How to handle an interview with the finance director

Written by
Changeboard Team

02 Sep 2012

02 Sep 2012 • by Changeboard Team

Meeting the finance expert

For the non-Finance person, an interview with the Finance Director or CFO can be daunting. They may have very different priorities from you. The chances are that if the recruitment process includes an interview with the FD it means you're going to have responsibility for a considerable budget. Their role is to find out whether you can be trusted with it!

With preparation, it's possible to strike up a good rapport with the FD and demonstrate that you are someone with good financial acumen. The FD is looking for specific answers to their questions. This is not the time for hyperbole or waffle. Get to the point. Making broad generalisations, people who are good financially tend to be cautious and thoughtful rather than out-going and chatty in an interview. You can expect there to be pauses in the conversation while they consider what you have told them and they are likely to make a lot of notes. If you constantly fill the pauses with chatter you are not giving them the time they need to think.

Many of the questions an FD needs to have answered in the interview are below. This is not an exhaustive list and you might not be asked them outright, so you need to weave your answers into the questions they do ask to demonstrate your numerical competence.

Are you reckless with money?

The FD works hard to make sure the company has sufficient funds to meet its commitments and to invest appropriately. The last thing they need is for someone to join the organisation and undo all their hard work.

Tip: When giving examples about your spending, show how you considered the options and came to a logical conclusion about what to spend and where.

How well do you budget?

When you set your budget at the start of the financial year, you'll be expected to stick to it or come in under budget. Of course there will be unforeseen circumstances which arise, but overspending should not be the norm for you.

Tip: Explain how you set your budgets each year and how well you negotiate with suppliers to ensure you stick to your budget. If you been in a situation where you had a significant extraordinary expense, demonstrate how you cut back in other areas to minimise the impact of the overspend. Explain to the FD how you manage your budget and how you spot early warning signs that your department may be going over budget.

How do you view finance?

In many organisations, the Finance department is seen as a necessary evil rather than an asset or a source of financial advice. If you're going to be working together, the FD needs to know they will be included in relevant discussions and given all the information they need in a timely manner. It will not impress the FD if you make them think you can leave everything to the last minute. It's not the time for witty quips about bean-counters.

Tip: Have you got examples in your work history where you've built a good relationship with the Finance team? Perhaps there are examples where you asked for their help or asked a member of the team to teach you about how their department operates? These will all score you brownie points.

Do you get a good ROI on spend?

Finance keeps the business going by ensuring that senior personnel make smart investments. Sadly many department heads see ROI measurement as an annoyance, particularly when they are investing in activities which produce a result which is difficult to quantify. As an example calculating the ROI on coaching or brand-building activities is notoriously difficult to do.  What the FD is looking for is someone who can tell the difference between a good investment and a poor investment. You could be forgiven for a poor investment once if you learned your lesson, but if it's followed by a string of poor investments, you're just throwing good money after bad.

Tip: Go back through your figures and look at situations where you have invested money in activities. Work out how much the activity cost the organisation (remember to include time costs as well as things you paid for) and what the impact was in a way that can be measured.

For example if you invested £5,000 in a coaching programme for someone and their time management improved, work out how much the improved efficiencies saved the company. If they saved 3 hours a week, how much was it costing the company to pay for their unproductive time? If they were able to use that time to work on a new project or to just take time out and make better decisions, what was the impact of that? If their calmer demeanour halted staff turnover, how much did the company save in recruitment fees? When presenting the ROI make sure you calculate it correctly – a miscalculation can be embarrassing and damaging to how the FD sees you.

How numerate are you?

Linked to the above question on ROI, the FD needs to know that you can read financial statements and interpret the management accounts. At a basic level, the FD is asking themselves -can this person add up?

Tip: Memorise the numbers. Look at the management accounts in your current company and be able to talk about key performance indicators.

The interview with the FD is a little different from meeting with other senior decision makers, but with preparation it is possible for someone with a non-Finance background to perform well. 

Finally, it's worth noting that the FD is often the CEO's right hand person, so impress them and the report to the CEO is going to be good. Once you're in the role, closely align yourself with Finance and you'll go far.