What does it take to be a chief financial officer?

Hajra Rahim
'Many people look to the CFO to get a pulse on how the company is doing,' explains Lee Kirkpatrick, Twilio's chief financial officer - Twilio

Twilio’s chief financial officer, Lee Kirkpatrick, explains the importance of being level-headed and why team building and trust exercises are a key part of his leadership style.

How would you describe what you do and what does an average day look like?  

I wake up every morning thinking about how we’re using our financial resources to hit both our short terms goals and execute our long term strategy. Day to day, I spend a good chunk of my time working with my peers on the executive team to prioritise, measure and analyse how we’re doing at the company level.

I take this information and spend the rest of my time working with my finance, accounting and technical operations teams to help them prioritise the right mix of initiatives that will get us where we need to be. Since we became a public company last June, I’ve also spent an increasing amount of time with investors discussing our performance and strategy.

What professional and personal skills does someone need for this role?

From a professional skills standpoint, accounting, financial modeling, capital structuring and so on. As chief financial officer (CFO), I also sometimes have to take the unpopular position of saying that we don’t have the resources to take on certain important projects. So collaborating with my colleagues and being empathetic to their perspectives is crucial. It also ensures that I remain a part of these important decisions.

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On a personal level, having a balanced outlook is also important. In a high-growth business, there will always be ups and downs. When things are going particularly well, I don’t celebrate – I stay calm and keep my eye on the ball. If we hit a speed bump, I remain level-headed and trust the team to execute.

Many people look to the CFO to get a pulse on how the company is doing, so it’s important that my actions instil confidence in the team, as well as allow the business to adapt to the changing circumstances
that are a necessary part of running a public company.

What has been the most important moment in your career so far and why?  

Early in my career I was divisional finance manager at Reuters. It was my first experience of building a team and being part of senior management. We made mistakes, but we built trust, made each other better and delivered on our commitments.

Creating a plan together and executing it as a team was energising. Since then I’ve always looked for roles that gave me the same type of excitement.

What trend, behaviour or technology on the horizon is going to most affect your role?

We’re in the early stages of having access to data and analytics to support decisions that we previously would make based on gut feeling or experience – everything from financial investments to marketing campaigns can now be informed by data. We see this in sports franchises and political campaigns, and it certainly applies to the technology industry.

While I firmly believe experience and personal judgement will never be replaced, the availability of data and analytical tools will allow us to be better informed while making decisions that affect our company strategy and direction.

What’s the biggest misconception about your role?

People often assume that finance people are simply bean counters responsible for expenses and quarterly financial reports, and not interested in much else.

The truth is that a major part of my team’s role is to support the execution of the operating plan and strategy of the company, and figure out how we can best use our business’s resources to deliver for our customers. Once we think that through, we talk numbers.

Which person, place or thing has really influenced your role?

I’ve worked for many great leaders, including Jeff Lawson at Twilio, but my biggest influence came earlier in my career, when I worked for Howard Naphtali at Reuters.

He was smart, relentless and I often felt that his expectations were unreasonable. However, when situations were difficult, he knew when to let up a bit and provide extra support. He also made it clear that he trusted and believed in me. That was powerful and I aspire to manage my team in the same way.

How would you describe being a CFO in three words?

Analytical. Pragmatic. Self-aware.

Lee Kirkpatrick is chief financial officer at Twilio