Building trust as a finance leader at a growing startup

Written By

Alicia Nuche

Graphic illustration of square knot, where two strings intertwine | Blog post about how finance leaders can build trust at their startup | Mercury
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Finance touches every part of a company. Every activity within an organization eventually makes an impact on the financials — from acquiring a customer to building a positive company culture. Financial professionals have a unique opportunity to see and understand the full scope of a company’s actions. By combining this knowledge with their financial expertise, they offer a valuable perspective that can enhance the quality of a company’s decisions.

For that reason, being an effective finance leader necessitates cross-functional collaboration. At a scaling startup — particularly one where finance is transitioned in-house for the first time — coming in as a finance lead could require you to change the culture. It might mean overhauling processes that were put in place before your time, building out new controls and systems that people will need to get on board with, or encouraging shifts in spend or investment to help improve the bottom line.

Change is inevitable — but to be someone who can come in and enact change, and keep maturing a startup’s financial operations over time, it’s vital to first establish trust. This means:

  1. building trust with your executive team by creating an understanding of how you will add business value, and
  2. earning trust from team leaders and employees across the organization by demonstrating that your goal is to work symbiotically with them, and empower their team while adhering to the proper financial guardrails.

As you think about how to build this trust — especially as a newer finance lead within a startup, and perhaps the first full-time finance lead at the organization — here are a few good places to start:

Build relationships and understand company-wide goals

As a finance leader, your job is to bridge the gap between a company’s financials and the actual decisions that are made on a daily basis. But to be able to provide the right financial context to inform business decisions, you also need to look at the financials through the context of the business. It’s a bit of an ebb and flow.

While everyone at a company is in theory working toward a common goal, each team still has a set of metrics or priorities that are highest on their list. To understand those better, set up meetings with the key people within your company. Get curious about what they do, what’s important to them, what they think would make their work or team more successful, and what financial information they need that they’re not getting today.

From there, ask about how you could better embed yourself within that team subculture to get a deeper understanding of their goals and priorities. Is there a weekly or monthly meeting you could sit in on? Is there a Slack channel you can keep an eye on? Figure out what would help you learn more about the team and add to your own knowledge base.

Not only is this going to help you establish a more fulsome picture of the company and make you a more effective finance leader who can operate from a wider set of data points — it also demonstrates that you’re willing to learn and listen. It shows a commitment to helping the team achieve its goals. And the more that the organization sees you showing up like this — or even just sees you, full stop — the more they’ll trust you.

Present data as objectively as possible

When you’re the first finance hire at an organization, you’re often building up an in-house function from scratch where there wasn’t one before. Prior to you, the financial operations might have been cobbled together through a mix of outsourced accounting, founder know-how, and trial and error.

This means that when you join, there’s a lot of opportunity to add value — but there’s also a lot of friction that you could run into. Particularly in founder-led, earlier-stage companies, it can take time to earn trust because the founder may be accustomed to making the high-level decisions, often without input from a finance professional. You may also be new to the industry or not yet have been involved in a successful “exit.”

It’s important to remember that adding value as a finance leader isn’t about outsmarting the founder or decision-makers. Your best bet is to become their decision-making partner by presenting data as objectively as possible, so that they may draw their own conclusions. Your opinion as a financial expert will go a lot further if you translate it into hard numbers. For example, if the company is contemplating an asset purchase that you believe may be a bad investment, model out the transaction under several scenarios and list out your assumptions. This will provide a starting point for a productive conversation, and give you the opportunity to refine your understanding of the business. Everyone in the conversation will feel more comfortable that the assumptions have been vetted and that the final decision is as sound as possible. Initiating a conversation based on data makes you a more trusted partner in financial decision-making.

Be selective about how you share information

One of the delicate aspects of being a finance leader is that you basically know everything. You have information on payroll, you know how much the CEO makes, you know how much money the company owes, you know how much certain employees are making in commission — you are essentially a store of a lot of sensitive financial information. You’re also in a privileged position where people might be more willing to speak to you transparently because they know you have access to a lot of information already. And all of that can be tricky. It’s also another reason that building trust is so important.

Here, you must be thoughtful about what information you share, and when. Ultimately, your focus should be on disclosing just enough to inform thoughtful decision-making and encourage better financial judgment. Consider this example: a division manager is responsible for reaching profitability on a product that’s losing money. Their expenses include an overhead allocation, and they want to know what makes up that allocation number. It may be appropriate for you to share a list of the items included in overhead, without specific dollar amounts for each detail. The manager should understand the expenses that they are responsible to cover, but not necessarily each underlying person’s payroll or the specific legal expenses of the company.

In some cases, you might need to make decisions yourself based on information you can’t share with others. The trust you have built with a team is critical. The stakeholders should feel confident that you are acting in the company’s best interest, even if they are not privy to all the details.

Written by

Alicia Nuche is the senior VP of finance at OnPoint, a data-driven company specializing in web publishing and omni-channel marketing.

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