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Episode Summary

Catherine Birkett’s career as a CFO started in 2004, when she was promoted into the position at the telecommunications company Interoute. Looking back, she thinks she advanced to the C-suite too quickly, and she sometimes had to struggle to keep her head above water while addressing the large challenges the company was facing. 

Instead of quitting, though, Catherine pushed forward, and now attributes her success as a CFO to overcoming those challenges. She sees past mistakes and hardships as ultimately putting her on a path to industry growth. 

After becoming intimately familiar with her own strengths and weaknesses, Catherine now feels comfortable leading a team through tough spots and helping other people grow. 

At GoCardless —  where she has worked as the CFO since January 2019 — she took the reins during the COVID-19 pandemic and kept the business-to-business banking service on a financial growth trajectory as its scope expanded. 

Through her passion for the work she does as a CFO and her appreciation for GoCardless’ goals, Catherine is an example of someone who has used everything at her disposal to become a great finance leader.

In this episode of The CFO Playbook, Catherine details how she grew from tough experiences early in her CFO career, how she maintained control of GoCardless’ financial growth during a global pandemic, and how she thinks about balancing risk with flexibility.

Guest Analysis

Name: Catherine Birkett

What she does: Catherine is the CFO at GoCardless, a recurring payments platform that processes more than $20 billion in transactions a year.

Key Quote: “The CFO role needs to be about the strategic vision that is actually quite different from being a strong technical accounting expert. You are the one that is supporting the CEO … You are the person who’s helping to drive the business to be successful.”     

Where to find Catherine: LinkedIn | Twitter 

From Catherine’s Playbook

Think big-picture when managing growth strategy and risk assessment.

As a CFO, Catherine believes that her job is to help the CEO make the right financial decisions that will help a company meet its ultimate goals. To do that, you have to analyze the degree and rate at which your company needs to grow. This has been especially pertinent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which decimated many industries, forcing layoffs and stalling growth. When the pandemic hit, Catherine asked the team at GoCardless to take a paycut instead of laying people off. It was a risk, but it paid off in maintaining a growth trajectory in the long-run.

Find the middle ground between flexibility and keeping your eye on the goal.

When looking at the long-term strategy for your business, it’s important to have a strong vision for what your company is doing — and not move the benchmark constantly. But there does have to be some room for change. Catherine says that it’s easy to get caught up in chasing certain goals that aren’t working. She says it’s important to be flexible enough to change up your strategy when need be, while still keeping yourself on a path towards major goals.

Getting through the tough times will help you grow. 

Catherine has gone through a lot during her time as a CFO: In her view, she was promoted to the position too early in her career and didn’t have the team to support her at first. But the trial by fire in the early years in her career has made her the CFO she is today, and she has been especially cognizant of that during the pandemic. Since she led a company through the financial crisis in 2008, she was able to add that experience to her toolbox and had a better idea of what to do when COVID-19 shut the world down in 2020.

A team that’s balanced — in all respects — is a healthy and productive team.

As a woman who has worked as a leader in finance for more than 20 years, Catherine has watched as financial teams across the industry have added more women and become more racially diverse, and she says that the industry is all the better for it. Getting a wide range of opinions on strategy is the best way to maintain relevance and keep innovating. And diversity extends to skills and experience, too — not everyone on a team should come from the same background! It’s far more helpful to have a team of people who balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. For her part, Catherine says that she isn’t the best at managing small details — she’s better when looking at big picture financial strategy — so she is grateful for her team members that can help balance her out in that department.

Episode Highlights

The role of the CFO is not to be just an accounting expert

“I feel that the CFO role needs to be about the strategic vision that is actually quite different from being a strong technical accounting expert. You are the one that is supporting the CEO and enabling them to make the decisions they need to make, and also to be the sounding board, because you’re not so operational and you are able to take a step back and become an advisor to the CEO. You are the person who’s helping to drive the business to be successful.”

A solid team can pull you out of the deep end

“The level of experience I had [when starting as a CFO] was frankly not enough, if I’m being honest about it. And the one thing I’d say to anybody being thrown into that level of the deep end is to make sure you have a team in place from day 1. I always say that 75 or 80% of what I’ve achieved is because I’ve been able to build an amazing team behind me. I would not have had the success without this team.”

Moving beyond doubt

“It took me a long time to feel completely confident in myself that I was actually a very capable CFO. But I’ve always had drive, this thing that pushed me onto something else, and that ultimately is what kept me going. Although I had moments where I doubted myself, I think I also knew that I was probably pretty good at lots of things that matter as a CFO.”

Learning from the toughest times

“I really do feel for people that become CFOs or financial directors at the start of the pandemic without experience. One reason why I was able to keep it very level headed throughout all of this was because I have lived through a crisis before. I lived through the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 when we were not sure how that was all going to pan out. So the fact that I had managed through some of these things made it so that I wasn’t panicking.” 

Getting your team on the same page

​​“GoCardless is very open about its financial information to employees. We trust them enough to share this information with them, and therefore we expect them to treat it with the sensitivity that it requires. This means that people can see how things are going, and it helps them to make decisions a lot better.”

Diverse opinions = business success 

“There is still not enough diversity on the vast majority of management teams, but compared to where we were 10 or 20 years ago, it’s a huge change. I’m very sure that businesses are way more successful today because they have a different breadth of thinking across the place. I feel very strongly that it’s good to have different opinions because challenging each other is how you get to better decisions.” 

Passion is paramount

“You’ve got to love what you’re doing, because [being a CFO] is hard, frustrating work sometimes that can get tense. And you need to make sure you fit in your environment and that the products of your business are something you believe in, too. I think our product at GoCardless is phenomenal and what we are trying to do to help businesses makes an awful lot of sense. Having that belief in what your overall business is trying to achieve is massively important.” 

Top quotes:

“Don’t be scared of taking on new opportunities. You cannot come into a CFO role of a senior finance role thinking, ‘I don’t want any risk here. I’m too scared to do that.’ You’ve got to be able to make some leaps of faith and have the confidence to do that.” 

“Nobody is in my mold and I think that’s super important. There’d be no point in hiring somebody who’s like me, because I’m me and I do what I do.” 

“I think having a clear vision of what you’re trying to get to, and probably not changing that very often, is very important. But you also can’t be afraid to change the decisions you make now in order to get to that point.” 

“I think anybody who works in fast-growth environments has got to embrace change. I mean, you cannot be successful if you want a steady life.”