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Finance isn’t just about the upside

Finance professionals should pay attention to the downsides as well, says Customer.io CFO.
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Customer.io

· 4 min read

Coworking is a weekly segment where we talk to CFOs and other leaders in the finance space about their experiences, their companies, and the larger economy. Let us know if you are—or you know—a CFO we should interview.

Zhi Li is the CFO of Customer.io, a customer engagement platform based in Portland, Oregon. He has also worked in investment banking and as a CFO for a digital healthcare platform.

How do you think the CFO role has changed over the past five to 10 years, both for you and in general?

The role of the CFO has undergone significant changes in recent years. A modern CFO needs to be a strategic partner to the CEO and the executive team. We need to be on the front line rather than behind the scenes. In addition to typical finance and accounting functions, you are expected to oversee other operating areas such as revenue operations, business/partnership development, data analytics, legal, IT, and more.

It is also essential to have strong relationship-building skills and be able to effectively communicate with investors, customers, employees, vendors, and other stakeholders.

What’s your favorite way to deal with the stress of a busy CFO’s schedule?

My favorite way to unwind is listening to podcasts or audiobooks. I like to put on my noise-canceling headphones and turn up the speed to 2x on whatever I’m listening to—ideally with a cold drink in my hand.

How would you describe the importance of mentoring for young finance professionals?

I was fortunate to receive valuable advice from people along the way, so to me, mentorship is a privilege. It’s a way of returning the favor, and hopefully, people will find it valuable in navigating through their careers.

What advice do you have for future CFOs?

Always have a downside case. A key, strategic partner in a fast-growing company is not just about the upside; it’s almost more important to think through different downside scenarios and articulate the impacts and remediation measures when we get things wrong.

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What’s the toughest career lesson you’ve had to learn?

Be decisive to cut your losses early and move on. It is a tough balance and never black and white. But sometimes, you need to fail fast and learn from the mistakes, and other times, you need to persist and even double down. In most cases, we need to have the conviction to persist until the end, but it’s important to be decisive and objective when it’s time to make the hard call to move on.

Who’s a CFO you admire, or you try to model yourself after?

I follow and admire many successful CFOs, but I don’t really model myself after one particular person. This is because the pace of change is very fast in our business, and there are many company-specific or individual-specific factors behind each story, so it would be unrealistic to have one model/persona that fits all.

However, since the constant element in all of these success stories is change, it’s crucial to be highly adaptable and comfortable with uncertainty to lead in a fast-paced environment.

If you weren’t a CFO, you would be...?

This is a fun question. In an alternate universe where I’m not a CFO, I would love to be an architect. I always enjoy the simplicity of lines and shapes and the ease of symmetry. I got a lot of inspiration from walking by different buildings when I was living in New York. I think it’s amazing that architecture creates value out of an empty space by combining design, structure, project management, and utility. I guess, in the end, it might not be that different than building a company, creating value in the ecosystem, and highlighting the best features of the business in a simplified way.

News built for finance pros

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