The CFO Playbook

How to lay the groundwork for growth as a first-time CFO

8 February 2022  |   7 minutes read

Ross Tennenbaum is CFO at Avalara, a SaaS company building cloud-based tax compliance solutions. After a career spent advising tech companies as an investment banker, he’s now applying what he learnt to his first in-house CFO position.

‘You jump into a CFO role and you don’t have someone above you to ask: “All right, what do I do next?” You gotta go figure it out.’

His top priorities? Understanding the business and its strategic opportunities, investing in technology, and building an engaged finance team.

He joined us on the latest episode of The CFO Playbook podcast, where he shared his advice for other first-time finance leaders.

1. You don’t need to make changes right out of the gate

New CFOs can be eager to make their mark, but patience often pays off in the long run.

When Ross made the jump from investment banker to CFO at Avalara in 2020, he didn’t come in and make bold moves just to make a statement. Instead, he was deliberate in taking adequate time to understand the business and its needs.

‘The transition was really thoughtful in the way they did it. I felt I had a lot of support…I was pretty slow out of the gate in making changes. I’d say most of the time was spent on building up FP& A, and financial operations.’

Invest time upfront in making sure the foundation is strong before building upon it.

2. Ask the right questions

Understanding the business is key to your success as a new CFO.

Ross brought a strategy-focused mindset from his career in banking to his role at Avalara:

‘The number one thing to me is to really understand the business, how it works, what are the drivers, what are the levers, so that you can really be in a position to help optimise it and drive it and grow it, and not just be the person that’s handling the purse strings.’

Strategic planning helps finance play an integral role in driving the business forward.

3. Create a clear career path for talent

Everyone in your department and across the company should be crystal clear on where the company is headed and how they’ll play a part in getting it there.

While Avalara benefits from being able to tap into an international talent pool, Ross stresses the need to be competitive in this job market:

‘Empathetic culture and career paths are really important. How do we create the vacuum where you can actually pull people up and people can see: “Hey, things are moving. I can put my hand up. I can get a career path going. I don’t have to go look outside the company”.’

Be intentional not only in attracting great people, give them reasons to stay for the long term.

4. Stock the finance team with tech experts

If you want to scale, you need technology to support rapid growth. And the finance department is no exception.

Ross is hiring finance team members who have experience in implementing automation.

‘I think that is money really, really well spent because they will start to automate routine functions and make you more optimised, make you better, make you faster and also free up your people to do other things.’

Take the right steps today for long-term success

Transitioning to your first CFO role can be daunting, but keeping the above advice in mind can help you build a solid foundation for growth – for your business, your career, and your team.

Long-term success as a finance leader depends on understanding core business needs, delivering strategic value, building a high-performance team, and investing in the right technology as the finance function continues to evolve.

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