Careers advice

What does it take to be a CFO? An interview with Trade Me's Mark Conelly

Advice for reaching the top in the accounting and finance sector.

Stepping into a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) role is the ultimate career goal for many in the accounting and finance sector. But what does it actually mean to be a CFO, what is the day-to-day reality of the job, and how do you make that leap?

Mark Conelly has held a variety of CFO roles at iconic New Zealand companies including Noel Leeming, The Warehouse and Southern Hospitality over the last 20 years. Currently, we’re lucky enough to have him with us here at Trade Me.

We spoke to Mark to gain his insights on what it’s like to hold a CFO position, his advice to those hoping to make the move into the C-suite, and what it’s like being in a senior leadership position during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did your first CFO role come about?

“My first CFO role was for Crane Group in New Zealand. Before that, I was working for a public company as General Manager Finance, and I’d had roles like that for about 8-10 years prior to moving into a CFO role.

Was CFO a deliberate step? I’d say it was a natural step from where I was, but not necessarily deliberate.”

What was the biggest change when you stepped up into your first CFO role?

“When you step into that role, three key things happen,” Mark tells us.

First on the list is becoming part of the executive, or senior leadership team: “You become one of a relatively small number of people who influence the shape of the business,” Mark explains.

Tied into this is his second point, which is a more intense focus on governance, as well as increased interaction with the board and shareholders. “You’re moving into a space where you have to think about risk management, as well as statutory obligations. You become somewhat of a navigator for the organisation on what those obligations look like, making sure the company has translated the law correctly regarding external obligations,” Mark explains.

Finally, the relationship with the CEO becomes a lot more intense at the CFO level. “The CEO and CFO roles are almost joined at the hip in many organisations, so that’s a really key relationship for a CFO.”

What were the biggest challenges?

Mark describes one of the biggest challenges of becoming a CFO as letting go of some of the hands-on tasks that have likely been the bread and butter of your career to date: “When you come up through, you’ve been immersed in the doing. As a CFO, you spend more of your time leading and influencing, and more time on strategy. The focus is on the bigger picture for the organisation more than the hands-on stuff.”

As someone who still enjoys the nitty gritty of “the doing”, for Mark, it’s about getting the balance right. However, he emphasises the importance of having capable people around him in his team, as delegation and influence are key leadership components for CFOs.

Can you tell us more about the CFO-CEO relationship?

“The relationship with the CEO is really important, it’s a big step. The CFO should sit on the CEO’s shoulder,” Mark says.

He stresses that while it’s crucial that the CFO and CEO are aligned in their mission, robust debate on strategy is something to be encouraged. “You might not always agree on how you want to achieve something, but you should always be aligned on the outcome.”

Mark also underscores the importance of trust in the C-suite, especially between the CFO and CEO: “a trusting relationship is very important at that level, and this is particularly true for a CFO, as you’re often the conduit to the board, and therefore the governance layer of the business.”

What do you enjoy most about your role?

For Mark, the best part about his job is the variety it brings. “While I have my speciality within the C-suite, I’ve got the opportunity to range quite broadly in the business and influence through conversations with my peers, the CEO, and the wider team,” he says.

“As CFO, it’s possible to get involved in projects ranging from policy development, to HR and leadership issues to examining key business projects through a commercial lens.” He says he’s been lucky in his career to have worked with CEOs who’ve encouraged him to get involved in these different areas of the business.

What would be your advice to someone applying for their first CFO role?

“As you get into leadership roles, and particularly in senior finance roles, the art of storytelling is really important. You need to be able to translate financials for an audience who aren’t as financially literate as you, or those who aren't highly motivated by the numbers,” Mark says.

He also recommends getting a close understanding of what the relationship with the company CEO will look like. What do you both expect out of that dynamic?

Finally, Mark highlights the importance of displaying your influencing skills, intuition and commercial experience to converse on a broad base, rather than just being able to talk about the numbers.

What’s the job interview like for a CFO role? Is there anything particular applicants should prepare for?

“These days, it’s a lot more about what you’ve achieved,” Mark says.

When he’s advising people building towards a CFO role, he encourages them to be really clear about covering the gambit of experience necessary to succeed in the position. Specifically, he names people leadership, technical skills, governance, commercial exposure, and story-telling. “If you can talk to those, that will go a long way.”

Candidates should also consider what they bring to the table that allows them to stand out from other candidates, he adds.

For Mark, big parts of that “X-factor” are “the personality and the breadth of experience.” He advises candidates who have really deep experience in one particular sector to consider whether they could prepare themselves better by gaining a wider variety of experiences.

Is there anything else would-be CFOs should know before taking the plunge?

“You’ve got to be mindful that, stepping into a CFO role, there’s a commitment there – you do almost go into an ‘always on’ mode,” says Mark.

“This is a challenge in a time where people are, quite rightly, looking for more work-life balance. So, it’s about getting that balance right and being able to cope with that ‘always on’ mindset. You need to be able to manage it in a way that allows you to deliver what you need to deliver, when you need to deliver it.”

What’s it like being a CFO during a ‘black swan event’ like COVID-19?

“People look to the C-suite and leadership roles, they observe what you say and what you do in those types of events.

“Leaders, and in fact, everyone, revert to type in those events. When it comes to things like company values and looking after your people, you can talk the good talk when times are normal, but when something like Covid happens, you’ve got to walk the walk.”

“Of course, it puts an extra burden on you. But this can also be a positive – you have the opportunity to chart that change, help reset the business strategy and make sure you’re honouring the commitments the company makes to its people. Equally there’s downside risk too at a personal level. If you do make a misstep, and something goes wrong as a result of that decision, you need to own it.”