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Book review: 'Secrets of Rock Star CFOs'

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I had the pleasure of meeting Jack McCullough, the president of the CFO Leadership Council, at a recent event where he spoke on a panel of CFOs. He introduced himself to me by asking about my last name — a conversation starter I am well used to by now — and letting me know he was a big Aerosmith fan. I was delighted, then, to find out he had written a book titled “Secrets of Rock Star CFOs,” in which he had clearly married his passion for financial leadership and classic rock. I like a person with passions.

Calling it a book, he joked, was ambitious. “My wife says it’s more of a pamphlet,” he said. It is a short book, but I find that that’s part of its appeal. The 35-page treatise serves as a great thought-provoker, a starting point from which a young accounting or finance professional can think about the career she’s embarking on, or from which a veteran CFO can re-assess and reimagine his job.

The book is divided into nine sections, each a directive to the CFO on how to handle herself, or how to do his job effectively. “Think strategically,” for example, reminds CFOs that their role is a strategic partnership with the CEO -- indeed, the “single most important relationship within an organization.” In this chapter, McCullough fondly recalls one of his earliest jobs, an accounting internship he completed as an undergraduate. The CFO of the company had a habit of saying “No” to everything, whether it was re-evaluating an accounting position, or initiating casual Fridays. McCullough took to calling him the CF-No … until, one day, the executive caught wind of the nickname. When he said he was flattered, McCullough figured out the CFO thought the moniker was actually “CF-Know,” suggesting his “Nos” were all emanating from a place of supreme knowledge.

The anecdote serves to remind CFOs that strategy is less about fear, which is backward-facing, and more about being forward-thinking. “Elite CFOs take an active approach to their roles,” McCullough writes. “Always remember that you alone on the executive team possess the aptitude to blend financial expertise and strategic thinking.”

The uniqueness of the CFO’s position is a thread that runs through the entire book. In a chapter on ethical leadership, McCullough lays out some fascinating ethical questions faced by some of the financial executives he interviewed for the book. For instance, one CFO faced a dilemma when a credible sexual harassment claim was made at their company immediately before the close of an acquisition deal that they had been working on for months. Did that CFO have a duty to disclose? Another CFO worked at a company where the CEO placed his son on the payroll for a $50,000-a-year no-show job. But that CEO deducted that amount from his own salary, and it turned out that his son was disabled, unable to work, and this shadow-job made him eligible for Social Security benefits. Did the CFO have legal or ethical obligations in this situation?

I found this chapter on ethics particularly interesting because McCullough doesn’t disclose what the CFOs in these situations actually did in the end. Perhaps this gives room for the reader to work through the problems themselves, and figure out what they would do. But I would have liked to see resolutions, if only to satisfy my own curiosity. Overall, the chapter suggests that the position of CFO is probably the one for which ethics is most important, because CFOs handle the money, the area from which most ethical questions arise; but also because they have serious legal obligations stemming from regulation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (which was itself the result of the Enron scandal and the dot-com crash, themselves ethical disasters of epic proportions).

McCullough does touch on technology briefly, in a chapter titled “Learn continuously.” He calls keeping up with technology a CFO’s “greatest educational challenge,” primarily because tech advances rapidly. Unlike earning an MBA or CPA certification, tech learning is, as the title suggests, continuous.

“If you think you don’t need to understand blockchain, artificial intelligence, or whatever innovations are relevant at the time you are reading this, you are wrong,” he writes. “Rockstar CFOs commit to remaining ahead of the curve on technology. It’s exciting to follow these innovations, and you don’t want to be outdated in your prime.”

McCullough rounds out the book by reminding CFOs and potential CFOs that maintaining work-life balance is as important to success as any other proactive step readers can take. He breaks down the keys, which have been proven by studies to produce more successful executives, to being a better CFO by having a better life: physical exercise, vacationing, reading for pleasure, and generally making time for hobbies, family and friends, and whatever else makes one happy.

Jack McCullough started his career at KPMG, and has spent subsequent years serving as interim and consultative CFO for 26 different companies, partnering with 35 different CEOs. He currently serves as president of the CFO Leadership Council, which he founded, and is founder and chair of the MIT Sloan CFO Summit. Folow him on Twitter at @jack_mccullough. His book is available at http://rockstarcfos.com/.

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