When you’re facing a challenge in the finance function, an interim CFO can bring the skills, experience and stability the business might be lacking. Get ready to raise your expectations of what these exceptional talents can deliver.

Hiring an interim CFO can be a smart move to support an organization’s financial stability. During times of transition or uncertainty, an interim CFO can provide valuable skills and expertise to steer a company in the right direction. Often overqualified for the role, temporary CFOs can quickly step in to help businesses through challenging periods, steadying the ship until a permanent replacement can be found.

But that's not the full story.

In this article, we'll explore how businesses can make the most of an interim CFO. Rather than thinking of interim CFO services as just a 'safe pair of hands' to keep the ship afloat, we’ll explain how you can extract maximum value from your interim investment. After all, these financial experts are exceptional talents with huge amounts of experience—so why not have the highest possible expectations of what they can deliver? Interim CFOs can certainly handle that level of pressure.

Outcome-driven hiring

At Korn Ferry, when we work with a client to scope out an interim CFO assignment, we encourage them to think in terms of outcomes —and we want them to aim high. Kirstin Chambers, a Managing Consultant for Executive Interim in EMEA, told us about some of the questions she’s looking to answer. “I’m looking at the big picture—at where we want to be at the end of the assignment,” says Chambers. “So I ask my clients what they want the interim CFO to actually achieve for them. Which skills does the interim need to bring to the table that are currently missing in the finance function? And are there any specific challenges or projects that the interim can take on? When I’m asking these questions, I’m shaping a profile of the kind of interim CFO services that each client needs, and getting a strong understanding of the skills, traits and capabilities that the interim will need to succeed.”

Many leaders don’t necessarily think in terms of skills at this C-suite level, but we’ve found that interim hiring provides a unique opportunity to do so. A business can bring in the high-level skills it needs to achieve the outcomes it’s aiming for within a short timeframe. For example, it could be heading for an IPO and needs someone with prior experience of taking a company public to help guide it through the process. Or it could be working to integrate separate finance functions following a merger and needs a CFO with technical skills who knows what it takes to get different systems working together.

When interim CFO services pay dividends

While every client’s needs are unique, there are some common scenarios when hiring an interim or temporary CFO is the smart move:

A gap for in-demand skills

An organization can quickly bridge a finance skills gap by bringing in best-in-class talent in the form of an interim, someone with valuable skills the organization is currently lacking. For example, if a company is facing a new challenge or a complex situation, such as an IPO or a merger, its incumbent CFO may not have the necessary expertise to handle it.

That's where a highly qualified interim CFO can be an invaluable addition to the finance team. They can step in and work alongside the existing CFO to relieve some of the workload, helping guide the business to a successful outcome. The interim will have experienced the same situation in previous roles and will arrive already possessing the skills to handle it.

As a secondary benefit, an interim CFO will share their expertise and knowledge, acting almost like a mentor to the wider finance team, helping develop the team’s skills and experience, and shrinking that skills gap.

Transformation or restructuring

Today's finance function is increasingly complex, facing the multiple and evolving complications posed by challenges like shared service centers, ERP systems upgrades and rollouts, the constant need for data, and the emergence of AI. Bringing in a temporary CFO who has valuable skills and experience in whatever technical challenge a company is facing can help turn things around quickly. Interims provide a fresh perspective and strategic guidance that can help restructure a finance team for long-term success.

Interims CFOs have a wealth of experience implementing best practices, identifying inefficiencies and reducing costs. At the executive level these are some of the most in-demand skills, because they can build a finance department that is more efficient, streamlined and agile. With an interim CFO, organizations can fix whatever issues are currently at the top of their list, while also introducing a catalyst for meaningful change.

A CFO is not performing or has already left

This is the most common reason to hire an interim CFO since there are significant risks to leaving the post vacant. But that doesn't mean that an interim is just there to keep the seat warm until a permanent CFO comes in. Interims can achieve a lot in a short space of time, which can include improving the performance of the function and ‘putting their arms’ around a team who may have been through a lot of change.

To cite one of our clients as an example, their previous CFO had been exited from the business due to the department’s performance and internal cultural issues. Our interim was initially brought in to cover the function, tasked by the client with 'looking at the numbers'. But within days of having looked at those numbers, the interim jumped into action, raising the emergency financing needed to recapitalize the company. It was a completely unforeseen situation for both the client and the interim, but the interim had necessary skills and the professional agility to get it resolved quickly and efficiently.

Their next task was to rebuild morale in the finance team. This was vital to retain talent within the team who had been working in a challenging environment which culminated in the loss of their leader. Interims tend to be experienced leaders, able to be the North Star and provide not only direction, but mentorship for permanent talent. The finance team was sorry to see the interim go, but with a handover to the new permanent CFO after six months, the mission was complete.

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Setting your new permanent CFO up for success

As well as providing an almost instant injection of capability and skills into the organization, interim CFOs can be tasked with clearing the decks and taking on those lingering 'top shelf' projects. Chambers explains, “No incoming permanent CFO wants to arrive and start dealing with a messy situation. An interim can come in and sort things out, which has the additional benefit of making the post more attractive to candidates, so recruitment becomes much easier.”

An interim is also in a great position to advise the business on who they should be recruiting for the permanent role, since they’ll have hands-on experience within that role. Bringing in an interim ensures the incoming permanent CFO inherits a clean slate and a happy team— an ideal starting point for moving the business forward.

What makes a great interim CFO?

Temporary CFOs bring years of experience and expertise, making them qualified for the challenges an assignment may throw their way. Interim CFOs are highly flexible and mobile, ready to work at any time.

These are exceptional people with an impressive track record and some of the most in-demand skills in finance. They are apolitical, which makes them useful in situations where the board or CEO needs someone who can give it to them straight from an external perspective. Unsurprisingly, they're great with people, aiming to win over their stakeholders within days of arrival. They embrace change and bring positive disruption to their assignments, so businesses should prepare to have their old assumptions challenged.

Tracking down the right interim CFO

Those common traits aside, different interim CFOs can deliver different things. That's why at Korn Ferry we place so much emphasis on assessing the assignment before we begin the search. When we work with clients, we'll look at their business and its challenges in granular detail. That means we can get highly specific about the interim we're looking for and the outcomes we want them to deliver.

For example, we were working with a growing technology platform, which needed an interim to fill the gap while it looked for a permanent finance director. Working with the client’s leadership team, we quickly defined the interim CFO profile we were looking for and built an extremely detailed list of requirements. That list included: experience working on a large technology platform; an international profile that included sub-Saharan Africa, where the company was growing fastest; experience raising multiple finance rounds; experience improving ERP systems; experience working with very young founders; and availability for the next six months.

For Korn Ferry's interim team, defining and then finding that individual is what we do. In the example cited above, there were probably three people on the planet that fit the bill for the open role. Thankfully, our global reach is unparalleled. The breadth of our talent network means we're connected to thousands of high-level candidates, and the depth of our expertise ensures we can quickly drill down to find the ideal fit for each interim CFO assignment. If we don’t already know an interim CFO that fits the brief, we’ll certainly know someone who does.

When your organization needs its own financial expert— an interim CFO who can deliver big outcomes and resolve the challenges you’re facing—Korn Ferry can help. Contact our Interim team to find out exactly how an interim CFO can help your finance team succeed in today’s challenging business environment.