CFO - Don't Be Generic

CFO Branding 101 – Don’t Be Generic

If I were asked to speak in front of 10,000 part-time CFOs and was allowed to give just one piece of advice, that would be easy.

“Don’t be generic.”

A Tale of a Generic Chicago CFO

A part-time CFO reached out to me asking how to better close client projects. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his approach was dull, bland, and lifeless.

In a recent example, he revealed that the prospect was controlling the conversation and appeared to have the upper hand with pricing since he was comparison shopping. I asked him if he was showing the CEO how he solved similar issues with other clients. Silence.

At that point, we did a quick GoToMeeting where I showed him scores of examples of the problem he was trying to solve. I was 100 percent certain this CFO lacked the creativity to present his ideas in such a way to cause the CEO to want to learn more.

Bottom line, you cannot afford to be generic. It’s dangerous to your financial well-being.

Branding is for CFOs Too

So let’s talk a little about branding. There are hundreds and hundreds of books on this topic.

We’re going to keep it short and simple. How do you want people to talk about you behind your back? That’s branding.

I know what my clients are saying behind my back–he’s the guy that will kill you with questions. And when you think he’s done, he’ll ask you some more.

I don’t like that brand. I cannot deny it, but I’d prefer to be the guy that people say, “Man, he’s super creative for a finance geek.” Now that would be a compliment except for the geek reference. That’s the brand I’m seeking.

When I’m focusing on the brand that I want, that keeps me from becoming generic.

Don't Be Generic
When I started my practice in 2001, there were not many CFOs selling consulting services to small to mid-sized businesses. Today, I’m guessing there are between 1,000 and 2,000 part-time CFOs delivering consulting services. How are you standing apart from the rest?

The Seven Sins of Being Generic

Let’s face it, we suffer from being too much like other CFOs, right? Here are a few telltale signs that you are generic:

  1. Excel is your ultimate solution for everything including eradicating world hunger and bringing everyone closer to global peace.
  2. You read far too many business and finance books (ouch!).
  3. Most of your clients and client problems are starting to look the same.
  4. You’re spending far too much time talking about fixing cash flow problems (remember, that’s typically a symptom of a far bigger problem).
  5. You are completely unresponsive to issues beyond the discipline of finance.
  6. The last time you upgraded your software skills was when Microsoft quit supporting Office 1997.
  7. When you believe several acquisitions are the key to stellar sales growth.

Be honest, some of these signs are true, admit it.

I realize it’s easy to get in and to stay in a rut. That’s why I keep going back to my branding question as it keeps me on my toes–how do I want my clients and others to think about me behind my back? If you don’t like the answer, change it by moving from generic to unique.

From Generic to Unique

I have several types of readers–rookies, pros, and all-stars. A few are even Hall of Fame worthy.

So let’s address rookies first. Contrary to everything I’ve said, be generic, at least for now. If you are new in the CFO business, you need some time and seasoning to figure out when, where, and how to be unique. For about the first 6 years of my CFO consulting career, I was generally generic. How’s that for needless redundancy? But I was.

Being generic in the early going is fine as long as it pays the bills. Just don’t be like the Chicago CFO with dull presentations. You can be generic and still be a skilled closer to generate new client work.

For pros and all-stars, I’m going to use an example. A few years ago, exit planning was succession planning. And it was certainly not the cottage industry as it is today.

When CFOs started adding exit planning to their service mix, that was a form of becoming unique.

But times are changing. Now, it seems as though everyone has jumped on the exit planning bandwagon. Back to being generic again. But not if the skilled exit planner says he or she will only work with Hispanics living in the Northeast owning eCommerce platforms. That’s specific and unique.

Becoming unique is about becoming something that’s hard to replicate that’s in great need. Becoming unique may mean learning new tools, new strategies, a new industry, or something else that will cause you to reshape your (possibly) bland practice.

About every 3-4 years, I make a shift toward a new skill that hopefully sets me apart from others. That’s also probably why I have clients well beyond the Show-Me State borders. While my bland personality is certainly generic, I’ll never allow my CFO abilities to become generic.

I’ll leave you with two questions to ponder over the next few weeks:

  1. What’s my brand?
  2. Am I generic?

Photo Attribution: Hermes Rivera

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