Hired for what, Fired for how

The fast-growing young firm was ready to hire its first full-time finance leader. Describing the ideal candidate, the co- founder spoke of a strategic, big-picture thinker, someone experienced in raising funds, interacting with a board of directors, and savvy with the complexities of a firm that had grown to where this firm planned to grow. As she summed it up, ‘someone who has lived our future and can help navigate us there’. Meanwhile, the other co-founder was more concerned with today than tomorrow.  He described their current systems as rudimentary and unsophisticated.  He emphasized the need for a ‘roll-up your sleeves practitioner’ someone comfortable in a small, hands-on and detailed-oriented environment. As he said, ‘an in-the-weeds controller type, but more’. Both founders also made it clear that technical competence (‘an accountant’s accountant’) was table stakes as was experience in their specific sector.

The ensuing search process focused on finding someone who could somehow magically straddle both today and tomorrow while bringing equal parts of tactical and strategic, detail-oriented and big picture. Beyond such obvious qualifications-related challenges, candidates were vetted for ‘fit’, in this case whether both founders felt they ‘could work with this person’. An individual was eventually found and hired who met the founders’ criteria.

The successful candidate lasted less than one year. She was, as they say, ‘resigned’. Interestingly, this did not happen because she was insufficiently strategic or detail oriented. Nor did she lack financial literacy, versatility or an understanding of the industry in question. Rather she was deemed ‘too siloed’ in her approach to the function. She did not strive to build bridges across the organization, nor work proactively in supporting other functions. She was described as ‘rigid and inflexible’ in an environment described as free flowing and fluid.  In other words, while she understood her CFO job was some variation of ‘maximize the value of the business through effective financial planning, resource management, and finance growth, while always being mindful of risk and profitability’ the question was how she went about delivering it, the levers she felt important to pull to do her job, her attitude and personality.

The story illustrates how firms often focus on selection criteria that in the end do not determine the success or failure of the person hired.  A role’s responsibilities and deliverables must be paired with the actions and behaviors that will enable their attainment…. in that specific company and culture. In this instance, the firm saw the finance role as counsel.  They hired a cop. They sought an executive to help, support, teach, and coach but hired someone who saw themselves principally as protector of the financial crown jewels. The differences are important, and they cannot be seen under a mountain of credentials and experience considered most critical for success. Unless considered equally, the ‘how’ threatens to quickly show the ‘what’ to be more inconsequential than consequential to success.

About the author

Robert Hebert is Managing Partner of Toronto-based executive search firm StoneWood Group. He can be reached [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777

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