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Are all CFOs insane?

The last three CFOs I’ve worked for have been completely insane. I understand they’re under a lot of pressure. In this environment and like everyone else they don’t necessarily have much job security.

But, come on, am I just unlucky or what?!

Here’s what I’ve experienced over the last 7 years, 2 companies and 3 CFOs:

  • Crankiness.  Sure, it’s probably driven by stress, but who doesn’t have stress? I had one CFO who bled through his starched white shirt from a stress-aggravated skin condition for a whole month before every year end close.
  • Poor communication. Related to crankiness and stress, but a sparkly jewel of failure in its own right. If CFOs can’t say clearly what they want or listen to what’s being said, how do they hope to achieve anything? I understand that they’re numbers guys, but they must have met and talked to at least some people along the way.
  • Blame shifters. If one doesn’t have much job security, the effort to escape blame can be enticing.  Or, maybe they all had fathers who withheld encouragement. Whatever the cause, it doesn’t create a lot of loyalty in those on the receiving end.
  • Unforgiving. Related to blame shifting, but more like a total lack of grace when the blame really does belong to someone else.  I failed to run a report for a CFO two CFOs ago and you would have thought I had killed his cat.
  • Unreasonable expectations. Does the universal CFO job description include the phrase “must be able to express absurd expectations about the quality and quantity of other’s work, while maintaining a straight face as though what was just said won’t immediately trigger a job search,” because that would really explain things.  
  • Swearing to themselves. Picture a guy walking around muttering profanities under his breath. To his credit, he can quickly rattle off 7 to 10 in a row without adding filler words or repeating himself. That’s totally impressive!

I understand that the traits of a bad boss are not exclusively reserved for CFOs. At the same time, does the process of becoming a CFO some how filter-in only those with absolutely no leadership skills? Much like the way only a megalomaniac would be eager to go through a grueling presidential campaign and is probably therefor not a good choice to actually lead this great nation.

At the very least there should be some kind of system to detect a bad leader before he gets to the top. Or how about some kind of effective method to inform these guys on how to be a great leader before they’re in a senior position? 

I digress. I’m not going to change the system if it is in fact the system to blame.

Here’s my question again… are all CFOs insane? If so, there really is no reason for me to look for a new job, since the next CFO will be as crackers as the last.  

If you are a CFO and a great person to work for, please accept my humble apology. I'd like to work for you one of these days or at least believe that you exist.

Answers

EMERSON GALFO
Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

My response is also a generalization......

The average age of a CFO is 51 (source is a study I read somewhere), with this in mind, our management concepts (and to some extent our business concepts) are at least 2 decades old. If the CFO has not changed to new management/business paradigms, his concepts will still be "old school" (if you will). That is the environment he was trained in, that is how his mentor taught him. And with this comes, management by fear, lack of collaborative concepts, view his subordinates as "workers" for his bidding and not partners, everything (i mean everything) should be ran by him for his decision, workers are there for "work" and nothing else, etc.

Add to this the stereotypical personality traits of a finance/accounting professional.....rigid, detail oriented, NO personality, etc., (we are not labeled a pain in the behind by people around us for no reason) and you have the recipe for a management "disaster". Someone we ALL dread working for or with.

That being said, there are even older CFOs who have changed paradigms and adapted that are a joy to work for or with.

I am 48 and have been a CFO since I was in my early 30s. I am happy to tell you that even though I "grew up" in the "old school", I am always cognizant and practice the new paradigms. Yes, I still catch myself doing it old school if you will. But the more important point is being aware of it.

Also, it is a company culture issue. I have always said that management styles adapt to company culture. Even if a CFO comes from the old school, if he is placed in a progressive company, his style will change else he will have difficulty and resign. Culture and management style originates and cultivated from the top.

So to answer you question, you seem to be unlucky. I am sure that you will find a CFO that you will be happy to work with. NOT all CFOs are like what you encountered.

Steve Sheridan
Title: Associate
Company: Dean Lewis Associates
(Associate, Dean Lewis Associates) |

I'm going to respectfully disagree that it's a generational thing. I'm almost 49 myself, and my management training in school and on the job said nothing about management by fear, lack of collaboration, etc. I believe it's a personal choice by the CFO/manager to be a dictator or be a servant leader. The former desires to be thought of as important, the latter puts the company and others first.

Anonymous
(Chief Financial Officer) |

I don't know many, if any, CFOs that are like those who the original poster mentioned. All of us have 'issues'. But that goes for my staff too.

If all of the CFOs you have worked for are insane perhaps it is you who have the problem.

As for Emerson's point about old school and new paradigms, I reject that too. We don't learn our management and leadership skills 20 - 30 years ago and then never adapt. We don't rise to the top that way. I try to take a few very important lessons with me from every job I have ever had and develop along the way.

Some of the best lessons I have learned I learned within the last few years when I was transitioning from my 40s to 50s.

Anonymous
(Anonymous) |

I agree with Mr. Galfo that an organization's culture and management style originates and is cultivated from the top. Our CFO has worked for two different CEOs in our company and it really does make a difference in the leadership style. The current temperament displayed is much like the bad traits described above. Prior to the current CEO, it wasn't as unpleasant.

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

I like Emerson's answer. I'm a little older and have had CFO jobs with little or no staff, and those that had a staff.

I think all of my staff will categorically state that with the exception of occasionally being stressed and cranky that I don't fit under the description you gave of your CFO's.

Face it, you may be related to Joe Btfsplk (ok, this way pre-dates me, Li'l Abner)...

Topic Expert
Joan Varrone
Title: CFO
Company: Cloud Cruiser
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Cloud Cruiser) |

I think you have just been unlucky . I don't buy the argument that someone needs to act in this manner just because they came up their ranks a decade or two ago. These traits that you describe are bad management period. Yes this is a stressful job at times but your results are only as good as the people that work for you and with you.

Anonymous
(Accounting Manager) |

I believe you just described my CFO. Everything you said is exactly what he does excluding the swearing. No leadership skills and cannot run a staff at all. With that being said caused internal department issues as well as issues in other departments. Never answers his e-mails or even open them up until last minute before a meeting and then fires off e-mails asking for the information which was sent to him the week prior.

I will say this, not all CFOs are like what you described. For 14 years I have had (2) very intelligent non-cranky CFOs that I worked for and they are definitely leaders and they know how to run a staff. Never once pointed fingers and always was encouraging to take your position to the next level. Took the time to speak with you as well as guide and direct you.

Wish you luck in working for a CFO who knows what they are doing and how to be a true leader. They are out there.

Mark Perlin
Title: Business Consultant
Company: Self Employed
(Business Consultant , Self Employed) |

With no offensive intended the one constant on all three jobs has been you. While certainly CFO's are like everyone else - ranging from very crazy to very sane the only thing you can do is be accountable for yourself. Yes, you want to work for sane, decent people. However, it may be time to take a look in the mirror to see if there is anything you are doing that contributes to the situation you are describing.

While it may be that you are just unlucky 3 for 3 may be great if you are shooting free throws in basketball but not with the people you are reporting to on a daily basis.

If the situation is as bad as you describe you should look for another job. In over 40 years in accounting I have not seen a similar bad run. When I reported to a CFO I had one bad one in five. As a CFO I know that I was certainly crazy at times, especially when I was younger, but learned as I grew into the job. The people that worked for me in the last 15 years had a better experience than the people that were with me on the first day I became a CFO.

Like you we all learn as we go or should. If you are in an abusive situation start looking for a new one. Go in a new job with a different outlook and see if you have a different outcome.

Again, it may be them but it never hurts any of us to be introspective. That is how I learned to change my behavior and how most people grow.

Chris Turner
Title: Sr. Mgr., Bus. Apps
Company: Dead River Company
(Sr. Mgr., Bus. Apps, Dead River Company) |

Toxic work environments are to be avoided at ALL costs. Read Bob Sutton's "The No Asshole Rule" available on Amazon. Bob's a professor at Stamford, and his research-based book presents hard data about the effects this boorish kind of behavior has on performance - and that's something every CFO should care about.

Anonymous
(Anonymous) |

Sadly our CEO has read this book and used it in the beginning of his tenure to apply to others, but not to himself.

David Mwangi
Title: Finance Program Officer
Company: Bridge International Academies
(Finance Program Officer, Bridge International Academies) |

Wow, that's my former CFO turned to VP-Finance. I wouldn't add anything here but hey,he is only 28 years old..!!!

Jennifer Whitlock
Title: CFO
Company: Avertest
(CFO, Avertest) |

I really just had a good chuckle on the title of your post. The C-suite in general can appear pretty insane. Most often we're unable to fully communicate what's going on and yes, we're under an enormous amount of pressure. The pressure for me is having hundreds of mouths to feed and meeting investor expectations at the same time. I've been a CFO since 36 (I'm 39 now), and there does appear to be major differences between the way I work with my team from the generation before me. As far as I'm concerned, each member of my team are commanders of their own ship, I just provide the coordinates (but sometimes they provide them as well). I've had people who have been with me for almost a decade, and have traveled with me to another company. I have mentored folks starting from $10/hour to becoming full blown, Master's level accountants and HR professionals. It's amazing to watch someone's full potential bloom! Admittedly, at times I am guilty of the first and last two bullets. I am blessed in that my team accepts me, faults and all. But it goes both ways, and they appreciate that. It's about building unconditional support and trust. I hope for you it's just been bad luck. Thus, the answer to your question is no, not ALL CFO's are insane. Before you accept your next job, make sure you ask some really good questions at your interview...and talk to your future teammates to get the full scoop on culture and your new boss.

EMERSON GALFO
Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

"...and there does appear to be major differences between the way I work with my team from the generation before me."

EXACTLY!

And to James' point below.... I am reminded of the quote (not even remember who said it)...."Don't pick a job, pick a boss"

James Scott
Title: Consulting CFO
Company: Early Growth Financial Services
LinkedIn Profile
(Consulting CFO, Early Growth Financial Services) |

Bad CEO means a bad CFO. Usually goes hand in hand. Check out Chris's posting above, and find a Jennifer to work for. I have been lucky in my career, the first CFO's I worked for were great role models and mentors. I pay it forward.

Manish Acharya
Title: DGM-Finance
Company: OIL
(DGM-Finance, OIL) |

The role of CFOs for sure has become more challenging in current era with respect to volatility in market resulting into rapid changes in decisions of top management.
I believe that clear communication plays vital role in this context. Expressed and implied demands of top management have to be wisely understood and assessed to give justice to the function. Leadership style must not be rigid and must always depend upon type of subordinates we deal with as regards their approach and attitude towards work.

Ray Henderson
Title: CFO
Company: Stellar Senior Living
(CFO, Stellar Senior Living) |

Lots of fantastic advice on this thread (interview the interviewer, get a good picture of the executive team, look for another opportunity if appropriate, etc.) - I'd have to echo Mark Perlin's comment, particularly as an effort to help improve your current situation. It's a much more productive exercise to periodically examine our own habits and tendencies, and spend our efforts and attention addressing something we can actually control.

An inordinate level of focus on a manager's shortcomings inevitably reduces job satisfaction. Rather than spend your precious time in frustration with a manager's imperfections (which you cannot change, and which we all have), examine your own habits and tendencies and try to improve these. You'll be surprised at the positive impact this will have on your work satisfaction.

You might also try this: the next few meetings with your CFO, listen to the issues presented as if you were him/her. What would you do? What resources do you have to balance? What competing demands do you have to juggle? This will not only bring your thinking up a level in the organization, but will change your perspective on issues and help you anticipate your CFO's needs.

As others have pointed out, sometimes the best alternative is looking for another opportunity (certainly the case in an abusive or emotionally damaging environment).

Just remember - every frog has warts :)

Anonymous
(AVP, Life Accounting) |

I only worked for one CFO who was insane. He made the things listed in this post look like a walk in the park. He went swimming in the CEO's pond in his boxers at our first company picnic (and I had only been with the company two months, so it really caught me off guard). He had a strange obsession with a wizard and dragon collection that he kept on his credenza, and swore they moved when no one was looking. He loved to drop the f-bomb in almost every conversation. And the list goes on......
All other CFO's I've worked for have been approachable, dedicated people with a strong work ethic and integrity. I do believe that the tone at the top makes a big difference.

Anonymous
(Chief Financial Officer) |

OK, that is insane.

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

So he was a little quirky and amusing.

But was he easy to work for and with?

Anonymous
(Controller) |

I have worked for 2 insane CFOs, and I believe one had a bona fide personality disorder. For both, the real source of the problem seemed to be their own insecurity about their job/needing to make their mark, combined with a huge ego and an inability to handle stress. Some people handle stress better than others, and some just go off the rails on a regular basis when they can't handle it. My current boss is calm, secure, a good listener, and not egotistical- and I could tell this in the interview.

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

"I could tell this in the interview."

How?

Anonymous
(Controller) |

"I could tell this in the interview" - how?

- The 2 insane CFOs were hired after me, so I was part of their interview process. In one interview, the CFO was extremely arrogant. When a question was asked, she may or may not have answered the question before going on a 10-minute tangent that included some colorful opinions. There was no thought to our (group interview) concerns/questions, learning what we needed/wanted, or getting to know us. The other CFO was also dismissive in her answers to questions during our interview, and had a general superior attitude. With each, the egos were obvious and there was a general lack of respect and concern for the people that would be her employees.

- In the interview with my current boss, he was very respectful, not dismissive or condescending. He answered my questions patiently and thoroughly. His demeanor was calm, and I didn't see any hints of ego. He made good conversation and showed a sense of humor.

With all of them, how they were in the interview translated to how they were in the workplace- egotistical, know-it-all/not listening, disrespectful, impatient, versus calm, patient, listening, and handling situations with a sense of humor.

Topic Expert
Scott MacDonald
Title: President/Owner
Company: AlphaMac Resources, Inc.
(President/Owner, AlphaMac Resources, Inc.) |

Typically when people are out of their depth, they tend to display the characteristics you describe. I believe many companies want the cheapest CFO they can find, which translates into hiring someone who doesn't have the experience to do the job.

The best way to turn an otherwise nice person into a maniac is to put expectations on them that they can't possibly meet.

I know I will upset at least one person on this page by saying a true seasoned CFO can't be younger than 55. A CFO is more than knowledge, it is understanding the world and having the past experience to deal with difficult situations. It takes 30- years of experience to really understand people and how the business world works.

Let the raging begin.

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