How to: Transition from CFO to CEO in the Recruitment Industry
Saira Demmer grew up in West Yorkshire, after which she studied French and German at the University of Oxford. After completing her degree she joined the M&A Strategy team at Deloitte, working her way up to M&A Strategy Manager. She was involved in over 40 M&A deals in her six years there, including a number of high profile transactions in the recruitment sector. She then went on to join Ignata, a multi-brand recruitment group, as Head of M&A, then progressed to CFO and more recently to UK CEO. She’s also recently climbed half of Mount Everest!
Saira Demmer, UK CEO of Ignata discusses with Molly Hogan of Camino Partners what advice she would give ambitious CFOs looking to step up into a CEO role.
Have you always wanted to be a CEO?
No, not at all. I never had specific ambitions to be a CFO, certainly not a CEO. I’ve never had any set ambition, every exciting point in my career has been spontaneous and unplanned and just an opportunity that has arisen. I’ve been incredibly lucky, Ignata is fast-growth, with lots of scope for development and if you show yourself to be versatile and well-rounded then opportunities will present themselves.
Has coming from an M&A background helped you in transitioning to a CEO role?
Yes – one of the most interesting parts of being in M&A is the amount of change an acquisition creates. Having been an advisor to acquired or acquiring businesses, I saw how important cultural integration is to the success of a post-merger period and of course to its ongoing development. Seeing what happens when businesses get deals wrong is a valuable lesson that I was able to take into my roles as both CFO and CEO.
Have there been any surprises transitioning from a CFO to a CEO role?
Surprises? Well, being a CEO is a lot more fun. Being the CFO can force you to be more one-dimensional as you’re the barrier to the fun stuff. As CFO, you’re responsible for the financial health of the business and you have to say ‘no’ a lot. This can get you a name as the Party Pooper. Being CEO has allowed me to be a lot more well-rounded, you get to talk to people more about the exciting stuff, help people celebrate their successes and develop them. You do still have to make tough decisions and so on, but it’s a lot more balanced.
What word of caution would you give to other CFOs looking to make the transition?
Time management becomes more essential than it ever has been before. People will demand a lot more of your time now that you have a wider responsibility. As CFO you want to control things tightly, but as CEO you need to be responsible for empowering others to lead and giving them the autonomy to control things. You can protect your time by entrusting autonomy into leaders you trust to execute your vision.
How can a CFO spot if they have the mettle to become a CEO?
Being a CEO suits certain personalities, in a recruitment business, you have to be a people person because you’re dealing with people all day. You will be managing demanding personalities (as we all know, the best salespeople do tend to be the most difficult) so you really need to enjoy this part of the role.
You need to be able to demonstrate results. I volunteered myself to be responsible for a business and then the year that I took it over it became the fastest growing business in the group. To become a CEO you need to not only display focus and an ability to excel, but also show that you are dependable and consistent. You will also need to be good at making things better, the job of the CEO is to constantly improve everything about the business and the way that it is run.
Has your boss played a part in your success?
Oh yes, my success at Ignata has been massively down to Luke Williams. I’ve been here four years and in that time, I’ve had four promotions. He has given me a steady stream of opportunities, he is excellent at empowering people and I credit him with teaching me that same skill in my leadership. Autonomy can be uncomfortable, he allowed me to really do things myself whilst always knowing that there was a safety net there if I needed it. He has always allowed me to make (and learn from) my own mistakes.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Honestly? Taking on a new role while still effectively being the CFO of the business was difficult. I now have a very capable finance leadership team in place but to begin with, this needed to be created so I had a fairly lengthy transition from the CFO role. This felt frustrating at times, but I was also keen not to leave my finance team unsupported as we have been through a lot together.
Do people in the business view you differently now?
I think some people have been pleasantly surprised by how much I have relaxed! I think that initially there was always that assumption that I would say no and people may have been a bit tentative about asking for things.
Do you have a mentor?
Yes, I have an executive coach that I work with, who I respect, bounce off and feel challenged by. I also have mentors within the business naturally, but I do find it helpful to have a complete outsider who will hold a mirror up to you and ask you the difficult questions that no-one else will. I also do some mentoring myself.
What do you do to switch off?
The usual stuff, I hang out with friends and be normal. My husband and I go travelling a lot, mountain climbing, scuba diving and that kind of thing. I’m also an avid foodie, I live near Borough Market which is great for that.
What are the three takeaways people should take from this interview about how to transition from CFO to CEO?
One, have a seamless relationship with whoever runs the business. Fully understand how money is made and what their revenue drivers are.
Two, do a COO role. The second half of my time as a CFO was also taking on the COO role. You learn the pressure points and it gives you a multi-dimensional approach about how to manage growth, investments, and infrastructure. Your mindset changes from being defensive (as a CFO) to becoming growth orientated.
Three, position yourself as a commercial finance leader. In most finance functions there is an emphasis on becoming known as strategic. Create a commercial finance function that provides commercial direction and key insights. This will position you as a strategic leader and will get you a seat at the top table.
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