Transformative leadership: What sets operating CFOs apart

Sinohe has over 20 years in leadership roles at a number of successful startups, including Envoy, the workplace technology company, where he currently serves as CFO and COO; Quid, Inc., a big data and analytics company where he was CFO and COO; and Indiegogo and Etsy where he led the finance and data among other teams. Sinohe also serves as an advisor for a number of companies, including Code2040, a non-profit that creates access, awareness, and opportunities for top Black and Latinx engineering talent, Soleils Space, a tech-media company dedicated to elevating the stories and creators of the Global South diasporas, and Simondata, a Customer Data Platform based in NYC.

Sinohe earned his bachelor's degree in accounting from Baruch College and his MBA in finance from the Zicklin School of Business, where he taught Financial Statement Analysis in the MBA program. He is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA).

While leading in times of rapid growth is part of being a CFO, companies sometimes encounter external challenges beyond their control, such as the Covid-19 pandemic or the current tech industry headwinds. Successfully navigating these challenges is a crucial competency for a successful CFO. Companies are increasingly looking for operating CFOs to lead them through uncertainty. 

Operating CFOs have distinct skill sets. Leaders navigating crises must have the resilience and acumen to make hard choices. They need to possess the communication skills to rally and lead entire organizations toward a common goal.

What it takes to be an effective operating CFO

More people are qualified to lead when the numbers are good. When things aren’t up and to the right, it’s the finance leaders who can go beyond the numbers that stand out. Finance leaders have to understand the business — from the product usage to the cash burn last week and everything in between. You have to speak the languages of all the different departments in order to be able to communicate in a time of crisis. It’s people who are cool under pressure and can give counsel, consider strategy, and communicate externally that make the difference.

You have to negotiate and bring people along on the ride during a downturn. You’ll make decisions that aren’t welcome by everyone, and the more you can articulate the why behind the change or decision, the more it will be accepted, helping people to see you’re making choices with the business's best interest in mind, not just random decisions with little data. The more data-driven, business acumen, and cross-functional you are, the better equipped you are during crises because the decisions are hard. 

The first step is survival

I joined Envoy right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down offices across the globe. Our business model relied on workers going into the office, and as it became evident that what started as a two-week shutdown would continue indefinitely, the uncertainty for our operations grew.

Finance leaders at startups are in a unique position — you know exactly how much runway you have. In crises, if the business has a strong foundation, your first job is to make sure you have enough runway to outlast the problem. ‘Cut everything that is a nice-to-have’ is not as simple as it sounds. Successfully executing this requires effectively involving and engaging people throughout the process. 

For us, that meant being as transparent as possible about the numbers. Helping the entire team, from the executive level to managers and individual contributors, understand exactly what you’re trying to accomplish — how much money is in the bank, how much you’re trying to save, and what it means for the business — keeps you from being the bad CFO saying no to things with no context. We set up a Slack channel dedicated to saving money. We empowered our teams to find creative ways to cut their own spending and celebrated when people found ways to save. If someone posted that they were able to save money by canceling a handful of software licenses, we celebrated that together. This was our company, and it was in all of our best interests to make sure we had enough runway to survive.

Relentlessly focus on critical offerings

When you’re dealing with unknown territory, a critical question you have to answer is how to balance short-term needs with long-term goals. We began by directing our attention to our core product. When resources are scarce, it becomes essential to prioritize the maintenance of your critical offerings. We had to make tough decisions regarding what elements on our roadmap were nice-to-haves or lacked clear ROI. This sometimes involved temporarily scrapping important initiatives. At the same time, we adopted a flexible mindset that allowed us to pivot swiftly. We focused on preserving the integrity of the offerings that hold significance to our customers while shifting our attention to the most pressing problem we could assist our customers in solving, even if it wasn't initially part of our roadmap.

Your current product will save your ARR, but new revenue is what makes a company grow. You have to look at both with as much clarity as possible. With limited resources, that’s always a problem. For us, we had to pivot the business to solve problems that were top of mind for people. We pivoted to focus on ensuring safety during covid and were able to develop a product that let people get back into the office more safely.

Exceptional leaders understand and support their people

Employees join a company that is successful, and they don’t always have visibility into what changes behind the scenes when a crisis hits. That’s why transparency and communication are so important. Respect their personal feelings in times of uncertainty. Keep them in the loop and well-connected to you, other leaders, and their peers so they understand where decisions come from. 

I had a daily standup meeting with my teams throughout the pandemic. It served two purposes: to cascade information down, letting them know the latest and what was top of mind for leadership in a direct and transparent way, and to check in with them on a human level. Staying in tune with people's thoughts, emotions, and lives helps you be a supportive leader. Leading means a lot of things. Once, someone told me, “I look at your face to see if I should be nervous.” That’s a big responsibility. As a finance leader, people could be looking to you for a resource, even when it comes to their own mental health. 

When things get better, focus on enablement

The downturn won’t last forever. If you’re able to weather the storm, it will get better. At that point, you switch to enablement mode. During hard times, you probably put processes in place to be more operationally efficient and effective. You don’t need to change those processes, but the challenge is to figure out how to maintain efficiency while continuing to earn the trust of the organization when moving them forward. During times of crises, it becomes necessary to say "no" more often than what people are typically accustomed to. However, because everyone is more aware of the situation, these conversations tend to be much easier to navigate.

In peacetime, the number one job of a finance leader is enabling others to do their jobs well. This means being willing to compromise and enabling and empowering teams to make their own decisions while asking critical questions. Making sure your eyes are open on that is good for the team. Their success is your success.

The power of community

For finance leaders trying to navigate tough times in their organizations, know that you’re not alone. There are a lot of other CFOs and other finance leaders going through the same thing. Different leaders have different data points, and their boards see different things in their portfolio companies. Some things work, and some things don’t. Lean on your network. Ask them what they see and how they deal with their challenges. It will allow you to make better decisions that are based on more data.

So, don't hesitate to lean on your community. Their experiences, successes, and even failures can serve as crucial learning points and broaden your view of the crisis.

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