain says.

Inspired by the common questions the Proformative community brings up about the interview process, we set out to find out what recruiters want to hear. Be prepared to have answers to the following interview questions:

 

What do you like most about your job?

Any recruiter worth his salt wants to hear about your enthusiasm. Bryan Frey, a vice president of finance at a private company, told Proformative members he has a response for why he loves his role. “Every project, every strategy session, and every critical decision your company makes will have your fingerprint on it in a good way,” he recently wrote.

Questions like this can help a recruiter find out a CFO is the type who will develop and build teams, partner with the CEO, and enjoy telling the story of the business to investors, bankers, vendors, and so on. “You want someone to answer the question with a high degree of enthusiasm but not be over the top,” says Stephen Konstans, vice president at executive search firm Pearson Partners International. “You don’t want your financial officer to be a salesperson, but on the flip side you don’t want someone who is a  pure number-crunching kind of executive with a dry personality. You need somebody who has charisma as well.”

 

Why do you want to leave your current job?

This question and different variations is a frequent topic raised in the Proformative community. While honesty is again the best policy, CFOs should focus on the positive and avoid grumbling. In this case, “I can’t stand anyone I work with!” is obviously not going to get you the new job even it’s true.

Instead, consider an answer that is centered on the future, rather than the past. Are you looking for a new challenge – perhaps you want to take on a public-company role for the first time? Are you looking to make a proactive career change that just doesn’t exist at your current company?

If the fact is you’re out of work because you were let go, you will have to own up to the reasons why, recruiter say. But they insist they are reasonable, particularly since the CFO is more susceptible to transitions than other roles. “I have talked to many CFOs who have resigned because of ethical issues, say if because their CEO wanted them to massage the books to meet some number,” Konstans says. “In my mind, that’s a positive – I view that as a plus. Now, if somebody tells me they resigned because of ethical behavior three times in a row, maybe what this person views as ethical and not ethical is a bit askew.”

 

What have you been doing while you’ve been unemployed?

Big-name companies, like Procter & Gamble and Xerox, are promising to not discriminate against the unemployed when hiring. While it’s not yet proven how good they will be on their word to President Obama and whether such pledges apply to the highest levels like the CFO role, being “unemployed” is not as dark a stain as it once was. “Twenty-five years ago, it was a huge problem, but people are much more understanding in today’s world,” Konstans says.

That is, as long as you have an explanation for why you are out of work – there was a restructuring or an acquisition, for example – and can show you haven’t been sitting on your couch ever since. Recruiters want to know whether job candidates have “been proactive to help themselves get employed and are realistic about how they approach the marketplace and have a good sense of themselves,” Konstans says. “The longer you’re out of work, the harder it is to explain what you’ve been doing.”

 

Tell us what you will focus on first if you get this job.

You may want to hold back here. Incoming executives walk a fine line: You may come seem arrogant if you share a mission to bulldoze over the business with a bunch of new ideas before you’ve had a chance to truly immerse themselves in the company. At the same time, you want to make clear that you have the knowledge and skills to make effective fixes, when necessary. For his clients, Konstans is keen on finding CFOs who are good at assessing situations. “I want somebody who is methodical and measured but not inactive either,” he says. “There’s a balance.”

There’s no right answer to this question, Konstans adds; it’s more about finding out what type of leader the candidate will turn out to be.

 

Why should I hire you?

Senior executives can mess up here by letting any arrogance seep through. You want to seem passionate but not full of yourself. Balance out your statements about your strengths with your weaknesses as well. Konstans suggests giving an “even-handed” answer.

 

Why have you been a controller for so long?

Konstans consistently looks for ambition in candidates. In some cases, someone having the same title makes sense, if they were given new responsibilities or the company grew and their skills expanded with it. And in other cases, some people are simply not meant to go past a certain level.

When you do want to advance, realize that recruiters like Konstans are most interested in those who have actively managed their careers, either by taking on new responsibilities, wearing different hats, or moving to another type of company. After all, long tenures are rare these days (the average Fortune 500 CFO has held the role for 5.9 years, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart) and can actually be a negative, according to Konstans, particularly for today’s more strategically minded CFOs who are increasingly expected to be flexible and aware of advances in technology to make their companies more efficient in general and proficient with data.

He recommends that all senior finance executives ask themselves what they are doing today that will get them where they want to go. “No one is going to manage your career for you,” he says.

 

Sarah Johnson is a business editor based outside Boston.

Comments

Mulekye Mukoko
Title: President
Company: Uzima Int'l, Inc
(President, Uzima Int'l, Inc) |

Well, this is a flame in the hat because we cannot standardize knowledge, experience, emotions or behavior. Recruiter has a tool for guide your "CV"...is that written piece of paper portrait us 100%...not exactly, but it is our first step to be retained.
From small, medium and large size, a business is a business no matter what. Are judgement, performance keys to determine a great CFO...many questions come to mind, then recruiter is faced with a challenge here. Even if CFO (candidate ) fits perfectly the company frame, there is always a trial period to keep you or let you go after all.

Anonymous
(Director of Finance and Adminstration) |

There are a couple of points from the article I have to disagree with...

1) honesty is a very slippery slope when asked "why did you leave your prior employer?" -- Recruiters "say" they appreciate complete disclosure/ honesty, but when it comes time for the candidate to interview and/ or receive an offer, a very different story will unfold. I believe there is an appropriate level of "honesty" which needs to be considered and offered when explaining why you left a position.

2) Career planning - I have to agree with many of the other commentors - it is all but impossible to "plan" a career in today's environment, for the simple fact that there is no way to know if your employer will be around tomorrow, let alone next year.

3) The "bad boss" excuse is a very prevalent reason, even if not appropriate in the interview environment - someone above asked how can there be so many bad bosses... simply, once (most) people are in positions of power, their true colors come out and most leaders do not benefit from either education or training which prepares them to be effective bosses and we as employees are unable/ unwilling to question authority or "go over your boss' head" even if necessary.

Example, in my prior position I was "let go" for unspecified reasons (bad boss is probably the number 1 reason) - however, supporting data shows I was the 3rd person on the leadership team (team of 4) to be "let go" or leave in an 8-month window... the BoD finally realized where the problem was and made a change... they are now searching for a new leader.

4) The recent "CEO promise" to President Obama to actively consider long-term unemployed candidates appears to be nothing more than lip service. As a long-term unemployed candidate, I have little faith these big companies will consider similar backgrounds (where one candidate is L/T unemployed) and give that L/T candidate serious consideration.
I would be pleasantly surprised to be wrong on this account!!

Carla Gordon
Title: Accountant
Company: Govt
(Accountant, Govt) |

While I certainly agree that honesty is important, when dealing with a question like "why you want to leave your current job", being perfectly honest will backfire. Most people I know who wanted to leave their current positions were job-hunting because they couldn't stand working for their current boss anymore. According to your advice, "focus on the positive" isn't exactly honest, is it? So we should be honest in our answers except for when answering that question, don't be too honest?

How to be honest when the true situation is that the workplace was intolerable due to unethical, mean, disorganized leadership with truly bad judgment?

Anonymous
(CFO) |

The most common reason for leaving a job is a "bad boss". The bigger question is, "Why are there so many bad bosses and why are they able to survive in the workforce?"

I've seen many bosses (and other employees as well) behave inside the office in ways that would have had security escort them out of the building if they behaved the same way inside a local, retail store. Or, act out behind closed doors in a way that would have had their own family shun them if had acted the same way at a Thanksgiving dinner.

So, with all of the negatives associated with such behavior, why does it seem so prevalent in the work place? Why is so much of management willfully ignorant of its existence?

My question is rhetorical actually. The answer lies in my other response here: Because first and foremost, people need a paycheck. I am known to say that, "Economics makes cowards out of all of us."

If you've ever worked in a union shop where the employees are not afraid of being fired short of criminal misbehavior, you know that once that the fear of losing one's meal ticket is removed, both the worst and best of human nature come out.

Chris Grimm
Title: Accounting Informations Systems Manager
Company: Mortenson Family Dental
LinkedIn Profile
(Accounting Informations Systems Manager, Mortenson Family Dental) |

"recruiters like Konstans are most interested in those how have actively managed their careers"

Many people completely miss the boat on this one. Most employees allow their careers to manage them and only look for a new position when something goes "wrong" with the current one (missed promotion, no raise, unsettled dispute etc.)
I firmly believe that no on is going to come along and just offer the life you want, you have to set that goal, develop that path, and ACTIVELY work towards it over the life of your career. Otherwise you are going to be the Sr. Staff Accountant for a lot of years (not that there is anything wrong with that) and always wonder why it never went any further.

Anonymous User
Title: CFO
Company: Local Government Agency
(CFO, Local Government Agency) |

That's because foremost they need a job and a paycheck.

This kind of advice frequently comes from those who potentially benefit by providing it, rather than those who have successfully executed it. It's akin to a sales rep telling you that they are offering you the best deal that you will find anywhere. That or it comes from "true believers" who just haven't had their hat handed to them yet in this adventure we call life.

It's nice to speak about "career planning" as though one can plot a course in their work life and sail off into nirvana by following it. But, anyone over age 40 knows that life is an uncertain and always changing tide. Trying to swim against life's forces because you see things differently is frequently a waste of time, if not career ending in the first place. Often, the best one can do is go with the flow.

Remember that Don Quioxote was assumed to be a madman.

Cindy Kraft
Title: CFO Coach
Company: Executive Essentials
(CFO Coach, Executive Essentials) |

I agree ... honesty reigns supreme! And authentic branding not only speaks to honesty, but can also significantly mitigate those negatives candidates bring to the interview.

Enjoyed the article!

Anonymous User
Title: CFO
Company: Local Government Agency
(CFO, Local Government Agency) |

Cindy:

I'd be interested in hearing more detail. Just how does this "personal branding" you frequently refer to mitigate negatives?