Hiring a CFO Remotely: This Is How You Get It Right

With remote working now an integral part of the business world, it is crucial that recruiters know how to identify an ideal senior finance candidate during a virtual interview.

Mark Freebairn, Partner and Head of the CFO Practice at Odgers Berndtson, explains how organisations can overcome the limitations of Zoom interviews when hiring senior finance professionals.

Executive search is about understanding people – what motivates them, what they’re good at, what they’re proud of, how they behave when faced with adversity and whether they’re lying about what they’re telling you. All of this can be discerned through physical reactions – whether it’s a tapping finger, a twitching leg, holding their hands in their lap or even sitting straighter in their chair. These physical cues act as spotlights that give away important information about a person, so that eventually, a good 90% of them is revealed.

But when that person becomes reduced to a small box on your screen (which only shows their upper torso) you only get about 65 to 80% of the individual. When you’re appointing a new CFO or finance director, understanding only 65% about a candidate isn’t good enough, yet now more than ever, organisations need to make senior finance hires. Whilst the UK and other countries are ‘opening up’, many firms are still maintaining strict social distancing measures and the risk of second or even third waves means that remote interviews are here to stay.

The only option, therefore, is to overcome the limitations of virtual hiring by adapting the process so that both ‘fit’ and skills competencies can be successfully discerned over a screen, for what will be one of the most important appointments an organisation can make.

When you’re appointing a new CFO or finance director, understanding only 65% about a candidate isn’t good enough.

This should start with the expansion of the interviewing pool. By introducing the candidate to more people in the organisation – both formally and informally – you can start to build up a picture of that person from the opinions of others who may have elicited responses you may have missed or asked questions that you might not have thought of. Piecing together multiple views on a candidate enables the hiring party to assess cultural fit and also has the advantage of increasing candidate care. Perceived or otherwise, there is a heightened level of risk for candidates moving jobs at this time, and what’s more, many feel a stronger sense of loyalty to current employers so that even the most attractive roles require a more attentive approach. By introducing a candidate to more people from across your organisation, you demonstrate that you understand the risk the candidate is taking and that you are serious about the role in question.

Conducting more soft referencing achieves a similar outcome to that of increasing the number interviews – you can build an image of the candidate from other people who have worked with them and know them. By taking these references yourself, you can get a ‘first-hand’ account of who that person is, and ask the questions that reflect the needs of your organisation. For example, is this person going to fit in with our culture which is progressive, open to new ideas and less hierarchically structured? Or on the other hand, will this person help us move the needle on our organisation’s look and feel, which is perhaps more traditional in its thinking? These are things that can be surmised in person but are more much more difficult to find out over a Zoom call.

Another effective method of overcoming the limitations of virtual interviews is the use of scientific measures to evidence intuitive assessments of candidates, i.e. psychological assessment tools. These assess leadership characteristics such as how driven an individual is, whether they are capable of making courageous decisions or if they’re more inclined to take easier options, whether they are inclusive problem solvers or siloed thinkers and if they are risk takers or risk averse. These tools don’t just assess the attributes of the candidate in question but also how they fit in with the rest of the C-suite. They may be highly inclusive and determined but lack entrepreneurialism, which may be absolutely fine because you already have that behavioural trait in your leadership team.

These tools don’t just assess the attributes of the candidate in question but also how they fit in with the rest of the C-suite.

Finally, it is worth recognising the benefits of Zoom interviews. They will, at times, give you a deeper understanding of a candidate than if you were to meet them in person. When a wayward child or excitable pet crashes the interview, seeing how that person responds will give you a very good insight into what their character is like and how they deal with the unexpected. And whilst (the majority of the time) they are certainly more formal, making it harder to evaluate EQ and chemistry indicators, this does leave more room for competency assessment. Organisations interviewing for CFOs or finance directors should be asking questions to ascertain whether the candidate has been a strong guarantor of financial integrity, a good function leader, someone who can drive operational support and challenge all levels of decision making across the business, and is importantly a strategic partner to the chief executive or the managing director.

What’s more, a Zoom interview is a good indicator of emerging leadership competencies. If the candidate is patient, articulate, demonstrates the ability to listen and to read an interviewing panel’s ‘mood’ virtually, then they are more likely to have the sort of skills required for a future where they will need to lead teams both on-site and who are working remotely. We’re also finding that the absence of ‘physical presence’ in interviews is likely to be reducing unconscious gender bias and having the same effect as ‘blind CVs’ and gender-neutral recruitment.

Despite the challenges posed by virtual hiring and interviewing, you can still carry out a highly effective c-suite search and appointment during the pandemic. It is difficult, it can be overly formal and at times you may feel like you’re struggling to get a ‘feel’ for the candidate, but by adapting the process correctly you can overcome all of this and in fact, are more likely to identify and appoint the sort of leader that is fit for the new world we are emerging in to.

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