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Q&A: The SecretCFO tells all

An anonymous corporate finance veteran with over 20,000 hours of experience unlocks invaluable insights by pulling back the curtain on the rarely seen inner workings of the C-suite.

Q&A: The SecretCFO tells all

In the corporate world focused on financial goals and profits, there is an influential voice whose insights clearly explain complex topics – The Secret CFO. This experienced financial leader operates under a veil of anonymity but has built a large following among business professionals globally, guiding both new and veteran corporate finance experts. By keeping their identity private, The Secret CFO can speak more openly and say things that other CFOs may find difficult to express publicly.

While most well-known CFOs operate in the public eye, The Secret CFO takes a different approach – a financial leader who has become a trusted advisor through decades of experience managing the finances of large multinational companies. With over 20,000 hours in this role, they provide a rare insider’s view shaped by actively influencing market conditions over many years.

What truly sets The Secret CFO apart is not just their extensive experience, but their ability to clearly explain the often overlooked details of corporate financial management through real-world lessons and professional insights. Through an actively maintained newsletter and social media presence, they provide an authentic, straightforward look into the realities of financial leadership.

About the Secret CFO

Can you share with us your journey and the pivotal moments that led you to become the Secret CFO?

When I was a teenager, I was bitten by a radioactive CFO, and then – Oh sorry, wrong cartoon character.

I am a lifelong finance and business nerd. I started my career in public accounting with the Big Four but left quickly to build a career in business mostly through FP&A roles. I climbed the ladder, and I’ve been working as a CFO in the corporate world for a long while now.

I am currently CFO for a large multinational corporation. For obvious reasons, I won’t say much more on my background than that.  I will say that I love what I do, but the CFO role is poorly understood. Most written content on the role itself is terrible. There is very little discussion of the real issues CFOs face.

I had the idea to share my approach to the CFO through a ‘Secret CFO’ Twitter account. At the time, I assumed no-one would see it, but it would be fun nonetheless. But it blew up straight away. I had 20,000 followers within 2 weeks of my first post in summer of 2022. So, I just kept going.

I now write a long-form post breaking down a different part of the CFO playbook each week, through my newsletter; CFO Secrets. It has 30,000 subscribers packed full of current and future CFOs from all over the world. I believe this to be the most highly engaged audience of CFOs in the world. What started as a silly idea has become a passion project and huge part of my life. I love it.

One problem with the CFO seat is there are many skills you need that you don’t get to practice along the way. Board management, leading M&A, earnings calls, etc. These are all things that new CFOs get thrown into the fire with. I hope through my content, I can help ease that transition for this generation of CFOs and the next.

By being anonymous, I can share real stories, much more candidly. And have more fun with it. I think this makes the content more useful and entertaining. Every day I get emails or direct messages from all over the world sharing how my content has helped them, or seeking career advice. It’s been wild. A real gift for an aging finance pro like me.

What is one habit you believe contributes most to your success in the financial sector?

In my case, it is an ability to connect the numbers to the business itself and the people in it. It is difficult to do well, but its the part of the job I have always loved the most, so have invested a lot of time in getting good at it.

CFO jobs are not just about numbers. They are about people through the lens of numbers.

It is interesting how much weight you put on the people side of the business. How important then are what are typically called ‘softer skills’ for the CFO role?

So called ‘soft skills’ are much harder to master than technical skills. Technical skills are generally working with numbers and formula – it is math, it is pure. Dealing with people less so, they are imperfect and do things you don’t expect. They also  suffer biases, and have good days and bad days.

That is a far more complex challenge than anything technical. Ultimately the numbers are just a product of things people do. So if you want to improve the numbers of the business, that can’t happen without changing people’s behaviour.

A CFO who can’t influence behaviour is impotent.

What are some of your favourite books that have influenced your life? Are there any you gift to others and if so why?

I love the Buffett shareholder letters. He is such a great writer, and brilliant mind. Bezos’s letters are great too. The Outsiders by William Thorndike is a wonderful book on shareholder value.

How do you approach leadership and team management ?

I focus hard on each individual. Everyone is the star of their own movie. So understanding what they care about, and how they perform best is important. I’m a good listener, and that helps.

Dynamics between team members is crucial too. Get it right and its a force multiplier, but its much easier to say than do.

What role do ethics play in your decision-making process as a CFO?

Integrity is everything. It’s a non-negotiable for me and the people who work with me. It is kind of the value at the heart of everything. But everyone’s ethical code is slightly different. 

What are some of our proudest achievements?

I’m lucky to have had several proud moments in my career. But to be honest, the Secret CFO has allowed me to influence people in the finance profession on a whole different scale. It gives me enormous satisfaction, in a way I cannot get from my day job.

What do some of the best CEO’s you have worked with have in common?

They are brilliant at breaking complex issues down into a few simple messages.

They ‘run the corner grocery store’ (as Jack Welch called it). They have an innate understanding of the unit economics of the business. And they see everything through that lens. They can zoom in and out between strategy and detail at will.

They are likable and people want to work for them.

My experience with the most impressive CEOs I have worked for, is that they are so likable that people want them to win, and people want to impress them.

The role of the CFO

Can you describe your approach to developing financial strategies and making key financial decisions?

Everything hinges on a robust financial planning and reporting cycle. It all starts with a good annual strategic review process that leads into a long range plan. The first year of the long range plan explodes into the budget. The budget becomes the anchor for personal objective setting, bonus targets, performance management. Then you have to have the right disciplines for reporting and managing performance.

Once you have that core cycle down, you can hang so much of your decision making from it.

What are the most significant actions that someone should take in their first 100 days of being a CFO?

It depends what you are walking into. I’ve done jobs where I spent the first 100 days driving short term cashflow and nothing else. But assuming a more stable starting point:

  • Get on the shop floor of the business, if only for a few days
  • Understand what you are inheriting. Get a detailed inventory of issues.
  • Listen hard. You can build strong convictions, but they must be loosely held. Especially in those early days.
  • Spend the time building your plan. And present it to the board and your team at day 100.

How has technology impacted your role as a CFO, and what innovations are you most excited about?

I’m excited to see what Microsoft Copilot will do. I see a lot of efficiency opportunity. If I was a young finance pro today, I would be focusing on mastering Copilot.

How do you approach your own professional development and stay updated in such a dynamic field?

Well, writing 2,500 words a week on life in the CFO role through my newsletter is the best CPD tool I have found. It forces reflection and crystallises learning. Advisors  are also good way of staying up to date on technical and market developments (e.g. Seminars by the Big Four etc).

How do you maintain a work-life balance, and what do you think is key to achieving this in a high-pressure role?

I have had many periods of hardcore sprints where all balance goes out of the window. You can’t do this for long though. And it is no way to build a long term fulfilling career.

The Elon Musk biography documented this hazard so well.

What are your future goals, and how do you see the role of the CFO evolving in the coming years?

I want to be the best CFO I can be. But more importantly I want to develop the current and next generation of CFOs to be even better. That is my goal through my newsletter; CFO Secrets.

Your approach to key aspects of the role

How would you break down the role of the CFO?

  • Controllership: Guaranteeing to the business that they have fantastic quality, accurate reporting underpinned by strong financial controls
  • Making Better Decisions: Agitating the business to set the right strategy, and optimize cash generation from operations
  • Capital Allocation: Allocating capital in the best way for stakeholders
  • Stakeholder Management: Managing stakeholders; board, lenders, shareholders, etc

How do you structure and manage it?

I hire wonderful people and then I work really hard to keep them. If I do that, the rest is ten times easier.

I then have two zones, 10,000 feet above, and sea level. I use my 10,000 feet view to work out exactly where it is I need to be at sea level. The 10,000 feet view, is my regular review rhythm. How I stay updated on all of the things across my desk. Some Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly. That calendar is important to me and well controlled. That rhythm is my safety net, it’s how I know where I need to dive deeper. I get grumpy if it gets compromised.

I then have a list of the 3-5 big issues on my notepad at any time. And I go deep into those. I concentrate a huge amount of effort on them. I think about them when I go to sleep at night, and when I’m in the shower in the morning. I stay very close to them.

I try not to waste time being half way between 10,000 feet, and sea level. I find not much happens at 5,000 feet. You aren’t high enough to see everything, and you aren’t low enough to influence anything.

How does that play out across the year?

Overlaid across the above is the annual reporting and FP&A calendar. Again that is sacrosanct. I’d rather lose an arm, than lose the long range planning process, or fall behind with the budget. They are cornerstones for the year.

How you approach working with CEOs?

Chemistry is everything. And that doesn’t mean being friends.

The CEO I got on with the best was probably my least effective partnership. The best relationship I had, we were bickering all the time. But we also had a symbiotic relationship; kind of like what I imagine a top sports team to be like.

I was never good enough at sport to know if that comparison is right though. With that CEO, one of us would be bad cop and the other would be good cop, and we would use it interchangeably, and we would not have to talk about it. We would sort of just intuitively know who was fit for which role in which situation.

What is your approach to crises of difficult issues?

Crisis management and issues are all about dropping down a level or two. It is micro management. People don’t like that term, but it has a place. When a fire starts, and the flames get out of hand, you can’t extinguish them sat in your office with your feet up.

What are the fundamental pillars of executing well?

It sounds boring but executing well is simply about saying what you are going to do, then doing what you say. People that do that consistently are ultimately worth ten times those who do not. Uncertainty has a cost. It requires redundancy built in all over the place, then you lose accountability.

I’m feeling itchy thinking about it. Work with people who make and keep commitments. If you say you are going to do something by the end of Friday, make sure it’s done by the end of Friday. Not Monday lunchtime. Unless its the Monday before…

What are your views on M&A?

The best M&A strategies are opportunistic from my experience. Any business is buyable at the right price, and same with selling. If you buy businesses at a multiple of runrate free cash flow generation that is well below market, your odds of that deal being a success increase substantially.

In my recent newsletter series on M&A, I explained that paying a shockingly low price is the best insurance policy against a failed acquisition.

I see too many M&A deals that are built on egos and autopilot. And then price becomes the balancing number. 99% of the time, that is a mistake.

How do you measure and assess the financial health of the organization beyond the standard metrics?

I use a measure called Maintainable Free Cashflow. I have written about it at length. If you are generating the right level of cashflow from core operations, everything else is easier.

Could you walk us through how you navigated a particularly challenging fiscal quarter?

Just front it up with investors. Bad quarters happen.

Bad quarters that surprise people make it look like management are not in control. Most businesses are never too far from a disaster, and good investors understand that. Showing you have a steady hand on the tiller, and you are being transparent, the market will forgive you bad quarters.

And even if they do not, worrying about what they think won’t fix anything.

A great way to build long term credibility and trust with investors is to have bad quarters, tell them what you are going to do about it, do it, and then show that improved performance. They’ll believe you next time.

What strategies do you employ to ensure transparency and accountability in financial reporting?

I talk about a principle called ‘Radical Independence.’ It means being able to:

  1. Clearly delineate fact from opinion
  2. Reason from first principles
  3. Manage your own biases
  4. Form an independent judgment on an issue
  5. Communicate that clearly

It’s much harder than it sounds to do well. There is bias everywhere.

The future of the SecretCFO

What’s next?

Well… up next is a post this Saturday on business turnarounds. More generally, I recently launched a CFO Skills Scorecard to my most loyal subscribers. It is a 50 question scorecard, with tailored results, for finance pros to benchmark the skills they need to be a successful CFO. I’m really proud of it, and plan to roll it out more widely during Q2.

I’m also working on a simulator for CFOs launching this summer. It will be a first of its kind development tool for senior finance pros to test their skills in the next best thing to a real life environment.

I’ve got big plans for where I take my content. I aim to become the one stop shop for CFOs and boards for best in class CFO content, training, development, tools, techniques, etc. Everything LinkedIn should be, but isn’t (don’t get me started)!!  The plans move slower than I like, but I only have 5-6 hours a week to spend on my ‘digital life’. And 80% of that is writing the weekly post. So I have to make do. I now have a small number of hand selected sponsors on board, which means I have invested in a small team to support me. That should help accelerate things.

What emerging technologies do you think will be game-changers for CFOs in the next 5 years?

But I’m not clever enough to know how. I just hope the boffins don’t retire me!

How do you stay adaptable in a constantly changing economic landscape?

It’s funny that a whole generation of finance leaders has grown up without interest rates or inflation. Then  over the last couple of years we have had to learn how to apply some of those principles we learned in college 20+ years ago.

What is one piece of advice you wish someone had given you at the start of your career as a CFO?

Don’t wait until you are 30 to start going to the gym.

Where can we hear more from you?

Sign up to receive my 2,500 word newsletter post each Saturday at

It’s a free 5 minute read delivered direct to your inbox everyn Saturday morning.

All of my important announcements will happen there first.

And you can follow me on twitter and linkedin. @secretcfo

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