March 8, 2024

Your First 90 Days as CFO: 11 Steps to Early Success


Your first 90 days as CFO at a new company set the trajectory of this chapter of your career. Here’s a checklist of how to play these valuable initial weeks for maximum impact.

Miranda Gabbott

Few things indicate long term success as surely as a strong start. A great first 90 days as the CFO of a new company will see you build the relationships, knowledge and strategic vision you’ll rely upon for the following years of your career. 

But what balance should you strike between coming in with a plan of attack, and taking time to really understand the business’ DNA? And, when so much of your team’s time seems tied up in legacy processes and internal politics, where can your strategy slot in? 

This 11-step playbook will help you prioritize your time—so you can gather the information you need whilst also demonstrating your value and credibility.

11 steps for your first 90 days 

Your first 90 days should be about discovering as much about the company and its finances as possible, spotting where to make changes, and plotting your path to success. Here’s what that looks like in practice. 

1. Take in the big picture

This is your one and only chance to see the company with fresh eyes. When you get into the day-to-day tasks, inefficiencies and quirky practices which an outsider might criticize will become invisible to you. Make a note of your impressions of the company’s financial practices from a birds’ eye view. Get an overview of where your company sits within the competitive landscape, and what its culture looks like from the outside. 

Ideally, you should do a small amount of research on the company before you join. Observations you make at this stage can be immensely valuable, and keep your strategy fresh. 

Pro Tip: If you can, get an external mentor. Pair with another CFO, ideally someone with more experience than you, and they’ll be able to offer a fresh perspective on your business’ financial strategy long after you yourself have shifted your focus to implementation and finer details.

2. Build relationships and alliances 

A huge part of your success in this role depends on your ability to win people over to your strategy. While that strategy may not exist yet, the groundwork for its acceptance starts here, with relationship building. Meet your finance team right away, get to know the team dynamics and figure out how they slot into the ecosystem of the company. Icebreaker activities and coffee breaks are not time-wasting activities, but foundational work.

Try to build alliances across the company, especially in departments you’ll collaborate closely with. Depending on the nature of your business, for example, you might need to focus on reducing the Sales team’s travel budget. It’ll be easier to tighten the purse strings if key figures have the impression that you’re a likable and reasonable character. 

You’ll need to develop an especially close working relationship with your CEO, since your job is to figure out the financial underpinnings of their vision. Set up recurring meetings, learn about their working patterns and discuss how they like to receive communications. 

3. Get under the hood of the company’s finances 

Next it’s time to roll up your sleeves and take a granular look at your new company’s financials. We sat down with Brad Channer, a serial CFO currently leading finances at UBIO, and he gave us one essential piece of advice on this score: 

When I join a new company, the first thing I do is go through two years of their bank statements, line by line, and ask questions about every transaction. It may take three or four days, but bank statements don't lie and you are quickly able to see under the skin of the company and how it ticks. It also gives you a plan of attack and a priority list of where to start.

This is a surefire way to spot trends in the company spend, understand which budgets need to be tightened, and get a feel for the attitudes and relationships that shape the business’ cash flow. 

Go through all your company’s bank statements thoroughly once, Brad mentioned, and you won’t need to do it again. A single thorough check can give you the oversight to set tighter controls for outgoings down the line. 

4. Audit existing processes 

As a new leader, it’s almost inevitable that—at some point—you’ll try and initiate a new process only to get pushback with the argument, “But we’ve never done it that way before!” In your first thirty days, talk to your team and other managers to understand what “this way” looks like for all the company’s key financial processes. Be sure to ask about topics such as:

  • Accounting software—and other apps in the finance teams’ tech stack
  • Team organization—how responsibilities are distributed, rhythms of meetings, how they track tasks. 
  • Financial reporting—which metrics your team tracks, who tracks them, how they are reported, how often they are reported.
  • Expense management—your approval process for employee expenses, what business cards are used, the culture of expenses.
  • Supplier management—your system for approving new contracts, how you pay suppliers. 
  • Software management—your system for deciding whether to approve or renew software contracts, how you monitor your tech spend and ensure you’re not paying for unused or duplicate tools. 

5. Note the problems to fix

No finance team handles everything efficiently. When you audit your company’s processes, you’ll almost certainly identify systems that are broken or more complicated than necessary. In tandem with your process audit, note down and assess any operational problems you come across. You can use the following scoring framework to understand which issues to tackle first: 

  • Status: 1. Dysfunctional; 2. Barely functional; 3. To improve; 4. No issue
  • Urgency: 1. First 3 months; 2. First 6 months; 3. First year; 4. Future
  • Impact: 1. High; 2. Medium; 3. Low; 4. Nil 

So if you, for example, have a system for procuring new software that involves passing a company card around the office, you might assign this problem a status of 2 — barely functional. You might assess this as a priority to tackle in the first 3 months — 1, since it’s unsafe for the company card details to be flying around the office.

If the details are leaked, for example, you will have to cancel and re-buy every tool you use. You also have very little visibility over spend, and might not notice price hikes or plan changes. The impact you might assess at high — 1, since companies can save an average of 30% by getting their wasted software spend under control. 

This problem scores very low: 4 out of a possible 16, so you should prioritize it. This triage system can help you gain a more systemic understanding of which issues to tackle first. 

Pro Tip: If the problem of colleagues buying software on a shared company card sounds familiar, it’s worth looking into the software management platform Cledara. We offer a payment system built specifically for software subscriptions. Our process allows you to cap spend on any given tool, so there’s no nasty surprises at billing time. With Cledara, you can also cancel or renew subscriptions in a single click. Best of all, your card details are incredibly safe. Learn more here.

6. Make notes towards a long-term vision

From all of this observing and talking, you should be starting to get ideas for the company’s next financial moves. Your strategy must combine tactics you already value with the CEO’s vision, and the existing processes and culture of the company—whilst also considering the competitive landscape and the resources available to you.When trying to synthesize all of this information, remember that writing is a great clarifying exercise.

Start sketching out your strategy in notes to yourself before you are totally sure of the direction you will take. 

7. Set some KPIs

Though your strategy may still be on the drawing board, it’s smart to define success early. Choose which key performance indicators you’ll track, and you’ll have something to focus your plan around. 

Naturally, these will look different based on the size of your business and what the market is doing right now. A startup will focus more on building runway, where a SaaS company might look to metrics like monthly recurring revenue and churn rate. Speak to your CEO and board to agree which metrics are the most relevant. 

8. Establish financial reporting practices

Once you’ve chosen the KPIs you’re tracking, decide when and how you’ll take measurements. Most CFOs lean on financial reporting software to capture key information and display it in a clear way rather than relying on spreadsheets.  Many of Cledara’s clients, for example, use the financial analytics platform Fathom to get data visualizations of their business’ performance. 

Consider the different audiences you’ll be reporting to: you might create a monthly roundup with more granular metrics for your CEO and finance team, and then a higher-level report for the board every quarter. The key is to commit to providing relevant information, clearly and in consistent intervals. 

9. Review your budgets 

After having audited your company’s outgoings and financial processes, you should have a relatively clear understanding of their budgets as they currently stand. You will almost certainly have spotted areas of overspend—or, conversely, places where loosening the purse strings would encourage growth. You can use financial scenario planning tools to model the impact of budget cuts on your business’ trajectory.

Don’t be afraid to reduce spending, or change expense policies—if your decisions are based on solid financial evidence, you’re doing everyone a favor. Your teammates may even be grateful that someone is trying to shore up the company’s fortunes. 

Pro Tip: Most businesses' second largest expense (following payroll, which is obviously difficult to cut!) is software. Those rolling monthly subscriptions add up fast. In fact, for most businesses, 30% of tech spend is entirely wasted—whether that’s on unused seats, tools with overlapping functions, or long-forgotten accounts.

Yet since so many stakeholders are involved in buying software, this budget often escapes the scrutiny it deserves. A software management platform like Cledara can help you uncover savings that would otherwise never come to light. Cledara will reveal which software your team really uses, and highlight areas you can make painless cuts to your tech budget. It also allows you to cancel, manage, or renew new tools in just a couple of clicks, streamlining the administration involved in optimizing your stack for ROI.

10. Streamline some processes  

Return to your initial triage of broken or dysfunctional financial processes, and start implementing some solutions. This isn't just about improving efficiency: sensible processes can help strengthen the relationships within your team too. 

Oftentimes, the most complicated and dysfunctional processes are those where responsibility is split across different teams. For example, software procurement causes some companies a lot of issues.

Heads of department must have a say in what software their team uses. The IT team needs to ensure new tools meet security standards and the finance team must approve the budget. Given that so many decision-makers need to be coordinated, is it any wonder companies often end up with overlapping subscriptions? 

To simplify processes like this one, you must do two things: streamline communication and clearly demarcate responsibilities. For example, if you use a SaaS management tool like Cledara, then you can set up a customisable approvals flow for software requests. You could set it up so that:

  • If a team lead wants a new app, they must fill in a request form explaining why they need it, which is automatically sent to the finance team for approval.
  • If the finance team agrees that the request  is reasonable, they can tick ‘approve’, and then the IT team will automatically get a notification. 
  • If the IT team can verify that the new tool meets security requirements, the tool will be approved and can be purchased easily. 

11. Present your findings to the board  

Few will expect a master plan for world domination by the end of your first 90 days, but you should have some preliminary findings to share with important stakeholders. 

Create a report on the state of the business’ finances and the immediate budgetary and process changes you've implemented. Presenting this to the board will prove you understand the key problems facing the business, building your credibility. If this meeting lands well, you will have set yourself up to get buy-in for whichever strategy you decide to pursue long-term. 

Listen, learn—and then go for it   

According to CFO Magazine, most CFOs now stay in the job for under five years—and the average tenure is getting shorter and shorter. Against this backdrop, 90 days is not an insignificant amount of time. 

Whilst you should dedicate your first month or so auditing and relationship-building, don’t be afraid to shake things up in the first 90 days. As a new joiner you’re in a great position to initiate changes to budgets and processes. Your teammates expect you to make your mark, so in many ways, there will be less friction if you do so now than down the line, when they’re used to continuing ‘business as usual’. 

Some time between the endless meetings, implement fixes that would streamline the business’ operations and save money—fixes such as introducing a software management platform. 😉



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Miranda Gabbott

Miranda is a writer and content marketer with over five years’ experience writing about software, predominantly for SaaS companies such as Hotjar, Typeform and Preply. She’s interested in ethical and cultural considerations around new technologies and is currently studying for an MA in Design for Responsible AI.

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