It’s difficult to distill the many constituent parts of a successful career in finance, but that’s exactly what we aim to do through our interviews in our Path to Becoming a CFO series. Airbase founder and CEO Thejo Kote, the host of the series, has now spoken with many industry leaders, CFOs, venture capitalists, and executive recruiters in an earnest attempt to share insights with our audience (you can see the highlights in our ebook). He was recently able to talk with Kate Bueker, CFO at HubSpot.
Prior to HubSpot, Kate spent 11 years in finance and business development leadership roles at Akamai Technologies, most recently serving as Senior Vice President of Business Finance and Operations. Kate also spent almost 10 years in investment banking at The Blackstone Group, UBS, Credit Suisse, and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. She holds an M.B.A. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s in mathematics from Cornell University.
She spoke about building her own career and what can be extrapolated from that.
Her starting advice? “You have to be really interested and motivated. You have to want to learn.”
Foundations for a career in finance.
“Are you intellectually curious? Are you always trying to learn something new? My experience is that those people tend to succeed more than others.” There’s a lot to learn in the world of finance and accounting, and those that are constantly expanding their knowledge are best equipped to be its leaders. Kate encourages curiosity into all areas of a business
Kate sees value in, and highly recommends, really understanding the various functions of your company. Even when giving advice to people earlier in their career, people who might have less reason to look outside their own departments, Kate recommends this approach.
“I think learning the different parts of your business, really understanding how those teams and leaders think and make decisions, is a great part of building a career.”
At the same time, when asked about which skills might be best to focus on first, Kate did have some thoughts on what to prioritize.
The best, most appropriate, skill set for an aspiring CFO or VP of Finance is going to change every few years. For now, though, Kate asserts that familiarity with FP&A is essential. “There are some experiences that are must-haves for any CFO,” says Kate. “The biggest thing is running corporate FP&A. Everyone needs that experience before they will be a good, successful CFO.”
The power of data and strategic finance.
When speaking about her current role as CFO at HubSpot, Kate had a lot to say about the part the data plays in the current landscape. “The role of the CFO, and really the role of finance, has clearly shifted after the last decade. Now data is much more widely available,” says Kate. “You have operations teams that probably live across the organization, many of them are in finance, and so your job isn’t actually calculating a number anymore. The job is about figuring out what numbers are really important. What are they saying about the business?”
“It’s much more about defining the right metrics for success, making sure that the organization understands and agrees with them. Data is a really powerful tool that you can use to tell a story if you lay it out in a very straightforward way.”
The often-overlooked downside to the preeminence of data is all the background noise. How do you know what is most important to consider? Kate weighed in on that too. “What I encourage companies to do is to really focus on the one metric that matters most. And, for us, that one thing is what we call net new ARR. How much on a monthly or quarterly basis are we adding to the install base of recurring revenue? That’s what’s meaningful. We look at the growth rate of that number with laser focus every time we talk about financial results or forecasting.” Your company’s chief metric might differ from Kate’s, but it’s useful to think strategically about parsing your available data.
Ultimately, the point of data analysis is to identify the trajectory that your company is on and use that information to best plan for your goals. Being mindful of this long-term thinking, also known as strategic finance, is practical for both guiding your company’s financial endeavors and for identifying the most useful data to examine.
Networking to bolster yourself.
The utility of networking is a key discussion point in our Path to Becoming a CFO series. Kate offered her take on it.
The most tangible value to maintaining a professional network, according to Kate, is its ability to provide insights on things that no one else can. “I’ve started to create a network of CFOs across technology — generally defined — and they’ve become a really good resource for the questions that I really have no one to ask internally,” says Kate. And this makes sense when you think about it. Who else but Kate’s peers would know how to tackle the problems she’s likely to confront? “I always have someone who is around my level, who has a similar job, and whom I think very highly of, that I can bounce ideas off of.”
Keep this in mind at your next networking event. While it’s never a bad idea to befriend someone at a more senior level, there is a lot to be gained from your peers who deal with problems and situations similar to your own.
The responsibilities of a leader.
Leadership is another hot-button topic for the CFOs we interview, many of whom have gained personal insights on the matter as they’ve risen through their career. While there are some parallels between managers and leaders, Kate differentiates between the two. “I would say there is a lot more structure to being a good leader than there is to being a good manager. And there’s a lot more deliberate communication that has to happen,” Kate says. “I think it’s really important for a leader to have a strong team. After a certain point of moving up the ladder, you’re managing people who are managing other people, and your team is big enough that you can no longer have an individual contribution or individual impact on everyone’s career. That is, to me, where the shift from manager to leader comes.” Managers need to make an impact on their teams, but company leaders need to make an impact on the business as a whole.
Leadership isn’t easy, of course. Meeting the needs of your varied constituents can be a tricky juggling act. Partnership, flexibility, and remembering your primary goals are key here. “Finding a way to say ‘yes’ as often as humanly possible is really important for being a successful CFO and a successful partner,” says Kate. “A lot of times an initial request is going to be a ‘no.’ And then it’s about translating the ‘no’ into a different ‘yes.’ How do you figure out what the real core of the ask is? Working together to figure out how to execute on the desired goal, as opposed to answering a specific question, is really important.”
Many aspire to leadership roles. Kate’s talk with Thejo provided some clues to attaining this goal.
Want to hear more of Kate’s thoughts? You can find the entire interview here.