Interview Preparation – Head of Finance
Preparing to interview for a ‘Number 1 in finance’ position within an SME.
Meeting the owners of the business is crunch time when it comes to trying to secure the primary finance role (FC / Head of Finance / FD) within any SME. There are some basic areas to consider when preparing for the interview. I have not made reference to understanding their business / their markets / their competitors because it goes without saying that you should do all you can to get under the skin of those areas prior to the meeting.
The points below are more overarching and are areas of consideration to describe your own expertise and capability in the interview:
1. Can they trust you? SME business owners may feel apprehensive about giving you full access to their business bank accounts and their personal financial situation. They will likely hope you will become a financial sounding board to them, their business interests and their investments… Be understanding of this – use evidence to help them develop that trust – references being the easiest starting point. Be careful to anonomise any data / reports you take with you and without being guarded be mindful of the level of detail you disclose about your previous business owner.
It may sound like common sense but it can be a simple pitfall to begin to overly divulge and, however interested the interviewer may be, it can often lead to nervousness on reflection if you have shared anything that could be seen to be unnecessarily sensitive information about a previous employer.
2. How do you deal with change? This is a biggie and can be the making or breaking of the interview in my experience. Business owners will have dealt with lots of challenging, interesting, exciting and unnerving change on their personal journeys. Changing economies, competitors, market landscapes. Changes in their customers, products and services, the size and structure of their business, their employees, etc. etc. etc. They want to be surrounded by like-minded people who will act in a measured, calm and solution-focused manner when change is afoot. If I can give any advice to any finance professional when preparing for any interview it would be capture as many examples as possible of how you have reacted to change.
Change in business ownership, change of systems, change in your line manager, change to business strategy, change in market conditions and trading (up or down), changes to cash in the bank, etc. etc…. Gathering and understanding when and how you have adapted will provide you with buckets of key achievements that you may have overlooked or trivialised. All of your examples should focus on demonstrating that you are someone who will strive to be part of a solution amid change (whatever shape, size or form it takes).
3. Will you get your hands dirty? Again rightly or wrongly most business owners want to be confident that when push comes to shove you will be comfortable digging down into the nitty gritty…. From covering payroll in the summer break to potentially posting journals where required. Taking the stance of ‘you’re not paying me to do that’ although valid in part is often very badly received. Again reassure business owners that this is fine with you (provided it is!).
4. Can you help control / reduce cost? The more tangible and more significant the better. This should be your bread and butter interview answer and you should ideally have 3 or 4 examples of circumstances when you have identified and proactively stripped out unnecessary cost. Again it is common sense but be sure to make it clear that cost reduction you helped influence did not have an adverse effect on trading!
5. Can you help drive profit (not simply though reducing spend)? – for example providing financial reporting to help guide sales teams, delivering competitor analysis to help channel into new revenue streams… Modern-thinking entrepreneurs and business leaders want to work with proactive accountants who will suggest and help take advantage of opportunity rather than having a narrower role of reporting on the numbers, mitigating risk and stripping out spend. Business partnering with commercial teams should be a focus here.
6. Can you deal with new systems? Most SME owners will be mindful that their technology infrastructure will either need a refresh soon or will need to keep pace with he changing environment and their own growth. Ideally you will have had previous experience of a system migration / install or refresh / upgrade. Be very specific and detailed around your involvement to give that level of confidence that you can do it. If you have never had that level of exposure then giving a clear summary of all of the different systems you have used, how swiftly you picked them up will be a step in the right direction.
7. What will you be doing when the owners are away for 2 weeks in summer? This may sound vague and odd but if you can provide the directors with peace of mind that when they are out of the business for whatever reason you will be someone steering the ship then it is a huge advantage. Again if this is something you have done previously then well worth crowbarring it into the conversation. Be mindful that this is not about stepping on the toes of the GM / MD if there is one but is more about providing another level of security as part of the (often lean) senior leadership team.
8. M&A Exposure…. ? This can be tricky because ultimately you will either have been involved in acquisition or merger (full or partial) or you won’t. Give thought to the process, where did your experience and exposure start and finish (did you do front end due diligence or perhaps you became involved at the point of integration of a new entity?). Maybe you weren’t involved in a purchase but were involved in consolidated accounting for a number of businesses owned by the same directors… how did you cope, what stance did you take to understand the new business etc. Be clear on what you have and haven’t had experience of in this area.
Very best of luck! – If you have recruitment needs in finance I would welcome the chance to speak.
John.firstname.lastname@example.org / 01246 541 927