Making the Pieces Fit

How to avoid finance hiring mistakes.

Soon after David Dreyer joined AMN Healthcare in 2004, he faced a personnel crisis. One of his divisional controllers was isolating himself from the team, not communicating with direct reports effectively, and hampering the productivity of the finance department.

“His reaction to really minor things became very disruptive,” says Dreyer. Not only was he causing productivity problems, the CFO adds, but his demeanor left employees “unsure about how to work with him, including how to keep him informed.”

In response, Dreyer spent two months trying to better integrate the controller, who was also new, by encouraging him to interact with his peers, superiors, and direct reports, and by encouraging him to improve his communication skills. Dreyer and other managers also set three-month benchmarks for the controller to meet in a performance-improvement plan. But despite those efforts and an estimated $30,000 or more in recruiting fees, travel, and other expenses, it became clear to both sides that the arrangement wasn’t working. The controller resigned.

As Dreyer and other CFOs can attest, the skills-based, task-oriented nature of finance jobs, while more quantifiable than the requirements of other positions, can actually make it more difficult to hire the right candidate. Strong accounting and finance skills may mask signs of incompatibility with a company’s culture. As Jim Clayton, CFO of Scripps Networks, puts it: “Technical skills are easy to see from the experience people have. The character questions are more difficult.”

In fact, says Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, cultural misalignment is the most common problem that companies face when any new executive is hired. And given the current demand for finance talent, the probability of a bad fit in that department is magnified — as is the cost to the entire finance team. “You always hope the [person doing the hiring] factors in something about the organization’s culture,” he says. “But many people will hire the best finance executive they can find and not consider fit.”

Telltale Signs

While signs of a cultural mismatch may be difficult to spot in the hiring process, it doesn’t take long for them to manifest on the job. Bradford D. Smart, president of Smart & Associates Inc., a management consultancy, says indications can range from direct reports’ complaints that the executive doesn’t listen to the executive’s failure to accept procedures that differ from his previous experience. There are also more-serious indicators of trouble, such as not keeping promises. When a finance executive routinely says, “I’ll have that report to you next month,” says Smart, there is a good chance the end result will not be quality work.

For Sandy Marrero, CFO of Tampa-based Your Auction Inc., it took only one reporting cycle to see that a newly hired senior corporate accountant lacked the skills and personality to fit in at the used-car auction company. “The personality traits started to come out in feedback from the other professionals,” says Marrero. For example, he was not willing to take on duties that “he felt were beneath him and his abilities,” she explains. Then, after the first accounting cycle, Marrero “also realized his work habits and work ethics weren’t what his résumé led me to believe.” In one case, she recalls, it took him two weeks to analyze a pair of income statements for variances.

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