Despite the “business casual” dress code he’d seen at SAP America, Nabisco veteran Edward Lyons decided to stick with his customary wardrobe when he took over as CFO at SAP last December. “There was a young team here, and my role was to come in as the senior finance leader, to provide some structure,” he says. “So my approach was, here comes the suit and tie.”
Or not. Within three days, Lyons realized his attire was strangling relations with his new colleagues at the Newtown Square, Pennsylvania- based technology concern. So to open the lines of communication, he lost the tie and switched to khakis.
Every day in America, one or two finance executives begin their first day on the job as CFO, according to recent data collected by market research firm Hunt-Scanlon Corp., in Stamford, Connecticut. And while sartorial strategies may not be of utmost importance, Lyons’s example suggests that command-and-control-style takeovers are out and a more culture-sensitive approach is in.
“By fitting [yourself] into a company’s culture and truly listening to the concerns of your employees and board, you build the credibility and loyalty you will need for tough decisions later on,” says Pam Lassiter, who has advised hundreds of finance executives as principal of Lassiter Consulting, in Weston, Massachusetts. One of the first priorities for executives making a transition, she says, should be to meet with key people, from secretaries to the CEO, and to listen to what they want from the finance department. This approach is particularly important with younger staffs, comments Accenture partner Cathy Greenberg-Walt, citing company research on management in 200 companies. “The generation that’s in the workforce now craves honesty and the chance to collaborate,” she says.
Probably the first tough decision that falls to a CFO is which staffers to keep and which to shed. It takes a sensitive hand to assemble a strong team quickly enough to appease the CEO without slashing morale in the department or losing people with unique expertise. When he started at SAP, Lyons says, “my hope was that within my first 100 days, I would be able to assess the team, and if changes needed to be made, I would [be able to make them] quickly.” Serendipitously, he notes, the company had a formal review process already scheduled for January, which gave him time to get to know his staff as well as to gather objective information to make evaluations. By early March, his team was solid: Lyons kept all but 3 of the existing 120-person staff. He planned to announce priorities, new developments, and succession plans with the team at an April off-site meeting.
In some transitions, though, time is of the essence. Robert Crouch, formerly controller at Modis Professional Services Inc., a staffing services firm based in Jacksonville, Florida, filled his boss’s shoes just as the company was reversing plans to split into three separate public entities last fall. After sitting down with CEO Timothy Payne in January to chart a new course, he had the immediate task of redirecting the 300-person staff, most of whom were still disappointed that the initial public offering wasn’t going to materialize.