People & Leadership

Finance Futurists: Tom Coward on the real difference between a good and great CFO

The CFO of Cytora talks about why it’s important to engage teams with the company's long-term vision and reveals what makes a great CFO.

The Finance Futurists are an elite group of leaders who embrace constant evolution as a necessity in the ever-changing world of finance.

More than number-crunchers, these leaders represent a new era for finance – one defined by a shift from pure analytical expertise to emotional intelligence and strong communication skills as well.

I caught up with Tom Coward, the CFO of Cytora and one of this year’s futurists, to get his view on what the future will look like, why it’s important to engage teams with the long-term vision, and what makes the difference between a good CFO and a truly great one.

You’re known as the ‘Informed Communicator’, as likely to be talking about the vision as about the numbers. Tell me a bit about how you got started in finance and how that shaped your view?

I first applied to Deloitte at the age of about 16, thinking they were a bank. I knew nothing, but that was the start of my journey, working with them on an internship programme through uni.

It was a fantastic opportunity to learn what businesses of all sizes, shapes, and industries do, but I knew I wanted to build something myself.

So, after a few years I left the world of the massive conglomerate to join Yieldify, a marketing tech start-up.

What were your main takeaways from that experience?

It was an amazing opportunity to learn.

My remit spanned finance, legal and recruitment. Sometimes they get seen as support functions, but in reality, they drive the business.

For example, as CFO you are responsible for culture, and if the culture isn’t right it quickly has an effect on the customers.

I think that when you’re looking at fast-scaling of a high-growth business, it’s tempting to think you have to get everything perfect. But sometimes you just have to move really quickly, and it’s more important to get it done than get it perfect.

There’s one big exception to that, though, which is when you’re hiring. It’s crucial to get the people right. Hiring and onboarding new staff is expensive and getting the culture right from the start is vital.

We used agencies for senior hires and a small, in-house team for others. But actually, the best and most engaged people – the best mindset ‘fit’ – often come from referrals.

They’re pre-vetted, really, and already engaged with the culture. It also saves you a fortune in agency recruitment costs.

So, getting the people right is one, what’s next?

A customer focus, making sure your offer is really ‘sticky’.

What do you mean by sticky?

Looking back, we got a bit lost in the middle ground of our market, caught between the top-end providers and the cheap ‘do most of it yourself’ options.

Our customers would be on board with us for maybe six to 12 months, but then it was too easy for them to switch – either trading up, or down.

You need to make sure what you’re offering is really sticky, so that your customer base is going to stick around.

You’ve talked before about the power of storytelling. We don’t always link finance with storytelling. Are we talking about vision, mission and purpose here? As CFO, how do you see your role in sharing company vision with your current and future teams?

We’re really talking about culture again. Getting your company culture deeply embedded is one of the hardest things to get right, but as CFO it’s absolutely part of the role.

It’s one of the most valuable things you can do, and if you can get it right then wonderful things can happen, with things like cross-team collaboration.

I’ve found three different ways of doing it that work.

First, constant and consistent reiteration, linking everything you do to that vision. Why are we opening in a new geography, for example?

Because it supports our vision of widening our market opportunity. The better you’re able to link tasks to the vision, the more people are going to understand the impact of what they’re doing, and be more excited about it.

So, the next big part of that is backing it up with data.

You’re asking people to take far less of a leap of faith when sharing a narrative that the numbers support, and you’ll find you get far better challenges and recommendations, so it’s a win-win.

Thirdly, you’ve got to recognise that people take in information in different ways.

I prefer to talk things through, for example, and don’t engage with long-form documents. But some people do.

And if you have a dispersed team or a team where some people’s language isn’t English, having something visual, in writing, which people can refer back to, is really important.

With all that resting on your shoulders, how did you manage that fast-growth phase from a finance perspective?

I was doing it with no real experience, and I got so much wrong. But one valuable thing was the network that had built up – Start-up CFO for start-ups.

It’s a networked community of hundreds of people in these roles, so it was a great place to ask questions and share experience.

There’s a phrase being used a lot at the moment – impostor syndrome. Did you ever experience that?

Definitely. When people are turning to you for the answers and they have the expectation that you know everything.

It’s tempting to think that the worst thing you could say is: “I don’t know.” But it’s actually OK to say: “I’m going to find that out,” or “I’ll think about it and come back to you”.

Let’s talk about getting investment. What was that journey like?

I’ve had a range of experiences.

Some have been really simple, others were a mad journey; a rollercoaster where we thought we had it, then it fell away, and another investor came in at the last moment.

But we’ve always ended up with a successful raise.

What was the pivotal moment like for you when you exited that business?

I’d been there for three years, and learned a lot, but I’d got what I wanted from it, and was a bit burnt out.

I wanted to reflect, so I took six months out to travel and consider whether or not I wanted more of this.

What were the parts I loved, and what didn’t I enjoy so much?

When I returned from that, I wanted to find the right company. One of my most important criteria was that I wanted to work with founders whose values aligned with mine.

It had to be something I was interested in, a clever solution with big ambitions to change the world. I’m totally bought into the idea that tech is the answer to a lot of the world’s problems, so it had to be leading edge.

I also had personal objectives. Whatever I did next had to offer autonomy and purpose.

I wanted to always be improving myself and learning from great people around me. When there’s a good value match you know you’re going to be in a position to make a difference.

You joined Cytora in 2017. What are the biggest things you’ve learned so far?

When you join a company like that, especially as the first finance leader, a lot of your first two months is spent understanding where the company is at.

You spend a lot of time speaking to stakeholders about what they want and being that less ‘cool’ voice.

You’re constantly asking tough questions, like “what are the commercials?” and “what value are we going to create?”

As a finance leader, there’s a certain expectation of what you need to deliver. But you can’t do it without having a thorough understanding and collective overview of all the moving parts of the business.

It takes time.

You have to be the person who says: “I’m here to make a difference, to listen to you.”

I think the difference between being a good CFO and a great CFO is the ability to understand the culture and work with that; 30% is understanding the culture as it is now, and 70% is working out where it needs to go.

You have to really get to know the board and understand the way they work.

You need to know how the team executes the vision and challenge each other in a constructive way. I’d say that took me six to 12 months.

I also learned more about getting a handle on the marketing message. It’s different from where I was before, as we’re relating to a few, high-value customers, so it’s even more crucial to make sure the positioning is right.

And you’ve got to identify any future features that will give them the benefits they need. When you have fewer customers, you need to make sure they are truly getting value.

It probably took me two years to really get into that, then it all changed.

Did you come across any people I like to call ‘firestarters’? People who were passionate about the organisation and embedded in the culture who might help you?

Sure. In any company, people will know who those people are. They’re usually the ones who challenge everything, and who understand what motivates others.

They’re the people you need to keep.

Sometimes you also find great people who aren’t necessarily in the right role. That happens all the time in a small, growing company experiencing so much change.

Maybe what they’ve been working on for the last six months isn’t top priority anymore, so you need to recognise them, understand them, and move them to where they’re going to make and recognise an impact.

So, 12 months into the pandemic, what’s your role as a Finance Futurist for the next 12 months?

We were fortunate enough to raise £25m about eight months before the pandemic, so what we’ve done is make sure it’s going to last us.

The pandemic has affected so many, and we’re far from immune, but we’ve been able to make sure we have cash to sustain us.

We’ve made some hard decisions to make that happen, but it’s important that the business has the opportunity to capitalise on all the good work up until now.

We are not in the same world we were a year ago, and a big part of my role is to make sure every deal is win-win so we can look to the future as a company creating huge value for happy customers across the globe, with our fully engaged staff and enthusiastic team.

We know we are now always going to be a remote-first company, and will never have an office again, so we need a clear roadmap based on working remotely while having the finances to sustain that.

We need to properly understand how working remotely impacts our culture, protect our people, making sure they aren’t getting burnt out, and recognise their mental health and wellbeing needs.

Has that changed your culture?

Actually, there have been some wins around mindset.

Our people generally love the flexibility of remote working, how they are trusted work to their own schedule, and can work wherever they like.

Documentation has improved as things have to be more thoroughly documented when you’re working remotely. You can’t just have a conversation and expect it to get passed on.

We’ve definitely evolved into a flatter structure over the last six months or so, removing leadership team distance.

Now there’s more of a sense of everyone impacting change, not a leadership team sitting at the top dictating change.

Culture change is tough to track but we’re making positive progress. We have certainly had wins from that being the focus, including people more regularly presenting change initiatives to the leadership team.

People don’t feel everything is based on another decision from the leadership team, so they are more engaged.

As a Finance Futurist, what are the three most important things you would say to other CFOs to help them understand how they can be sustainable in the future?

Number one is about working remotely. One thing I’m doing is delivering webinars through the Start-up CFO network, evangelising remote work culture, how you can set it up, and hire remotely.

Then how to understand the cultural impacts and make sure you have an engaged, motivated team. I’d definitely say that when it comes to remote working, if you can, do.

Number two is about hiring. Managing growth, especially rapid growth, relies on having the right people in the right places, who share your values and totally buy-in to the culture.

Number three is about communication. To align everyone with the vision, they need to understand it, so you need to communicate it, reiterate it, and make sure everyone gets it.

And here’s a bonus point: sometimes it’s more important to get it done than to get it perfect.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in April 2021 and has been updated for relevance.

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