Listen to Your Cassandras


As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q2 2017 Issue

-By Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP, The Growth Strategist

Get early warning of strategic inflection points

A company recently brought in my consultancy because the long-awaited risk management analysis was suddenly needed — right now! Media coverage about the spontaneous combustion of the lithium batteries inside Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 smartphones woke that client up. (If your product line involved fancy lithium batteries, you would want to speed up your risk analysis, too.)

Of course, we were pleased to help them pick up speed to make informed strategic decisions more quickly. But frankly, nine times out of 10, when executives feel blindsided and urgently need outside help, one of the underlying causes is that those businesses lack real CFOs, or their CFOs are too buried in the generation of reports or in analyzing the past. And the result is that the company doesn’t get early warnings of the need for a major directional shift ahead.

It seems to me that strategic inflection points no longer slowly sneak up on companies. Rapidly advancing technology, generational differences, the shrinking middle class, populism, and cyber attacks, among other factors, are pushing our clients to change.

A business is much more likely to achieve profitable accelerated growth when its CFO is expected to look and listen for symptoms of change, hints about new opportunity, warning signs of lost competitive advantage, etc. Much of the data first appears in the form of returns, product questions, or whining salespeople. And no, this reconnaissance is not just the purview of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). A CFO’s education and training bring different questions and increase the objectivity of analysis.

Change Your Company’s Fate

It was Intel’s late Chairman and CEO Andrew Grove who described the people on the outer fringes of a business as Cassandras (a nod to the priestess who warned ancient Troy about an upcoming attack).

The Cassandras in your organization know about programs or products veering off-track — correctible things — but if you are staring at financial reports all day, the Cassandras may not bring early-warning signs to you.

As a CFO, are you available to learn from middle managers about what does and doesn’t seem to be working the way it was expected to work? Is there any time in your schedule to interact with customers or suppliers? If you were Samsung’s CFO, would you have picked up on some of the early-warning signs conveyed by Samsung’s Cassandras?

Expertise Has Value


As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q2 2017 Issue

-By John Moskonas, President, The ARGroup of Search Companies

Building an internal industry reputation helps in a job change

Sometimes we get two competing offers: one from an industry in which we have expertise; and another from a new industry in which, rather than experience, we have a transferable skill. The question becomes, should I take the offer from a new industry or do I take the one from the industry I know?

There are benefits to both, but I often walk someone through the thought process regarding accepting an offer from another industry.

Generalist or Specialist

I once wrote about positioning yourself as a generalist versus a specialist when looking for a job. Specialists know what they are good at doing and look to uncover those situations where they can apply what they know to a role. A specialist has a general reputation for getting a job done. A specialist also usually has an internal industry reputation.

The conclusion: It’s better to position yourself as a specialist when looking for a job because you’ll set yourself apart from the competitive landscape and you’ll hear about more opportunities than you would if you were positioning yourself as a generalist who could do any job.

And this focus on being a specialist applies not only to a functional skill set but also to an industry. An internal industry reputation is the sum of accomplishments and relationships/ touch points you have with all the players in that industry. You are usually active in that industry, you are usually well networked with your peers, and you have positioned yourself as a subject matter expert (SME) in your field. You don’t just have a job; you have a strong internal industry reputation.

This industry focus gives you a powerful foundation from which you’ll hear about relevant roles, from which you can be impactful in a company, and from which your speed of accomplishments isn’t held up by any learning curve.

Is it possible to build an internal industry reputation in another industry in a reasonable amount of time? Yes, of course, but at the end of the day, assuming your industry isn’t going downhill quickly, the expertise you’ve derived from going deep into an industry and that you bring to the table gives you an invaluable perspective that others don’t have. It sets you apart, it positions you as an SME.

Sometimes, of course, we don’t have the luxury of two competing offers and the situation dictates the decision. So, where we have an offer from a different industry, we take it. Taking an offer from a different industry, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing because you can minimize your risk down the road by having a new industry under your belt.

Bottom line: Going deep into an industry is a smart way to go.

A Career CFO


As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q2 2017 Issue



The accepted wisdom is that CFOs tend to stay in one industry and build their success within that industry’s bounds, but Alison Cornell, who has navigated a career through telecom, health care, and specialty chemicals/consumer products, believes that “there is value created by moving between industries, not only for the CFO role that we perform, but also in developing a broad-based perspective that will be valuable in future Board of Directors participation.”

Ms. Cornell was the guest of honor at a recent CFO Studio Reception at the Governor Morris Hotel in Morristown, NJ. Andrew Zezas, publisher of CFO Studio magazine, introduced her to the assembled CFOs, noting that Cornell has shaped a nearly 30-year career in key global leadership roles in three different industries. She was profiled in the Q1 2017 cover story.

“We each set our own path,” Ms. Cornell began. “Some see limitless possibilities, others see limited possibilities… I’m in the limitless possibilities camp, believing that our financial skill set is fungible.” And so, she described five ingredients of a “winning formula” for a career path through successive industries, creating “a track record of consistently growing businesses, achieving sustainable results, attracting and developing talent, and taking businesses to new heights.”

The ingredients are: Be open to change; learn the business soup to nuts; make a difference while you’re there; be a positive and motivating force; and have the best team on the field. With regard to that last point, she said that when she arrived at Covance, a drug-development services organization where she worked from 2004–2015, she “changed about 75 percent of my direct- report team and built an awesome team that helped drive the business turnaround, sustainable growth, and the returns that we achieved.”

“Don’t pigeonhole yourself,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to fail.” (She’s not.) “Know what you’re passionate about.” (She does.) “And go there.” (She will.)

Copyright 2017