How to have difficult conversations with your CFO
I've heard CFOs described as executives who are "exceptional at finding the smartest way to say no." While there may be some truth to that, CFOs are also motivated by the smartest reasons to say yes.
When that clicked for me earlier in my career, my approach to CFO conversations shifted. It wasn't about drowning them in data or trying to convince them my idea was the one; it was about painting a picture.
That picture should tell a simple story: where the organization is now and where it could be if we make a change. As Chief Digital Officer of Dawn Foods Bob Howland said in a recent episode of the People Changing Enterprises podcast: "Everyone wants to be part of success. Everyone wants to be part of the future."
Given the economic environment, many of us are having more conversations with finance than we're used to. So, I thought I'd share some of my strategies for fruitful CFO conversations here.
Face Issues Early and Head-On
Dawn Foods' Bob Howland calls this: "Be the bringer of bad news." Howland joined Dawn Foods in 2019 to propel the 100-year-old baking ingredients company into its next 100 years. Before Howland, orders were only taken by hand. His "bad news" was that their future wasn't bright if they didn't become an agile organization. Digital transformation hit the baking industry, too.
And he told the CFO that within his first few days on the job. Talk about early. But he also came up with a solution: to release a beta ecommerce site in six weeks built on composable architectures and get some results. That eventually became a full-blown solution in 22 weeks.
As Bob said, "If something is broken, tell the people that should know right away. Then figure out what's the action and who should take it?"
"Broken" to a CFO typically boils down to one of two things: something is costing us (or will cost us) a lot of money with no return in the long run or competition is eating our lunch. Know what the problem is going in and get rid of the noise around it to focus your conversation with the CFO. Noise can be anything from emotion, to office politics, to vanity issues that don't get you closer to the heart of the problem.
Find a Common Language
There's a reason I'm CEO and David Overmyer is Contentstack's CFO: Finance is not my area of expertise. But, here's the thing. We share a passion, which is scaling high-performing organizations in sustainable and purpose-filled ways. So, when we talk about allocating money, the underlying question isn't how much it will cost, but where will that spend take us?
We focus on a few key metrics for business-as-usual meetings. Those include ARR, CAC, gross margins, and customer retention. When new opportunities arise, we agree on the overriding KPIs together and then dig deeper.
Come up with a common language upfront. Don't risk derailing a meeting with jargon. Once questions like "what does that mean" start springing up, you've lost your way.
Let me challenge you with one additional perspective on common language: It doesn't have to be about words or numbers. Values can take the lead.
When March 2020 hit, a lot of companies responded with layoffs. Since David and I agreed when we first started working together that taking care of our people was our highest priority, we came up with creative solutions — executive pay cuts, investing in training and development — to pandemic problems. For us, brains and heart matter.
Find (or Make) an Advocate
If you're as lucky as I was with David, you may make an ally out of your CFO. I would go so far as calling him a mentor. But for most people, that's out of reach. In the podcast, Howland shared the golden question that opened the door toward marketing/finance partnership and transformation: "Who is the most trusted person on your team?"
Howland turned that person into an e-commerce expert and an advocate. It took time and education. Mostly, it took enablement — sharing information and allowing him to come to his conclusions. Author Bernard Desmidt called this mindset "win with" vs. "win over" in CFO Magazine this year.
Allowing this slow journey to unfold builds trust, which improves the relationship and, ultimately, the organization in the long run.
I was lucky early in my career to participate in Crucial Conversations training. A lot of that training is reflected in this piece. In Crucial Conversations, opinions tend to differ, and the stakes and emotions are high. Conversations with finance are often like this.
But if handled properly, these conversations can create breakthroughs that unlock the potential of people and organizations.
The argument for befriending your IT department
Your IT team builds products; business and marketing teams use them. Business and marketing encounter glitches with the products or new features they’d want; IT fixes them or starts building again. And the wheel turns.But that’s not really a wheel, is it? Something has to happen for something else to trigger. It’s a start-stop instead of a continuous movement (or improvement). As a result, innovation stalls.This is why we built Contentstack — to make space for marketing and IT to work together on vision and have the freedom to innovate within their areas of expertise. You don’t want your marketing team holding a campaign for six weeks while an IT ticket is addressed. And you don’t want your IT team constantly beholden to requests from other departments.In a recent episode of "People Changing Enterprises," Andreas Westendörpf, chief technology officer of Emma Sleep, reminded us that IT used to be metaphorically locked away in a closet. Then, giants like Facebook and Google came around, paving the way for disruptors like Spotify and Airbnb, proving that technology and business are now forever intertwined. We’ve come a long way. And here’s why it’s always in an organization’s best interest to continue getting close to their IT colleagues.IT drives value, with business context Andreas shared that “IT or technology by itself is a function that does not create value unless you put it into a context where it can create value.” An IT expert can’t create value without the right tools and a greater purpose and team.That’s where business and IT alignment comes in. The strongest cultures have a roadmap for the future created by a cross-functional team of leaders, including IT. That roadmap lays out short-term and long-term business goals and how technology can enable those goals. So, how can you achieve that necessary level of day-to-day alignment? Consider a combination of a centralized and decentralized IT department, where IT is part of a central organization and embedded into business units. Andreas described this as technology needing to be “concentrated to create excellence, but also distributed to make an impact.” You can also create tiger teams focused on specific tasks, such as prioritizing and responding to customer requests. (More about that from our CTO here.)IT knows how to get creativeTechnologists are typically pigeonholed as the analytical kind — great with numbers and tools, but lacking creativity.Let me set the record straight: Analytical minds are, by nature, creative. They look at issues from all angles and think up solutions. It might not be the challenges a creative director may attack, but the role still demands creative approaches.In Andreas’ case, the fact that “software is never finished until it’s decommissioned” is a reason the role is a creative one. It’s not like building a car where there tends to be a conveyor belt process and a beginning, middle and end. To create value, software requires a deep understanding of the context in which it will be used and the potential it holds for the future. Your IT team is not just blindly writing code — they are thinking about how to constantly innovate so the business performs better.Business leaders should tap into that creativity as needed outside of just building software. Bring in IT to reconsider training and development, solve productivity or remote work problems or even inspire employees to build innovation into their everyday work.There’s a reason why computer science-related jobs are expected to grow more than two times faster than the average for all other occupations through 2031 (14.6% versus 5.35). Or why even nontechnologists enter the workforce with deep technology understanding and skills. (Hey, I’m a nontechnologist, three-time tech founder and CEO!)It’s because tech touches everything we do. Many companies want to be technology companies, but the only ones that will get it right are the ones where business and IT are intertwined. That’s when IT can fulfill the roles they should be playing in enterprises — enabling, protecting and unlocking innovation.
4 questions for e-commerce brands considering composable
There’s a lot of confusion in the market when it comes to composable architectures. A company says one thing and their competitor says something different — all the while, the people who hunger for change inside complex organizations struggle.We see this in potential e-commerce customers all the time, knowing they need a change but not really understanding what composable can do for them. Emma Sleep, one of the fastest-growing D2C sleep brands in the world, was one of those organizations.Andreas Westendörpf, chief technology officer of Emma Sleep, talked about why they chose composable and what it did for them on the latest “People Changing Enterprises” podcast. Hearing him speak about the differences between traditional environments and composable inspired me to create this litmus test. Ideally, this will help provide clarity for e-commerce organizations wondering if composable is the right move for them.Are you aiming to grow quickly?For organizations trying to scale quickly, traditional CMS and legacy systems are far more complicated than composable architectures. They are less flexible and take more developer intervention to launch new markets, products, and content. Composable wasn’t in Andreas’ original plans. But when Emma Sleep introduced their ambitious growth goals, they were operating from a highly customized legacy system. Doubling business every one or two years in vastly different markets would be difficult, frustrating and extremely error-prone with these technologies. They also wouldn’t be able to support personalized content for each market — what works for European audiences doesn’t work for Asia or Latin America. If you are a scaling organization, you need composable. Other options are too rudimentary and inflexible for you. You will have to manipulate and create custom code to force things to work, which is not only a huge risk — as it will most likely break often — but inefficient when efficiency is required.Are you outsourcing the problem to the vendor?Andreas made a good point in the podcast. E-commerce was one of the first ways to make money on the internet, which is why many platforms still follow the architectural design principles of the ’90s and early 2000s when they were founded. While that’s changing, it’s happening slowly. In the meantime, e-commerce organizations are struggling with monolithic technology.The common solution is outsourcing your development to the same vendor you’re struggling with — a tricky catch-22. The problem doesn’t change. Instead, it comes with long consulting timelines and following industry “best practices” that actually aren’t best, like planning out your project five years in advance (more on that to come).Composable solves two problems at once: providing a more flexible, agile technology stack and by bringing control back in-house.Do you need to make room for innovation?I recently read a great piece that nails down what innovation really is: riding a wave. Mary Kay Ash didn’t invent cosmetics; she rode the direct-sales wave. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile; he rode the assembly line wave. Steve Jobs didn’t invent computers; he rode the digital wave. So on and so forth.Here’s what I’m trying to get at: Are you equipped to ride the wave?E-commerce brands must ride the wave more than most. They ride the waves of public opinion, of social media, of what customers need when they need it. But the thing about waves is they disappear quickly. If you don’t catch it, you sink. E-commerce organizations don’t have the luxury of submitting a developer ticket or a feature request and waiting around for six months until the request becomes a reality; the wave could be gone by then. Yet that’s often what happens with legacy technology — so many missed opportunities.In the podcast, Andreas expresses his desire to experiment quickly and figure out what works versus what doesn’t. In a composable architecture, their team can integrate up-and-coming tools like ChatGPT for use pretty quickly. Emma Sleep also tests new platforms for new markets beforehand and implements them when ready. That was not possible for them in their previous environment.Do you need to transform quickly?“The five-year plan is dead.”That might be my favorite quote from a “People Changing Enterprises” podcast so far, and Andreas is absolutely right. Why stretch your timelines out that long, especially when you can reap value much earlier?Andreas added: “Don't plan for a five-year project. If you are trying to implement within a five-year timeframe, things change too much. So plan for two years. Two years is a good time horizon. If two years becomes two and a half, fair enough. But you need to somehow have the most critical work done at the end of two years, like 90%.”Enterprises choose to make the transition from monolith to composable in different ways, but one thing all successful transformations have in common is that they don’t push it too far down the road.The litmus test is done. If you answered “yes” to most — or all — of these questions, then it’s time to talk with us about moving from monolith to composable. Here’s the good news: When you choose to make the transition to composable, you’re future-proofing your organization. According to Andreas, “it’s the last replatform you’re going to need.”
How to re-imagine the customer experience, with ASICS’ Mindy Montgomery
Most people reluctantly adapt to change but others, like Mindy Montgomery, thrive on it. She worked to democratize consumer healthcare data in the 2000s, working across nonprofits, state and federal agencies. Then she went on to bring digital product management to a variety of industries undergoing digital change, from early Internet of Things (IoT) solutions to digitizing transit. Now she’s taking on the challenge of brand engagement as the senior technical product manager at ASICS. Montgomery recently spoke with us about leading teams that embrace change, how ASICS is using digital to strengthen the brand mission, and the advice she has for other leaders driving changes in customer experience. Build a library of experiences For Montgomery, the most exciting career move is the one that lets her jump into new and unfamiliar experiences. “One thing I really like to do is find new people to work with,” she said, explaining that instead of relying on networking or following managers and co-workers to new companies she’s more intrigued by positions that push her to create new relationships and fresh ideas. “Building up a library of experiences really helps you figure out how to solve problems because you’ve been exposed to so many different ways of thinking and groups of people.” Look to hire people with a diversity of experiences — teams with a variety of backgrounds, perspectives and ideas to draw from are far less likely to get stuck in the status quo.“All of those experiences, especially in the collective, help build the best solutions possible,” Montgomery said.Find your “North Star”Being able to tap into a diversity of experience in your team is especially important as customer loyalty is increasingly won by brands that engage consumers beyond products and purchasing. A key way that ASICS is expanding its relationship with customers is by returning to the founding concept of the company. The brand name is an acronym of the latin phrase “Anima Sana In Corpore Sano'' which translates to “a sound mind in a sound body”, and ASICS’ mission is to help people gain the mental and physical health benefits that come from a positive, lifelong relationship with sport and activity. “That gives us a lot of really great storytelling opportunities,” Montgomery said about the brand’s focus on the wider health picture. “Because we can feed not only our products into that, but also the studies that we’ve sponsored and other experiences of our sponsored athletes, our employees and our brand ambassadors to really help tell those authentic stories.” But you shouldn’t wait on someone to hand you a North Star. “Even if the brand or the company doesn't have that, I think that if you get a small group of like-minded people together, you can come up with something that gives you that directionality,” Montgomery said. While she is fortunate that her role at ASICS comes with leaders who have a clear vision in mind, this hasn’t always been the case.“When I worked at a company digitizing the transit experience, we didn't really have a great North Star, but one of the things that we did have was being able to buy and use a bus ticket on your phone. Okay, let's start extending that. In what other scenarios do you use the bus? What if you could use your ticket to the baseball game as your transit ticket? What partnerships do we need to create in order to do that?”Imagine how the customer experience could evolve, in your best-case-scenario, and build toward that. Having a vision will give your team the confidence to enact meaningful change. “The confidence in that vision comes from incrementally delivering things that show progress towards that vision and solution,” Montgomery said.Expand engagement opportunitiesAs the customer journey expands to many different touchpoints. A principle Montgomery takes from her experience in healthcare is that there are “no wrong front doors.” In health services, this is the idea that no matter how someone enters the healthcare system, they should be able to easily transfer their information and receive benefits from any other service program. “With our digital transformation, and moving to headless and composable commerce, that’s really the same principle behind the things we’re doing,” Montgomery said. “If you come to asics.com you should be able to find a training plan, purchase that, use it in the Runkeeper app and register for one of the races on our many race registration platforms, all in one place.” To create that connected experience, Montgomery and her team are adopting API-driven solutions that allow them to easily standardize and share data.APIs make it easier to create more engagement across ASICS’s own channels, like sending customers a discount code for new shoes when they log 350 miles in the Runkeeper app, as well as further expand the brand’s reach by using open APIs to share content and promotions with trusted third-party partners. “We want to reach out, we want to be a partnership across your sports journey, be that running, golf, tennis, field sports or anything like that,” Montgomery said. “That’s something I think is really exciting.” Make friends with RFPsEvolving the customer experience often means evolving your tech. For many companies, this entails moving away from all-in-one platforms to get up and running with e-commerce and moving toward an ecosystem of best-of-breed vendors that specialize in different areas. Having a guiding principle can help make the evaluation process more efficient. For Montgomery and her team, this was the idea that they ultimately wanted a fully composable tech stack where any and every component is replaceable. So they seek out solutions that are API-driven and, as much as possible, headless. This helps narrow down the solutions on the long lists gathered from analyst reports, vendor landscapes and recommendations from partners and peers. “There is a fair amount of enormity paralysis involved,” Montgomery said about having to find and evaluate substantially more vendor solutions when companies move away from the monolith. “But you just have to get started.” Mindy Montgomery will be sharing more secrets for RFP success at ContentCon 2023: Register now.
A CTO’s POV on helping brands build the best customer experiences
One of our mottos is: “Contentstack helps brands in the pursuit of possibility.”That phrase can mean many different things. Take our customer, ASICS, for example. When ASICS came to us, the possibility they were pursuing was a creative customer experience that melded the physical and digital together. Mindy Montgomery, senior technical analyst for ASICS, talked about that unique approach to customer experience on our “People Changing Enterprises” podcast. Their team definitely doesn’t limit themselves when it comes to that pursuit of possibility. But that means different things to every brand, especially with varying industry demands in play. With that in mind, how do we help brands live up to the word “possibility”?By constructing an ecosystem with all the tools and tech brands need.From brand to their customer, and from Contentstack to our brands — it takes an entire ecosystem to create an effective, innovative customer experience. Our world has grown smarter and more connected. When was the last time you walked into a room without some kind of screen? Computers, cellphones, TVs and even gas station kiosks have screens, and all are viable channels to use. A 2022 Hubspot report of 1000 marketing professionals found that 81% leverage more than three channels in their strategy. And, according to our retail research, 60% believe the number of engagement channels will only grow. For example, Mindy described how ASICS tries to reach customers beyond the brand’s own channels. Yes, a customer can navigate through their website, buy shoes or sign up for training plans, and receive product discounts. But how can they get further opportunities to engage when they track their miles through Runkeeper (ASICS’ running app)? Or even when they’re browsing sports content outside of ASICS channels? Of course, traditional software and monolithic technologies cannot support imaginative approaches like that. So, in 2011 when the team at Contentstack pioneered headless CMS, we knew it had to be more than just a CMS. We had to deliver an ecosystem of features and products that removed obstacles to innovation while enabling amazing customer experiences. In our ecosystem, everything our customers need can be easily integrated whether it’s an e-commerce, asset management, personalization or marketing automation tool.By supporting agility and future growth.When we build ecosystems, flexibility and scale are priorities. This is why we encourage every brand that wants to – as Mindy says – "surprise and delight" their customers to go composable. If you’ve never heard of composable or don’t quite understand it, here’s an example:Imagine you have a Lego structure. Each brightly-colored Lego block represents a piece of tech you’ve chosen, while the structure itself represents the composable architecture. If you have kids — or played with Legos as one — you understand the selling point of the product. Each block can attach and detach easily. In seconds, you can tweak and adjust your structure to create something entirely different. A train becomes a plane, which becomes a car, and so on and so forth.It’s the same with composable architectures — they are made to change however brands need. That flexibility is built in when your customer experience is built on composable. If a popular new channel arises that would benefit your brand to be in (much like the rise of TikTok), it could be as easy as a click of a button.This means that scaling your customer experience is just as easy. Our international airline customer, Icelandair, is able to translate content into 11 languages instantaneously, with no extra effort. But they’re also ready for any future growth; as they enter new markets, they’re able to quickly spin off new content for each language as needed.In a market with trends that change with the wind, flexibility and growth are essential to brands’ customer experience. By building a community that lives beyond the product.The last way we equip brands for any customer experience possibility is by building peer connections. Who better to learn from than similar status-quo-busting individuals?Mindy expressed the value of how conversing with brands in the vacation, hospitality and other consumer industries helped ASICS on their composable journey. That’s the value we try to bring to every Contentstack customer. We do this in several ways. The first is the opportunities we build into our product like Contentstack Community, where customers can participate in open-ended discussions and gain access to a customer-contributed knowledge base.We also hold “ContentCon,” a conference dedicated to cultivating community and encouraging collaboration among our customers. We not only provide fun networking opportunities, but customers present their own composable journey and what they learned, on the stage. That way, nobody has to make the same mistakes and everyone is surrounded by folks trying to improve their customer experiences. Peer-to-peer connection makes everyone better.Enabling brands to pursue possibility really just means that we provide the building blocks (quite literally), and help them fill in the gaps along the way. The brands are the experts on their customers — it’s our job to partner with them to achieve their vision.
How to ask for better from your team
In many ways, we're a different company than when we started. Part of it is how much we've scaled. A bigger part is how we must constantly reinvent ourselves to stay ahead of the industry. For example, we started as a services company and transformed into a SaaS product. That transformation created more value for our customers and employees.But constant reinvention requires constant reflection on how we can be better. That's not easy. We all love routine. It's a blanket and a good book during a winter storm. The issue is you could stay under that blanket for a long time and, before you know it, customers are churning and competition is eating your lunch.So, how do you encourage "better?" ASICS Senior Technical Product Manager Mindy Montgomery said in the ”People Changing Enterprises” podcast that it can start with a simple question to the team: "Do we think the way we've been doing things is the best way?" She's found that most of the time, the answer is no and people end up volunteering for change. The question unlocks ideas that lead to "better."That's a great strategy. Here are some others I use in my day-to-day.Leaders: Start with yourselfBefore you ask for better from your team, turn that question inward. A trusted advisor once told me leaders have to fire and rehire themselves every six months to determine whether or not they're still the right person for the task at hand. Soon after that, I got an executive coach. I wanted to question if I was still the right CEO at this stage of scale and, if not, understand what gaps I needed to fill. My coach helped me work on conflict resolution and not letting personal attachments limit my ability to make the best business decisions.Leaders are fortunate in having built-in calendars that force "do better" check-ins — board meetings, end-of-quarters and fiscal years and the like. Be open about what you uncover about yourself during those times of analysis to encourage others to do the same. It helps create a culture of continuous improvement and being open to change.Create a culture that values changeI start this form of change-focused culture building by admitting I'm not all-knowing; it's about the collective knowledge and experiences of the team. They're working day in and day out with customers or in concert with partners, digging deep into industry challenges and building the products and features to solve those challenges. This all means that, in many instances, they're closer to what "better" looks like than me.We also build change into our values. For example, we "do the right thing even when no one is watching." In this case, doing the right thing means people across our organization (not just leadership) are empowered to identify and implement new systems or take the idea to someone who can. Mindy added two points about creating a culture of change I want to highlight here:Promote experimentation more than you fear failure. "Outside of a very few cases, our day-to-day decisions aren't going to close down a company like ASICS," she said. In other words, stop fearing a potential failure that may never happen. Instead, work toward better, mitigate potential issues and squeeze any learnings out of failure as you do.Make sure people have access to change "levers." Mindy spoke of data as a lever; use it to rally others and propose a better way. She also discussed people who have mastered "organizational buy-in" as levers. Not everyone has the influence to make widespread change within an organization, but they probably have access to someone who does. One final point: culture is created by a group of people interacting regularly. Don't forget that it's also made up of individuals. Everybody is different, so consider how you can incentivize experimentation in personal ways.Be North-Star drivenChange without a vision can be aimless — chaotic even. Communicate the vision clearly and repeatedly. It can be a target number you're looking to hit for the quarter or year — 100 new clients, $100 million revenue — or it can be a big, hairy, audacious goal, like using technology to pursue equity and break down barriers.Also, make sure everyone understands their specific role in achieving that goal. It all ladders up, and there are more opportunities to celebrate the wins along the way. We created Contentstack to challenge the status quo; legacy CMS technology wasn't cutting it for enterprises anymore. However, we can't rest on the laurels of invention. Organizations stay relevant when they get better — in line with customer needs and where the market is going — and embrace change.