An interim CFO’s best friend? Donuts

A playbook for your first week as interim CFO, because, trust us, you need it.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Bankruptcy. Abrupt retirement. Gridlocked reorgs. Impossible mergers. These are just a smattering of reasons that finance professionals might’ve stepped into interim CFO posts recently.

And if current trends continue, there’s a good chance you could join this growing cohort, or at least work alongside an interim CFO in the future.

Analysis from Business Talent Group, an on-demand talent organization that arranges interim placements, found a 91% increase in demand for interim CFO and other finance leaders in 2022. And in 2023, requests for interim CFOs rose 103% year over year, according to its data.

This precipitous rise can be attributed to two main factors, according to Sandra Pinnavaia, chief innovation and knowledge officer at Business Talent Group. The first is CFO burnout, and the second is the evolution of the CFO, and the addition of new requirements to the role.

“We correlate the uptick in demand for interim CFOs primarily to the fact that the situations they’re facing are changing so rapidly that whoever you had in the seat two or three years ago is, in many cases, not who you need to have going forward,” Pinnavaia explained. “And the transition from Permanent Person A to Permanent Person B is not easy to do really quickly.”

So, picture that it’s your first week as interim CFO with a new organization. How do you knock it out of the park from day one? Turns out, the answer might involve sweet talking—both metaphorically and literally.

The CFO of tomorrow. As the number of financial professionals serving as interim CFOs has grown, so have the responsibilities of a typical interim gig, which inherently changes the nature of the job you’re walking into.

“Yesterday’s interims were a version of an adult in the room, someone who was probably a retiree…and generally was there to keep the trains running and provide a calming kind of influence in the organization,” Pinnavaia said. Now, we’re seeing “much more strategic uses of interims,” she added.

“Sometimes there is that interim opportunity which is not only about covering a gap but about migrating the skillset of the CFO that you need for the business of yesterday to the business of tomorrow,” she added.

The takeaway: Week one as an interim is a bit trickier to navigate than it once was. Just ask Mitch Cohen, a seasoned financial executive who first served as an interim CFO back in 2012, well before the current heyday, and still pursues interim work.

Rough start. The impetus for Cohen’s first interim CFO post was about as dramatic as they come. At a public company with a $15 billion balance sheet one day, the CFO called in and said “‘I’m not coming in anymore. Period,’” Cohen explained. “They had nobody to run the show, so to speak, and I was asked to come in.”

It’s something any potential interim CFO should realize: You’re usually walking into a startlingly lifelike rendition of the “This is fine” meme.

“When you’re an interim CFO, and you walk into a [new] place, people don’t want to like you,” Cohen said. “Last year, when I was ending an [interim] engagement and sat around with the team, one of the members said, ‘When you walked in, all seven of us wanted to hate you. Now, we don’t want you to leave.’ I couldn’t get a possible better compliment.”

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So, how can you ensure you’ll hear those magic words? Step one is typically reserved for the therapist’s couch: You need to take a good, long look in the mirror.

Right mind. People who succeed as interim CFOs tend to have a project-based mentality and enjoy solving time-sensitive problems, Cohen and Pinnavaia explain, which often makes former consultants able and eager interim CFOs.

“It’s not a good match if someone is sort of retired and says they want to do board work,” Pinnavaia said. “They’re unlikely to be a really good candidate as an interim, because it means they want to just advise as opposed to dig in there and really deal with the people and the spreadsheets.”

The best interim CFOs are also ready to chat with just about everyone. “If you can’t get along with people, this is not a job for [you],” Cohen said.

In the first week in a new interim role, Cohen, for instance, makes a point to sit down with “each member of the team, and get a feel for what they do.” In these early conversations, he makes it clear that he’s all ears, explaining that he’s their point person for any transition-related questions.

“I’m the interim guide. If you have anything that you need to tell me, that’s why I’m here,” he explained. “Whatever you need to help us get through this time, or get through this reporting period, get through this acquisition, I’m here to help and that’s what I want to do.”

The donut story. If all else fails, there are always donuts.

Week one as an interim should be about getting up to speed with your new team, but what happens when they don’t want anything to do with you? That’s a situation Cohen ran into at an early interim gig. He walked into the office on his first day at the job, and “not one person turned their head. Not one person said ‘Hello,’” Cohen recalled.

“Day two came, same exact thing. Remember, I’m brand new,” he continued. After day three, he took matters into his own hands: He brought in donuts, the surefire way to make friends in the office. But still: nada.

“The donuts are still there, 20 minutes later,” Cohen said. So, he made an announcement: “I don’t know what happened here before I got here, but these donuts are for everybody. And by the way, good morning.”

The next day, he was finally greeted with a chorus of hellos. From there, he could finally get into the kinds of conversations needed to dig into the company’s problems.

As interim CFO, you have to “be the peacemaker,” Cohen said. “I tell people all the time, [you] have to be not only technically good, but also a good psychiatrist.”

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.