The less lonely finance leader

The less lonely finance leader

Talk to many early stage finance folks and you’ll hear a similar refrain: it’s a lonely role.

We’re often brought in to clean things up. We put in controls around spending - no more corporate cards for everyone! We establish budgets. We put in place hiring plans. And we put metrics in place to hold folks accountable to what they’ve committed.

It can oftentimes feel like we’re the only ones holding the purse strings. After all, we’re the ones accountable for keeping burn under control and for managing the company’s runway. Money is a scarce resource and it’s our job to protect it.

I struggled with this many times in my role at Intercom. It almost felt like I was at odds with the rest of the leadership team - them trying to get more budget and more headcount from me. The more they wanted, the tighter I needed to hold on, the lonelier I got. I see many other early finance hires struggle with this exact dynamic. It’s hard and can make our work frustrating and isolating.

Over the years I learned that every time I found myself at odds with the rest of the business - needing to push a ‘hard no’ - it was typically a result of some shortcoming in the context that we all shared. A ‘hard no’ often meant I was making a decision on my own.

The way then we become less lonely in our roles is through sharing context and creating alignment in the process of decision making. It’s by explaining and teaching - here’s where I see us going and here’s the approach I believe we should take. It’s by demonstrating where the no comes from - and being open to hearing that you might be wrong or that their version of the world might make more sense.

Inherent to that conversation is finding a common ground on which all can converge. For particularly contentious topics like headcount and budgets, I found it important to ground those conversations in the most important, long term outcomes - our growth rate, our ability to raise future capital, and ultimately our valuation. Those are topics our peers care deeply about (after all, it hits them directly in the pocket :)) and ones in which ambiguity can create misaligned expectations. The best finance folks know how to drive buy-in not to a specific budget or headcount plan, but rather to a longer term vision. By all means that’s not easy - in fact it’s one of the hardest leap that any scaling finance leader has to make.

Starting from a common understanding shifts the tone of the conversation from: “why can’t I have that budget or headcount.” To: “I recognize that by hiring faster we burn more in the short term which means we risk having to raise money sooner (and diluting ourselves more, or not clearing our previous valuation), yet these additional hires will significantly de risk the probability of us hitting our stretch plan.” In this world, discussions then become about tradeoffs. And tradeoffs are easier to work through as they are inherently structured to consider both sides of the question.

By sharing and building context, we no longer have to be lonely operators at odds with our peers. Instead, we can act as leaders that bring an organization together in pursuit of a common goal. Next time you’re feeling lonely, ask yourself what context is going unsaid and in what ways can you create a more shared understanding.

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