Bo started his career in corporate finance back in 1974 and held a lot of different CFO level positions in German and US based multinationals and came to Ericsson in 1995 and among the different finance positions also being the CFO of Ericsson Telecom AB, a $2.5 billion a year division…in 1995 nominal value! He is currently the interim CFO for Dirac Research AB.
Nicolas: Hi Bo, and thanks a lot for agreeing to take this interview from your boat! Let’s get started and talk about CFO level interviews. What happens when you interview for CFO jobs, do you have to answer technical questions?
Bo: Technical questions are a small part of the interview but it happens yes. It’s not technical questions you get asked at the junior level though. For instance I managed the global set up of the structure of the financial model in the IT system for Ericsson worldwide. I was not working on the system directly of course but I knew about the accounting principles behind it and what affected the system. So in an interview, I could test people on this and dig deeper into the value they could bring to the project. The most important thing you get tested on during CFO interviews is “If I pull a string here, what happens there?”. You have to be able to predict the consequences of your decisions three months or even three years down the line!
Nicolas: I am relieved to see no one is asking potential CFOs about depreciation or accounts receivables! I understand this concept of having to know about the consequences of your actions but as a CFO couldn’t you have someone in your team who’s a very technical person, someone who can advise you about pulling the wrong string.
Bo: Knowing the consequences are one part of the job and yes someone could advise you on this. But then you also need to recruit people and those people need to have an understanding of technical accounting and IT concepts because they are going to hire people who will actually work on technical subjects. Of course you could be advised on your recruiting as well but then you start to get pretty useless! As a manager a key competence is to be able to test that the people that work with you understand what they are doing.
Nicolas: That makes sense, being a leader means you are not just managing experts but you also have a good grasp of what they work on. What kind of profiles do major companies look for when recruiting a CFO?
Bo: Recruiting a CFO is not like recruiting a junior analyst. You can’t just put out an ad and wait for the resumes to come in because you’d just get the bottom of the pile. You have to actively look for a candidate. So if you want recruiters banging at your door with CFO jobs, you need to have a strong personal brand, because with a strong brand people think of you when they have to hire. For instance, through my entire career I worked for Swedish companies or subsidiaries of multinationals in Sweden and I experienced a lot of industries and business models. So if a Swedish company were looking for a CFO in an innovative field they would think of me because I had expertise in Sweden as well as adaptability.
Nicolas: Ok so personal brand is one thing and then what kind of skills are they looking for to get the job done?
Bo: There are a lot of skills you need to have depending on the type of CFO the company of looking for. It can be managing a complex P&L, managing a big team, managing IT projects, and being able to layoff 50% of the division. The most important thing though is that you can’t take a wild bet when recruiting a CFO. You can’t take a good manager and appoint him for a CFO job because he might crash and burn and the consequences for the division are huge. So when CEOs are looking for CFOs, they list all the skills required and then only interview candidates if they’ve been successful in the past with the majority of the skills before. So to become a CFO you need proven success and a strong personal brand.
Nicolas: Yes, it’s hard to make a bet when you are paying $200k in headhunters fees! Can you tell me about your strategy when recruiting your direct reports?
Bo: When you spend a long time in a company as a CFO you get to know a lot of people. With some of them you’ll get along great because they are just like you. I tried to avoid recruiting those people because I wanted to surround myself with a team who were complementary of my skills and not just mirrors! Then when you have three of four guys who can support you and compensate for your weaknesses you need to fill the rest of your team with people who can work great with them.
Nicolas: Ok so you tried to get people who are not like you. But is there a personality trait that you have and that you were looking for in people as well?
Bo: Yes there’s one. I love learning. I mean I’m 67 and I had some pretty good jobs but I still try to learn as much as possible everyday. I read a lot, speak with people outside of finance to educate myself on logistics, operations, IT etc. Back when I was recruiting people for my team I was looking for this “eagerness to learn” trait.
Nicolas: That’s a tricky skill to unveil during an interview. Any techniques you would like to share on how to find people who are lifelong learners?
Bo: The key thing is to have three or four of your direct reports interview the candidate as well and then sit down with them after the interview and go through your impressions. Something else you can do is ask the candidate how they organize their work week. Try during the interview to see where they light up and start to talk by themselves. And,if they don’t mention anything about learning or growing they probably don’t have it!
Born in China, Flore holds a MSc from…
After six years with Credit Suisse as an Investment…
After completing his MBA at Harvard Business School…
June 18, 2015