Episode #16

CFO Playbook: First 90 Days

Getting up to speed on the company's financial situation, build relationships with key stakeholders, and develop a strategic plan. The first 90 days as a new CFO are critical to one's success in the role. In this podcast, we will discuss the tools and resources needed to succeed with Steven Grobertson, the CFO of HDMI LA, the company powering HDMI licensing administration.

"I think the biggest misstep that I've seen, or maybe I've even dealt with in some of my early executive roles, is trying to boil the ocean. Meaning you walk in the door day one and it's this fire hose of things that you need to understand and execute on. A lot of times, I think it's easy for high level executives to set this priority list, 20 things that I'm going to get done. 20 is too much, what are the 3 or 4 things that you really need to knock out of the park? And oh, by the way, what are the three or four low-hanging fruit things that you can knock out that can show value very quickly? I really think that it's all about focus when you come in. We talked about it in March when we were at that convention together, the mantra a mentor told me was, the three Ps, right; people, process and priorities."

Please note that the transcript is AI-generated and may contain errors. Podcast is not intended as advice and is meant for informational and entertainment purposes only.

Chris Ortega (00:16):

Today we’re talking with Steve Robertson, the CFO at HDMI Licensing Administrator, as he shares his thoughts on the first 90 days as a new CFO, a playbook for success, and why it’s important for CFOs to make sure they focus on the people, the process, and the partnerships inside of their organizations. Welcome Steve Robertson.

Steve Robertson (00:43):

Thanks for having me, Chris. Good to see you.

Chris Ortega (00:45):

Yeah, man. Coming in and like I said to all the listeners, all the accounting finance, FP&A CFO professionals, I had the honor of sitting and seeing one of your presentations earlier this year, and it was really about that playbook and that guide, it’d be the first 90 days of success. I think not only for CFOs, but anybody walking into a finance leadership role, that first 90 days is so critical to people. It’s so critical about setting the tone, it’s so critical about getting the understanding of the business and really laying down that framework. Jumping right into it, my first question that I want to have for you, Steve, is what are some of those important things that a new CFO needs to focus on in those first 90 days?

Steve Robertson (01:27):

In thinking about it, the CFO role is really interesting, especially the first one, because typically someone’s jumping into this role having 10, 15, 20 or more years of structured finance and accounting experience, right. Going from that to actually being one of the two or three key decision makers in the entire company takes a little bit of an adjustment, right. There is a steep learning curve anywhere you go, whether it’s your first CFO role or your 10th CFO role, to be quite honest. So really the major expectation as you come in is really to meet and greet, to learn, to listen, to integrate and perform as quickly as you can. It’s really important to learn the company language of the new company that you’re in. You may have been super successful going up the corporate ranks in Company X, now you’re CFO of company Y, and a lot of times the corporate culture, the corporate DNA is fairly different.


So you can’t treat it like bandcamp, take your playbook from company X and be 100% successful in company Y, and I’ve done that, sometimes successfully, sometimes not successfully, in prior roles. You really need to listen and learn and meet folks and talk to them, have coffee with them, do happy hour, whatever’s politically correct, so that you can understand how each of the key internal and external constituents work. So that you can take what you’ve learned and accumulated over your career to create your own playbook as to how you’re going to be successful, how your team’s going to be successful, moving forward in your new CFO role.

Chris Ortega (03:08):

Yeah, man, I think that’s awesome and I love how you broke it down and learning the business, and one of the pieces that I want to dive into a little bit more from that you talked about was not one thing that you said, was like, “Hey, I got to go in and try to look at the financial statements, go in and look at EBITDA, look at revenue growth.” And this is what I love your perspective on, it’s taking a more qualitative view versus a quantitative view. What are the quality of the people? What’s the culture? What is the leadership style?


When I look back over my experience in leading high growth SAS businesses and coming into finance roles, I remember the first one, this is a long time ago, when I was coming in as the first finance leader, I was coming in, and the mistake that I made, Steve, was that I came in and in the first 90 days I didn’t take that approach of learning. I was like, “We got to change this, we got to go get this system.” I came in not about trying to understand, I came in and was trying to, like you mentioned, run that playbook that I was running before, and I was like, “Nope, we need this system, we [inaudible 00:04:10], we need to go do this, we need to have this.”


And it was like that shock absorbent, and I remember my direct manager who was the leader of our America’s operation, he sat me down and was like, “Chris, everybody understands that you have all of this experience and this knowledge and you know how to do this, but you’re missing out on the opportunity to connect with people. You’re coming in, massive amounts of change, and of course you’re going to have a lot more success and buy-in from people when you build that connection first and driving the change.” So talk a little bit more about that people aspect of it. What are some things or some best practices that those new finance leaders, those new CFOs can do to better connect to the people of their team and then also inside the business?

Steve Robertson (04:56):

Yeah, you bring up, your example was I think it’s a common example, right? A lot of times CFOs are brought in because they have a certain experience base and they have a certain perspective, and companies are typically looking for some type of change. Whether it’s a privately held company that’s looking to eventually go public, and they want to glean from your experience in getting them there in the right way, or it’s a public company that’s looking to either grow or change, dealing with M&A or things like that. And it’s really important to, “Let me step back.” There’s what I would call, “Put your pants on, type things,” like you described that you absolutely have to do when you come in.


You’re the CFO, so everyone’s going to expect you to understand at a primal level overall financial health of the business. So you do need to come in and you need to make sure that you understand the financial statements inside and out, that you understand the budget and the forecasting process from the bottoms up. Because when you’re going through the interview, you’re getting a high level of that, but then once you start, you’re responsible for all aspects of that. So really understanding it, getting into the weeds those first few weeks with your team to understand what is the financial help? Are the cashflow forecasts off or are they on? And if they are, why are they off or are they on? You need to understand those types of things.


What are the key accounting practices that the team is following? Certainly for public companies, you can read 10-Ks and 10-Qs and get things at a high level. But speaking to your team, speaking to the audit partner, speaking to your insurance agents, your insurance brokers, your bankers, your investor relations firms to understand what issues, what color commentary is there to all the things that you’re reading in the Ks or the Qs. Or with private companies, really diving into those areas that you’re ultimately going to need to document in a 10-K or 10-Q should you go public down the line. How did the last couple of audits go? What were the issues? How are the internal controls? What do I need to focus on and prioritize? And how is cybersecurity and AI addressing things? And I’m sure we’ll cover this downstream, but these are sort of things that you absolutely have to understand. That’s one, you have to do that, right.


The other thing that we alluded to, and I think you can’t miss this opportunity, is really meeting and creating good relationships with the key stakeholders. There’s internal stakeholders such as your direct reports, which you have to get with right away, right. First week or two, you’re really focused on them so you can understand the strengths and weaknesses of your organization and figure out what the gaps are so that you can start planning your CFO playbook for your first year to two to three, et cetera.


There’s all the external constituents, your peers, obviously the CEO and the board, but also the other C-suite folks that you’re going to need to partner with. And then the key outside stakeholders, like I said, your audit and tax partners, key investors, analysts, investor relations, all those people that will help you tell the story of the company from a financial perspective. I think those are key, and for a first time CFO I think is really important that not too many people really focus on, is make sure that you have a mentor, someone that had the CFO seat before that you trust that you can go to as you’re going through your first several weeks and say, “Hey, I’m seeing this, what do you think? Who you can bounce ideas off.


This is not a new sort of playbook that you’re jumping into as a first time CFO, there are other people that have been in your seat that can provide really good feedback. And I’m sure the audit committee chair or the qualified financial expert on the board would be someone that you definitely would want to form strong relationships on the outside. But I think having a mentor that’s on the outside that you can really confide in and ask questions and validate some of the things that you’re seeing or the conclusions that you’re drawing, and the next steps that you want to take, I think that could be really helpful.

Chris Ortega (09:06):

Man, that’s awesome, dude. Breaking down those three elements, the tactical piece, right, diving into the budgeting, diving into the forecasting, diving into the systems. The second piece that you talked to is the partnership side; internally, externally, outside stakeholders, and your third piece of advice, Steve was spot on. I think too many times people walk into a lot of roles, there’s people that done this countless thousands of times, man, you don’t have to go reinvent the wheel and leverage that knowledge. And this brings up a fundamental gap that I think a lot of leaders have, and I face this, right, maybe you face this in your career, it’s when you get to that highest level of the CFO or whatever that highest level is in your finance organization, people just think, “Hey, the CFO is always going to have all the answers,” and no CFO is going to always have the answers.


And that mentorship side that you talked about, being able to leverage great people and just say, “Hey man, I’m maybe dealing with this challenge around this monthly close process,” or “I’m dealing with this challenge and dealing with these difficult bankers,” or, “We’ve got these audit challenges.” Being able to create a community of people, I call them my personal board.


I learned this concept from a great CFO, her name is Shannon Nash and she’s a CFO at Wing. She talked about creating a personal board of advisors of great people that you can go to get mentorship, get advising on, because I think a lot of times you come into this new role and you feel like you’re on this island by yourself, it’s no man, go leverage people, go reach out, go connect, go say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this, I know that you probably have experience with this. What are some things that you’ve learned.” Now you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, I got a situation, let me see how that applies. Maybe I have to customize it a little bit more to the situation I’m in, but now you can accelerate. So that idea of mentorship, man, is super important.

Steve Robertson (11:02):

No, you bring up a good point, and Shannon is great, in fact, she’s a good mentor of mine as well. And the good news is as you state, there are a lot of resources out there for CFOs that you can leverage immediately to get that type of soundboard, if you will, or repository of information. There’s a lot of organizations such as Financial Executives International, FEI, that a new CFO can join, and you typically have monthly in-person and virtual meetings where you discuss current topics, things that most modern CFOs are dealing with, and that’ll also have websites and sort of FAQ type chat rooms where you can actually deal with things like specific financial technical accounting topics and how you’re interpreting them, things like that. They’re readily available, it’s just a matter of making sure that you gain access to that type of information.

Chris Ortega (12:03):

And I love your point around that because there’s so much resources out there, and this is where I get to where you don’t have to start from scratch. You don’t have to go connect with people that is, “Hey man, I’m struggling with this, have you encountered this or have you not encountered this?” I think that’s a good point to make.

Steve Robertson (12:21):

I think the key distinction for me is, and you said it, is the CFO is expected to have all the answers, I don’t know that’s necessarily the case, I think the CFO is responsible for getting the answers. A lot of the answers they’re going to have, but the ones that they don’t have, they should be able to, like you said in Shannon’s case where you have a board of advisors, you need to know where to get the answers, and be able to come back and provide those answers in a timely and relevant manner. So that is the role.

Chris Ortega (12:51):

And I think to me, one of the things that you talked about that’s hugely important, that probably traditionally wasn’t as important, like cybersecurity and this prevalence of generative AI inside the finance organization, right? That has been, now typically when you think about the office of the CFO, we’ve always been the risk people, anything around business risk when it comes to operational insight, this whole cybersecurity element now, whether you’re at a tech company or not, this is becoming a huge portion of it to where, does that sit in a combination with the CTO or the CIO and the CFOs? But because cybersecurity is a risk portfolio, that’s something you got to be knowledgeable about. So tell me a little bit of your experience coming on as a new CFO, right. What are some things that CFOs need to be thinking about as it relates to cybersecurity, in their first 90 days?

Steve Robertson (13:48):

I think the first thing you want to do is, again, for public companies, there’s all sorts of requirements in terms of documentation in the public documents, your 10-Ks and your 10-Qs, really it’s understanding your risk profile relative to cybersecurity because we’re seeing major conglomerates get taken down by phishing expeditions and things like that. I sat in a recent director’s conference at Stanford that said, of those publicly traded companies that got caught in fishing ransomware, there was something north of 70% of these companies ended up paying the ransom, right. Because the access to data is so important for these companies, they have to be up and operational, that shit is what it is. So from a CFO’s perspective, where do we sit on the risk spectrum? Are we a 1?, meaning really low risk, we’ve got all sorts of safeguards in place, our insurance coverage is sufficient if something were to happen, or are we a 10 and we’re loose, we have a long ways to go to safeguard our access.


Because that’s what I am as a CFO, that’s what you are as a CFO. Your number one responsibility is to safeguard the assets and generate long-term value, typically shareholder value for your investors and your stakeholders. Understanding where you sit in the risk band is really important. And then if you’re in the high risk category that you automatically know that it’s going to be a major priority to figure out what it’s going to take, and to inform the board and the rest of the executive team what it’s going to take to get us from high risk to low risk. What it’s going to cost, what sort of resources, what other departments are going to need to be involved in this process so that the transparency is there.

Chris Ortega (15:43):

Yeah, man, and I love that point too, and I love your example of that insight, that data insight that you gave around that Stanford conversation that’s super insightful. I was just reading, and I forgot the tech company’s name, but it’s a large tech company and they came across a cybersecurity threat and this is how it came in. I remember the article and it was talking about how one of the bad actors described themselves as a high level executive and they just went through the support system. So they called customer support and says, “Hey, I’m Chris Ortega, I’m the CFO at ABC company.” And he said, “Hey, I need you to send me to reset my password. Can you reset and send me to this email?” And the customer service person was like, “Oh my god, this is the CFO of the entire company, I need to give them information and access.” And it was as quickly as that, and it brought this entire company down, it literally brought it down.


And that’s a great example of where I think it’s a partnership side. I don’t think cybersecurity is just the responsibility of the CFO. It is definitely one of those things that you got to partner with it, you got to partner with business, you got to partner with operations, you got to partner with HR to make sure you have all the training, that people know what phishing things are. Because having a business, if you’re a tech company, having that tech company down or users not able to access stuff, that’s a huge liability for the organization. So I think as we can as CFOs, branch out and extend that partnership, which is that second element that you talked about in that playbook. “Hey, how can we partner together to know I can bring in the financial acumen of what this risk can have to the business. You can bring in the technical acumen of what we need and systems and processes and procedures and people to, we need to mitigate that risk. How can we partner and collaborate together?”

Steve Robertson (17:40):

Absolutely. So as we talked about since your first 90 days coming in, I think the key thing is understanding the financial health of the business and really try and determine the top four or five areas that could impact that, both positive and negative. And I think cybersecurity is definitely one of those areas that most CFOs should definitely make sure that they understand where the company sits from a risk perspective.

Chris Ortega (18:09):

Love that man. And looking at that playbook, again, deciding those top five factors, I think within 90 days you have a great assessment. So when I shared that example where I completely failed and fumbled because first month in there, I’m trying to make all this change. The second time I come into this really high growth marketing platform company, I was like, “I am not going to make any changes, I’m not going to make any recommendations, a great mentor told me this, one of my personal brand people. He says, “Chris, when you walk into the next role and walk into this next leadership opportunity, seek first to understand, then be understood.”


And when I came into this next opportunity and I spent the 90 days, I’m surveying the people, I’m sitting in the meetings, not just finance, I’m sitting in sales meetings, sitting in operational meetings, and after that 90 days, I remember meeting with the CEO and the COO and we sat together and I said, “Hey, look, based on my assessment of looking at the people, the processes, our partnership, our platforms that we’re using, performance and profit optimization strategies that we’re doing, here’s where we’re at, here’s our baselines, here’s the baselines of everything that we’re at. Here’s the next things that we need to be doing to go from baseline to improve.” Or if there’s things like this is going really well, nothing to change there. Now you’ve got a course of action to execute on, right. Now you’ve got a more baseline through data, through relationships being built, through information to go through, I love your analogy of those five factors to look at, because that to me, that’s the place to start. Now you go build your baseline assessments on those five key factors.

Steve Robertson (19:53):

No, absolutely. You get a really good opportunity in the first 90 days. In some instances you get a little bit of a pass in terms of making big strategic decisions because no one’s going to expect you to know everything that you should know as a CFO the first 90 days you come in. So it’s a great opportunity for you to really build that connective tissue with the key stakeholders, your team, really understand how they work, what kind of coffee do they like, right. Are they early risers or are they late risers? The CRO and the CMO and the VP of R&D? How do they digest financial information? What kind of information are they getting? Is there a standard dashboard that we can provide to them that’s easy for us to create and disseminate to them? It’s a great opportunity to really understand the DNA of the company and to figure out how to infuse your personal DNA into the DNA of the company.


Because if you do that, you start to build credibility. Once you’ve built credibility within the company, then change can happen more organically and with collaborative buy-in. And I think that is super important, because a lot of times if you come in and make a bunch of changes, scorched earth, bandcamp, “I did things here, it’s going to work here.” You create a lot of resentment because in most cases, everyone’s worked really hard to get the results that they’re getting before you walked into the door. And acknowledging that and determining what still works and keeping that going, and then working together with the team, whether it’s your own team, the executive team, the board or whatever, and then taking it to the next level of optimization, of performance, will really help most CFOs get off to the right start.

Chris Ortega (21:47):

Oh yeah, totally man. And that aspect of it is when you talked about the credibility, that is so important to establish, and the other point that you mentioned, you get that passed in the first 90 days is, all CFOs finance leaders listening do not come in that first 90 days and say, “Hey, we’re completely making an ERP change.” Do not do that, right. And this gets into my next question I want to talk to you about, right, that’s one of those missteps, do not come in and just immediately be like, “Hey, for the last 10 years of my career, I’ve used X system, we don’t have X system here, so one of my first priorities is getting rid of that system.” I can’t tell you how many times Steve, I’ve seen CFOs and I see it, right. And it gets down to this myth that they think technology is going to solve all their problems.


So they come in, “I used this technology at the last and it was great, so we need to throw out this whole technology and we need to get the technology that I’m comfort with.” So my next question to you is, what are some of those common pit falls that you’ve seen, or these are the things, do not make these mistakes in these first 90 days. Because they significantly limit your impact and they significantly limit your ability to build that forward-thinking finance organization. What are some of those missteps that you’ve seen?

Steve Robertson (23:08):

I think the biggest misstep that I’ve seen, or maybe I’ve even dealt with in some of my early executive roles, is trying to boil the ocean. Meaning you walk in the door day one and it’s this fire hose of things that you need to understand and execute on. A lot of times, I think it’s easy for high level executives to set this priority list, 20 things that I’m going to get done. 20 is too much, what are the 3 or 4 things that you really need to knock out of the park? And oh, by the way, what are the three or four low-hanging fruit things that you can knock out that can show value very quickly? I really think that it’s all about focus when you come in. We talked about it in March when we were at that convention together, the mantra a mentor told me was, the three Ps, right; people, process and priorities.


So I think it’s really coming in and being focused, and understanding that yes, there are 20 or 25 major things that need to be done, but what are the top 4 or 5 things. At the end of 90 days, you should be able to articulate what are the 4 or 5 things that really need to get done that first year you’re on board, and how does that impact your CFO strategy? How you’re going to run your organization, what’s working really well? Where are the gaps? I think that focus will really will help new CFOs come in and be successful because you can’t be successful on your own, you need your teams. The whole concept of building the relationships and really understanding what people do, and not draw assumptions at the outset, but after you’ve learned how things are doing. In your ERP example, how is the current ERP system running?


I may have a bias for NetSuite and someone else is on QuickBooks Online. How is QuickBooks Online working in this environment? What changes can be made to better optimize it? If the team is more experienced and trained on QuickBooks Online, what is their impact? What’s their input? What are the pros and cons there? If you have opinions about NetSuite and that’s what you’ve used in the past, get their thoughts on it. Because again, I think as a CFO, you’re like the military or a high performing sports team. You’re the captain of a high performing team, and in order to get the best performance in military situations or in sports situations, it’s not necessarily that you have the best 11 people, but you have 11 or 12 people that are on the same page, that are doing the same things, thinking the same way and marching to the same drum beat. Those teams can achieve a lot more than 11 super talented individuals that are not on the same page, and I think you and I have seen that time and time again.

Chris Ortega (26:13):

Steve, I was sitting here taking notes, man. And for all the listeners on that, you need to go back and rewind everything that Steve just said to that. That is absolute lottery winning advice. And I want to tie it now to your sports analogy that you mentioned. What are those 3 to 4 home runs that you want to have? These are the 3 to 4 home runs I want to knock it out the park. And then what are those 3 to 4 at bats? I just want to get on base, being the low-hanging fruit that you mentioned, right. Because your analogy of boiling the ocean, we all struggle with this, man, I struggle. Here’s the thing about being a super talented, awesome CFO like you, Steve, is that priority list is always going to be more than what you have capacity to get done, it is always going to be that way.


I’m leading a global fractional CFO and advisory service company and my priority list, I’m never going to get through, have a day where I feel like I got through everything I need to get done. But if you’re able to, like you said, have that focus to say, “Here are the 3 to 4 home runs that I just want to knock out the park, and that takes time, and here are the 3 to 4 at bats that I just want to get so I can add value to the organization. And also as well too, get some confidence in yourself, you want to get that snowball and that train going, and what are the 3 to 4 things that I know that I could just get at bat and people are going to be like, “Man, I’m so glad that we got this kind of CFO that I’m working with.”


And I love how you broke that down, and your analogy of that high performing team. We’ve all been in roles where you got people running in different directions. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how much skills you have, how much passion, how much experience you have, and my mentor always told me, I think it’s a famous quote, “If you want to move fast, move alone, if you want to move further, move together.” That’s the way to do it. Hey me, Steve, I have one last question for you, and I always ask my guests this question, what is your number one hot finance trend and why?

Steve Robertson (28:13):

AI. Now, the thing is I’m in Silicon Valley, right, so I should be on the forefront of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning and all these things, but I’ve been in maybe five, six conferences over the last 12 months, and you’ve been in a lot of those as well, and Artificial Intelligence and cybersecurity are the two topics that are prevalent across, and not just finance related, but a lot of business related. Because it has such potential to impact everything that all of us are doing today. Some of the fear is that it renders some of our finance team irrelevant, right, because in theory, ChatGPG and Artificial Intelligence can do some of the tasks that maybe some of the lower level staff that you have does today, it doesn’t necessarily replace the analytical side of things. But I do feel that today’s CFO definitely needs to be current on the latest trends, and AI is not going anywhere.


It’s tough to say whether it’s going to be as impactful as the Terminator movies, it’s going to take over certain cities and things like that. Probably not, but it will fundamentally change how businesses are thinking about how to move forward. And I’ve already talked to CFOs of certain Fortune 500 companies that do have the budgets to explore this aggressively. AI, CFOs need to understand how it could help you be better, stronger, faster, for sure.

Chris Ortega (29:50):

Yeah, man, I think every guest that I’ve asked that on the show, man, it’s like AI pops in there and I would agree a 1000%. I think AI is obviously here to stay, it’s not going anywhere, man, so definitely agree with you on that. Steve loved the conversation so much, man. Hey, if people want to learn more about you, if they want to connect with you, if they want a deeper dive, more into this playbook mentality and all the things that we talk about, where can people find you? Where can they connect with you and where can they learn more about you?

Steve Robertson (30:19):

Certainly, I’m on LinkedIn so that you can certainly find Steve Robertson on LinkedIn. That’s probably the place that you can find me the easiest, I would say.

Chris Ortega (30:29):

Awesome. Yeah, and I would recommend that all those accounting, finance, FP&A, CFO, VP, leaders, definitely connect with Steve. Steve, it’s been an absolute pleasure man, having you on this podcast. I was sitting here taking notes of so much different wisdom and insight to set people up for success. Whether you’re walking into that new CFO world or you’re walking into that new finance leadership role. Steve, thank you so much for being part of CFO. Trends, man. Thank you so much.

Steve Robertson (30:53):

Thanks again for having me, Chris.

Continue Reading