Not everyone’s meant to be an interim CFO—and that’s OK

Interim CFO experts share some of the easiest ways to determine if an interim role is right for you.
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· 4 min read

Chatter about interim CFOs has become like this past summer’s Barbie marketing: totally unavoidable.

In 2023, demand for interim CFOs climbed 103%, according to data from Business Talent Group. But, like any wildly popular phenomenon, there comes a time when you have to really analyze if it’s for you.

And that might lead to a harsh reality: Not everyone should be an interim CFO. You’re coming in to clean up messes. It’s not for the faint of heart. So, how do you know if an interim position is right for you (or your org)? And when should you consider other project-based, temporary positions instead?

More often than not, someone’s a good fit for the interim role for a single reason: When they genuinely and excitedly want to become an interim CFO, that’s typically a telltale sign that they’re ready for the gig, according to Sandra Pinnavaia, chief innovation and knowledge officer at Business Talent Group, which organizes interim CFO placements.

“There’s a form of adrenaline that comes from wanting to jump in, and help and focus on specifically the work immediately at hand,” she said. “People are generally very enthusiastic about their decision to pursue interim as a career path.”

Right fit. If you’re having doubts, there’s a simple calculation you can make off the bat that’ll determine if a different kind of temporary position might be a better fit, Pinnavaia explained.

“There’s people who want to advise, and there are people who want to roll up their sleeves and do it,” Pinnavaia said.

It’s the latter that should be thinking about interim positions, given the inherent messiness: People who want to get to know a new team and really dig into the numbers with them should be looking for interim roles. For people who mainly want to advise, project-based roles, where you’re brought on to assist with a very concrete task for a set amount of time, might be a better fit, since there’s still room to provide guidance, but you’ll avoid some of the managerial headaches that can pop up as an interim CFO.

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Free to roam. But even if the interim role means more elbow grease, the relative freedom of the job could be a reason to choose to pursue an interim path instead of project-based work, according to Jessica Kates, a private equity-focused finance professional who’s held a number of interim positions.

“Having an interim CFO role gives you more autonomy, more flexibility, and you’re filling the void for that C-suite professional within the organization,” she said. “There’s more opportunity to lead the company in that role, and to help be a bigger resource. It's definitely more of a time commitment.”

Again: hard work. But that’s exactly why you should have a clear sense of what you want from an interim position before taking (or even considering) one, Kates explained.

“You have to look at it like you’re an employee, even though you’re not,” she said. “But I feel like if it’s something that’s purely a project, where you’re just accomplishing one specific task, that’s not on the same level in my mind, at least as what you would be doing as an interim CFO.”

The flip side. Companies need to make similar calculations before considering hiring an interim CFO, Pinnavaia said.

“There’s a couple of guidelines that we generally offer clients if you have the luxury of debating this,” she said. The first is about duration: “It’s not worth doing an interim if it’s shorter than two months, because the switchover cost and the friction involved in that is generally not worth it,” Pinnavaia explained.

The second piece of advice involves a slightly more complex calculation. If the combination of two things—the predicament the company is currently facing and the search for a new candidate—feels overwhelming, “that’s a really good clue that you should use an interim,” she added.

“The reason you should use an interim is not simply to buy time,” she clarified. “It’s because it allows you to break up the job description into what you need today, versus what you might need in the future.”

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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.