A funny thing happened to me during the 5th year of my 3rd start-up: I fired myself. The company continued on, but I walked away. Why? I could say that the company could no longer afford a CFO. (Sales had dipped during the recession, and I was working at half pay.) But that’s just an excuse.
The real reason I fired myself from the company that I helped start has everything to do with being a company owner and nothing to do with working in the company you own.
Why I Fired Myself
My decision to walk away from my business after 5 years was a result of a long hard look at where the company was, what it had become, and the role I had carved for myself as CFO. I had to ask — does my company need a CFO? Would I hire myself again today? The answers surprised me.
As CFO, I always try to give a voice to the business itself — as if the business were a person. What would it say; how would it feel; what would it ask for? That’s the role the CFO plays — always asking and answering questions from the company’s point of view.
And when a company has a voice, that voice will always ask, “what would make the business more robust and more sustainable?”
That’s different than the questions we usually ask ourselves as business owners, like “what would make the business the most profitable?” or “what would make us grow the fastest?” Growth and profits are a nice side effect when you build a robust and sustainable business… but as CFO, I never made decisions solely on projections of growth or profits: The business demands a stricter standard.
So when I asked “would I hire myself again”, I wanted the answer to be “OF COURSE!” I mean, hey, I’m a pretty decent guy; an ethical and thoughtful leader; a creative and resourceful business builder. OF COURSE anybody would hire me. But then the voice of the company came to me, and the real question became, “Is my work here making the company more robust and more sustainable?” You already know that my answer was “no”. Here’s why.
The Opposite of Fragile
Companies are terribly fragile by nature. Frankly it is a miracle that we manage to build anything at all in markets with razor-thin margins, immense competitive and economic pressures, and consumer demands that are fast changing and often unpredictable.
In that mix, an entrepreneur must make hard decisions about limited resources. You may disagree, but for me, if a decision is between short-term profits and long-term sustainability, I go for sustainability every time. The role of a business owner (and the CFO) should be to assure that the business becomes robust — eventually robust enough to thrive without him.
The companies we build must become bigger than ourselves. They must support dozens of employees and their families; create meaningful brands; and build amazing products that change the world. That requires a robust and sustainable organization.
So there I was — faced with the thought that my role no longer contributed to the sustainability of the business — that my salary could literally be deployed more productively elsewhere. Sure, as owner I could have taken every last cent. I could have fired any number of people and taken their jobs. I could even have closed the business and walked away with a nice chunk of savings. But the company’s voice came through loud and clear: I was fired.
I’m still an owner. Still a shareholder. But I am no longer an employee — and most important, my salary is now going to more important things.
In the end, the business thrived. Sales people sold. Marketers marketed. And the company became a little more robust… a little less fragile.
Frankly, I like thinking that the company I built fired me. It’s like watching a child grow up and leave home. I am proud that the people and systems I had put in place now sustain themselves without my help. I had built something truly robust by listening to the voice of the company — even when the answer was hard to hear.
Dedicated to your (ROBUST) profits, David
PS: If you struggle to hear the voice of your own company, maybe you need a part time CFO, a financial “mentor” or just a short talk with one of our FUSE Financial Partners advisors.