Authority Magazine | Nelson Tepfer of ProCFO Partners: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO

Jul 20, 2023

You cannot do everything yourself. So, make sure to build a team around you that will support your goals and the goals you’ve identified for the company. Do it as early as you can; otherwise, you’ll end up doing everything yourself. And trying to do everything oneself is an exercise in futility. So yes, while there are many things you must do obviously, you can’t do everything yourself. So again, make sure to build the team around you that will support YOU and your company’s goals.


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An Interview With Doug Noll

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Sure. So many people who get into this, what I’ll loosely call the part-time fractional consulting/virtual outsourced CFO world, tend to do it when they are in between roles and trying to figure out what they want to do next.

I did it backward. At the time, I was what I thought was happily employed as a full-time CFO when a friend of mine reached out to me because a friend of his was having some trouble with his company. My friend asked if I would be willing to have a conversation with his friend and give him some advice. And my thinking was, well, of course. “To help a friend of a friend,” I said, “then sure, I am happy to have a conversation. Why not?”

That conversation turned into a yearlong interim CFO role that I actually juggled with my ongoing full-time CFO job. It was a ridiculously busy year. But what I found by doing both (and I use this word so carefully) was that it was so much more fun working that way. I learned a new company, a new industry, a new business, and the processes, procedures, and strategies I’d come to think of as routine, day-to-day occurrences in my previous role were wholly new and perceived as “magic” to the company for which I was consulting.

The experience led me to decide that I wanted to do a whole lot more of this. So, I returned to my full-time role and company, converted my position to a part-time role, and started taking on clients of my own. And I continued the journey on my own for the next seven to eight years across nearly a dozen industries — from start-ups to half a billion dollars in revenue. And I loved it.

But when you do this on your own, you keep running into some variation of the same three challenges again and again, and again:

It is very difficult to develop and deliver at the same time, which therefore leads us to the next challenge;

It’s either feast or famine. You are either too busy, or you’re not busy enough; and

You only have your own experience and expertise to offer, which raises challenges of its own in two ways when you are dealing directly with clients:

Occasionally, a client will ask you if you have experience or have ever worked in their industry. They ask even though many of the issues we are helping to solve for them have nothing to do with their specific industry. They are general business issues. Nonetheless, it is an objection we occasionally run into.

But the flip side is that when you are a solopreneur, you don’t have teammates or colleagues who might have that specific experience or whom you can bounce ideas off of. So, I started to look at ways to do this — what I was doing as a fractional CFO — but bigger and better.

I hadn’t initially thought of building a company. But frankly, none of the options in this space at the time were all that attractive, as they seemed to add very little value to what I was already doing, or the company management couldn’t answer any of the questions my clients were asking.

But the exploration did eventually lead me down the path to co-founding this company, ProCFO Partners, which is very focused on two essential components:

There is an actual framework in what it takes to build and help companies overcome their challenges and develop their individualized frameworks for financial management and growth; and

There are a lot of CFOs out there who really want to help all these organizations. So how do we build this platform in a way that they can actually practice their craft in a way that is meaningful to them?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’ve actually got a couple. One of the more interesting aspects of becoming a CEO is making the transition away from working directly with clients. My entire prior career was built on working with business owners, whereas now, my role is focused on building and leading this company. This shift in focus alone, recognizing when the transition needs to happen, and knowing when it should happen has been a fascinating journey.

Another is learning to recognize one’s limits. A prospect of ours said it better than I ever could. He told me, “Nelson, I’m going to hire you because this company has grown too big for me to run on gut instinct alone.”

What made that statement so interesting is that the CEO felt free enough to share that thought with me. He was the CEO of a 300-person print manufacturing company with an accounting department of nine and a controller. But he knew the company needed someone to help him take it to the next level. His sizeable department was very operational and robust but reactive — not unusual for most companies. But what he really wanted and what the company really needed was a proactive and strategic department that could position the company for the future. And that is what we helped him transform it into.

It was a crossroads we also came to in a very short time. And now that we’ve grown to the size we are, we really have to take our own advice. We must be strategic, acknowledge our strengths and what we don’t know, and build systems to address that.

It is so much easier to tell clients what to do than it is to do it ourselves. But we recognize that we are now as large or larger than many of our clients, and so we must not only give ourselves the same advice on how to run a company effectively that we provide our clients, we’ve got to follow it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We joke internally that because we are a very lean management team, sometimes deciding, as management, who will be responsible for executing an action, ends up being like a game of tag, where the last person to say, “Not it!” is it.

We know, of course, that “Not it!” management is no way to run a company. And obviously, we’ve grown out of that because we recognized early on that managing by “Not it! was kind of happening by default. Now that kind of management strategy can work up to a certain point. But we very quickly grew past that.

So now, we’ve got a management strategy and delineated responsibilities. Today, we know who is actually responsible for which areas of the company. We know who and how to ensure that what needs to get done actually gets done. And we have structures in place so that everyone knows how we are going to support each other in making sure we are doing what we need to, not so we get to hang each other out to dry, but so we can figure out what kind of support they/we need from each other.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Well, it’s impossible to mention ProCFO Partners without mentioning my cofounder, Haleh Fardi. We met at a previous organization where we worked as (fractional) CFOs. In our last year or so with that company, we kept having conversations about whether the way the company served clients was the best way to do so. And best for us did not mean from an ego perspective. For us, best meant was the service we and the company provided best for our clients and best for our team.

When the answer kept coming back, “NO,” we started to think seriously about how we could provide this fractional/outsourced CFO service the right way…the best way. That was the most significant impetus pushing us to launch this company. Doing the right thing for our clients and our teams.

Haleh and I sat down and worked out the ProCFO Partners framework that would enable us to fully support and service our clients while building the right model to attract the right team.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?

The thing about growing a fast-scaling company, and what many people don’t recognize about leadership, is that when it comes to making decisions — or choosing between two apparently good paths — is that the choices you make are as much about what you decide not to do as they are about what you chose to do. In our role as CFOs for our clients, and what we do and how we work with them, we see many different opportunities and tasks that we could get involved in and take on to help them.

However, while we continue to offer new services, what has enabled us to grow as quickly as we have and to attract the right level of talent that allows us to be so successful, is our precise focus on exactly what we do. I’m often asked why we don’t offer other adjacent services — like bookkeeping, accounting, or controller functions. Why, they ask, do we only do CFO engagements when there is so much opportunity for us to do more with our clients?

I semi-joke that there are three reasons we run ProCFO Partners the way we do — two are business reasons, and a third is the real reason we operate this way.

The two business reasons are:

It’s better for the client not to have all their eggs in one basket. I genuinely believe it is rarely in the client’s best interests to have the full suite of finance-related service offerings under the same roof. I know some firms do that — and many do incredible work for their clients. But in our experience, it’s too easy for the lines between each service offering to get very blurry very quickly. And that is very rarely in the client’s best interests. We know this happens all too often because, unfortunately, many of our clients come to us from firms like those.

We’d be cannibalizing our referral resources. If we offer accounting and bookkeeping, and other related services, we would no longer receive referrals from colleagues in those spaces. And that would be a problem because referrals are how we built our business to the scale we are today.

I don’t want to run a business like that. I semi-joke about it, but the real reason we don’t try to be all things to our clients is that I don’t want to run that kind of business. Trying to do everything ourselves means running a different type of company with a different kind of structure, and quite frankly, I don’t want to run that kind of organization.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

If you ask ten people that question, you will get ten different answers. But for me, it is about focus.

There can be so many things that you can be working on or get pulled into when you run a company, especially a scaling one. Key is deciding where you choose to spend your time. One of the hardest things to do and probably the hardest to maintain is determining where you feel your time is best spent in the pursuit of the organization’s goals.

What’s really fascinating about our company is that both me and my cofounding business partner Haleh are CFOs which means we are naturally attuned to turn to our business’s numbers. The issue for us is how do we keep ourselves focused on the vision side of things — how do we keep ourselves focused on the execution? How do we keep ourselves focused on the bigger picture, so we can continue supporting more of our clients and key people?

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Depending on the maturity of the executives you are speaking to — the myth about being a CEO is that it comes with all this power. “Oh,” people will say, “you are the CEO. That’s great!”

I joke with people that when we changed my title from Managing Partner to CEO, the only thing that changed was who spammed me on LinkedIn. It’s fascinating what people think it means to own and run a company versus the reality of it.

One of the funniest CEO job descriptions I’ve ever heard is that as a business owner, you work 14-hour days so that you can afford to pay your employees to work 7.

Now obviously, that is an extreme example. But perhaps — taking advantage of the hyperbole of it — Being a CEO is not about walking in the door and ordering everyone around. It’s challenging to build any company like that, especially a quickly-scaling company in today’s environment. So being a CEO is a lot more about:

Recognizing what makes your organization different;

What is it that is attracting talent to you; and

How can you continue to develop so that you will support the company’s overall goals?

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I may have been luckier than most who take on the CEO role. Before I became CEO of ProCFO Partners, I worked very closely with many, many business owners. While I am sometimes frustrated about spending my time focused on this task and not that, thankfully, there haven’t been many genuine shocks that left me saying, “Oh no! This is my responsibility now too???”

As a CEO, there is definitely an aspect of the “Buck Stops Here.” There’s no one else to whom I can pass off my responsibilities. One of the biggest myths of being a CEO is that you can assign others to do all the work — that you don’t have to pick up any “dropped balls. But if you are growing a company and see that some things don’t get done, you have to roll up your sleeves and ensure the un-done things DO get done.

Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

That’s a fascinating question on so many different levels. I’m often asked if there is a particular type of personality trait that indicates whether a person will be a successful executive. And my answer is always the same: There are successful executives with almost every kind of personality.

What every truly successful executive does very, very well is to know themselves, their limits, and their strengths. This is important because you can always build a team around you to support you and the company in areas where you could be stronger. But you can only do that if you know where you are strong, where you are weak, and only, frankly, if you are willing to admit it.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

Culture is one of those fascinating topics, especially in today’s environment. In the past three years, if you look at when people have changed jobs, why they changed jobs, what drove them to change jobs, and how many now regret changing jobs — the reason, most often cited, is a company’s culture.

So, being clear about your company’s culture is vital. If you don’t define it, it will define itself on its own whether you want it to or not. When you are a small company, culture is who you are and how you show up at meetings. As the CEO, or part of the management team, you are setting the example (creating a context for culture). Even if you are unaware of it, it will happen on its own, or you can choose to define culture for your organization and instill it in your team. Culture becomes especially important when you’ve grown to a certain size. Because at some point, you, as the business owner or practice leader, can no longer be directly involved in every single conversation.

How do you create a corporate culture? For us and many organizations, creating culture begins with you defining your values. Defining the organization’s values is important because it impacts who and what you hire for. You are looking for people who can align with those values and further the company’s mission.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We are a mission-driven company. So, when we launched ProCFO Partners, we noticed how many companies that could have succeeded struggled to scale past a certain point because they lacked the right resources. So, one of our primary missions is to help more companies succeed and scale by ensuring they have the right resources, support, and counsel.

One of the things we believe in is that every business owner deserves to work with an expert CFO to guide their decision-making/goal-setting process. When companies work with an expert CFO to build an appropriate framework for financial management and growth, far more companies will be able to scale and grow successfully than actually do. This drives us and what we’ve chosen to build.

Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO” and why?

Make sure you can maintain focus. Maintaining focus is really, really crucial because, as a CEO, it is so easy to get lost in the minutia and be pulled in so many different directions. Stories about that distractibility abound when you think about business owners and what they end up doing day to day. As a CEO or business owner, you look back at your week and see it was so packed, but then you think, “Yeah, but I have all these other things to do that I never really got to address.” And then you wonder, well…where did you actually spend your time? What were you actually doing? That realization that there are so many things you can get pulled into as a CEO, leader, and co-founder of a company is critical to ensuring you truly understand where the value of your time lies in relation to your company and where you should be spending it.

Before becoming a CEO, I knew it would be like this. But it hits home daily when you are living it.

You cannot do everything yourself. So, make sure to build a team around you that will support your goals and the goals you’ve identified for the company. Do it as early as you can; otherwise, you’ll end up doing everything yourself. And trying to do everything oneself is an exercise in futility. So yes, while there are many things you must do obviously, you can’t do everything yourself. So again, make sure to build the team around you that will support YOU and your company’s goals.

Get clear about your goals — personally and for the company. I say this because there are so many things you can do, services you can offer, and clients you can take on as an organization, especially in the startup phase, which will not always further your goals. We had this issue come up for us several times. A client would ask us to provide a service that would benefit us from a revenue perspective — but was not aligned with our long-term goals. We did some of this in the early days of ProCFO Partners because when you are starting out and in service to your clients, you will take on almost everything you can to help them. But as we grew, we quickly recognized that while performing a non-CFO-related function generates revenue today (and we don’t want to dismiss that), we cannot do that if it’s not in line with our long-term goals.

As a CEO, you must get really, really clear about who you are, what your company does, its mission, and what will benefit clients and your organization. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many things you can focus on at any place and time. Getting really, really clear about your goals gives you a North Star to guide you…so you can say this is what we want to keep making decisions around; this will help the company move forward.

Part ways with unaligned employees quickly. Every business owner knows one is supposed to hire slowly; fire quickly. But we don’t always do it. I’ve been lucky enough to be in scenarios like these before and learned from them. So hopefully, we didn’t pay too much of a price for keeping an employee “past their expiration date…”

I call it “Part ways quickly with people you recognize are not aligned with you.” It’s not about an individual’s skill level. It’s about recognizing that this person is not a long-term fit for the company. Part ways with someone like that pretty quickly — even if they are a producer. It’s more detrimental to the company if someone like that remains with you for the longer term.

We’ve had to do it a couple of times in our short history. And it’s always been about whether or not a person was aligned with the company’s goals. And the conversation is typically in the context that working together is not a fit for either of us. It’s never personal. Severing the engagement quickly is essential — like pulling off a band-aid. I tell clients in the same situation, “Do not let this sit. Because when you do, there is a price to be paid.” We’ve done it ourselves, but thankfully we didn’t pay too high a price. However, we’ve definitely seen some organizations and worked with several clients that were hurt by an employee who was not a good fit and disrupted the environment for everyone.

Being a CEO does not make you a “god.” People aspire to be the CEO of a company for many reasons. People want to own a company for any number of reasons. For me, being CEO came about almost by default. It was not my goal. I ended up being the CEO of ProCFO Partners because I was probably best suited to step into this role at the time.

Being a true CEO is not about saying, “Oh, look at me! I am the CEO. I’m all-powerful, and everyone must do what I say.” It’s really the opposite. And the people who go after the title and the job with that kind of God-like attitude will struggle to be successful.

I am thankful that one of my first managers, the company’s CEO, drilled into me that running a company is never about power. It’s never about ego. It’s about doing the right thing to benefit your clients, your team, and your company.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I were looking to start a movement, it would likely be around leadership. I want to inspire more people to step into leadership roles.

I don’t mean by title, or even in the business world exclusively. I am referring to the nature of inspiring and guiding others.

Everyone does this to some degree in some environment. It should be encouraged and supported so it happens more. I think President Adams said it all:

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

President John Quincy Adams

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two I’ll share because they really impacted me and played a role in getting me to where I am today.

Is this the best you can do? When I was in grade school and came home with my report card, my father would look at the grades, and no matter what that grade was, his response to me was always, “Is this the best that you can do?”

He didn’t care whether I got a 96 or an 86, or a 66 on the test or report card. It was about whether I had done the best I could. So when he asked, and I said yes, his response would always be, “that’s great.” If I told him it wasn’t my best effort, he’d ask me, “Then what is it we need to change so that you can do better?”

Obviously, my father was holding me to a pretty high standard for a kid. But he knew me, and he knew that holding me to that standard of doing my best regardless of the grade was important to drive me to do well in school.

Apply that to the business side of things, and suddenly, you have the ability to look closely at performance. Are we really doing the best that we can be doing? And if not, what can or should we be doing to change that?

You only have time to do it right. One of my first managers used this quote from a college coach from the 50s or 60s: If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it again?

When he hired me, I was so eager that I’d take on an assignment and try to impress him by doing it as quickly as possible, only to find out that I did it quickly, but I didn’t do it the way it actually needed to be done. And so, I might have to redo it. So, the moral of this story is that speed doesn’t necessarily help anyone. Better to take the time to make sure you get it done right. This sometimes flies in the face of running a business when “perfect is the enemy of done.” So, what’s important is how you balance those two big items.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I want to hang with Jeff Bezos. I’m fascinated by his entrepreneurial journey — from the moment he started his company to when he recognized what it would take to determine the appropriate direction and then continue to drive the company forward. I want to know what gave him the insight and strength of purpose to move into areas that many critics thought were an entirely wrong direction. I want to know what gave him that insight and the foresight to continue to move his company along a path that outsiders predicted would take his company off the rails. I find that singularity of focus and vision — to stay the course and not be distracted by the many short-term opportunities to make money- very impressive. And I’d love to learn about what went into making those decisions along the way.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests.


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