Larry Reinhold wasn’t looking for trouble — he was just signing on for his first job as a CFO.
In January 2001, however, after only three weeks at Critical Path, he discovered questionable revenue recognition practices at the San Francisco-based Internet messaging company. At Reinhold’s urging, Critical Path soon restated earnings downward. Its stock price fell, not surprisingly, and shareholders filed lawsuits against management. Reinhold stayed on for the next eight months, helping the company implement financial controls and clean up the accounting mess.
Jim Greer, during his own job search, was only asking what most other candidates would ask: Would you tell me about the previous CFO? The answer was, well, that there had been three previous CFOs in the past 15 months.
Yet from his interviews with the CEO, with HR, and with other managers and staffers at the organization — a well-known nonprofit medical-research institute — he determined that he could make a significant contribution quickly, and that the job was a good fit. Turns out, believes Greer, that he was right.
If you’re actively looking for a new position yourself, consider these ten signs that you should keep looking. They’ll help you walk that “fine line between due diligence and investigation,” as Reinhold calls it, without “turning a job interview process into a forensic auditing engagement.” After all, the managers and board members you’re looking over today may be working by your side tomorrow.
Have any “sure signs” of your own? Send them to CraigSchneider@cfo.com.
1. Hidden CFO Histories
One of the first questions that many candidates ask their prospective employers is why their predecessor is no longer with the company. One of the first signs of trouble is when they receive a non-answer in return.
Joe Varraveto, now the CFO of eUniverse, has heard boilerplate responses plenty of times. “The business had outgrown them” was one old line that Varraveto heard from a former prospective employer. If the responses are pretty guarded, he continues, there may have been a larger issue with the former employee or with management as a whole. Depending on your read of the situation and your risk tolerance, it may not be worth the extra due diligence to find out the truth.
Michael Carus, CFO and general partner at New York-based venture capital firm JVP, thinks that candidates should push a little harder. “Why are they no longer there? Is it because of a skill-set gap?” You certainly need to find out, adds Carus, whether the previous finance chief was pressured to do something unethical. (You might be surprised how many CFOs say they have engaged in “aggressive accounting,” often at the behest of the CEO.)
The predecessor’s length of time on the job may also be reason for worry. “If he was in the job less than a year, that’s a red flag,” says Tucker Mays, co-founder and principal of Stamford, Connecticut-based OptiMarket, an outplacement firm for senior executives. Two years or less, he adds, is “kind of an orange flag.”