How many times have you heard someone say “You ask too many questions?” As a mother of four children, some days I feel as though my entire day is nothing but answering questions, and while I am thinking that very phrase, I would never say it. As an adult, I have always been very inquisitive – wanting to dig deeper and know more. It is how I understand whatever it might be that I am observing.
Two weeks ago while holding a conference call with a client, she expressed to me that she was “very grateful for my questions.” What a perspective for me! Because of my straightforward personality, I often find myself just shooting off questions left and right to gain an immediate understanding and apologizing later. That seems to be what I have done with her repeatedly, as I feel I have much to learn in a very short time regarding some of the specifics of her business.
In this particular instance, and like many before her, she was never placed in the position to “need to know” the information I was requesting, and did not see the relevance of my thought process. As our relationship has evolved, and she sees the contribution that I am able to make to her organization, she is very appreciative of my perspective and never ending questions.
Acting as her CFO and studying her business, financial, and operational data from a new and unique perspective has allowed me to expose to her what she never knew. What are some of the questions that are forcing her to take a different look at her business?
- Which of your greatest expenses provides the least amount of return?
For example, if you are a distributor, your greatest expense is the product you are distributing, and second greatest is likely wages. After that, is it advertising? Are you able to measure the returns on that expense to see if the efforts should be redirected?
- What are your goals for growth?
If you are a not-for-profit, you need to identify specific sources of revenue and develop a plan to pursue them whether it is contract funding or fundraising events. If you don’t have a plan, it will not happen.
- What services should you no longer pursue and why?
This is a tough question for most executives. It is usually difficult to answer because they don’t have the information ready and available that is need to make the decision. There are places the company should “stay”- for instance, a product line that might be breaking even on the net income side, however, it is the “icon” of the brand and all orders include this product, so it needs to remain. Diving deeper will help you to understand how to maximize the benefit of that product that must remain. For a not for profit, it’s assessing the social impact of your program against its cost.
- What was THIS cost for?
You would be amazed at how many times NO ONE knows the answer to that question. If the numbers are small, and especially when they are big, there is no comprehensive oversight. How can you possibly cut costs or track spending when you don’t know where the money is going?
- Are you constantly given little information and expected to make big decisions?
Most business owners and directors will tell you they have the necessary information to make big decisions, but when you spend the time to go over their existing meager reports with them you will find that they know very little about what they are receiving, and more importantly, they don’t know what to do with it. I ask questions that are specific to what they are trying to monitor daily. What plans do they have to grow or change? What is going on with the industry or technology that might significantly impact the future of the organization? These are thoughts that the management team is having, but not putting together collectively to inspire strategy for the organization.
CFOs should not to be left on the boundary of an organization simply to report on “bottom-line beliefs.” CFO’s should dive deeper. They should break the foundation. They should ask questions: Strange questions; Simple questions; Robust questions; Thought provoking, difficult questions. This will enable them to be an effective strategic partner, and show you what you have not seen before.