Sue Fan, Principal at The CFO Centre in Greater China
From work hard and play hard professional life to the demanding corporate CFO life, “long hours” and “work comes first” became a norm and for a working mum in Hong Kong, the idea of a work-life balance was a fantasy. Only when I parted ways with my last full-time CFO job, it dawned on me the extent of neglect I have placed on my family; in particular my three children. A long career break fell naturally in place. In 2014, a year into my career break, in the midst of me struggling to decide whether to remain a full-time mum or return to the corporate world full time, I crossed path with CFO Centre Hong Kong by chance which brought me into a role I never contemplated of doing before. Making CFO service affordable to the SMEs is a good concept but is a brand-new concept at the time for the Hong Kong business community, I had my scepticism on the market response. However, the model’s flexibility and portfolio offerings were a perfect match for my then circumstances; my desire to intertwine some form of work within my full-time mum role. The platform provided me with possible client diversity and freedom to strike a balance between work and family life at my discretion. This luxury came at a price tag; reduced financial reward compared to a full-time role, but it was something I am willing to forgo.
Undeniably the earlier years were difficult. Seeing the limited number of clients onboarding and the frequent turnover of not only clients but fellow-principals too was not encouraging. However, fully aware of the down-side of the financial reward aspect of the model, my known intended heavy tilt of the work-life balance towards my children and faced with an unforeseen critical health issue, I strived through the initial few years with only one client in my portfolio. Internal changes continued to happen in recent years resulting in a higher number of client onboarding. For me, clients came and went, but my portfolio did grow, securing a couple more long-term clients.
Over the years, I found that with many small and medium businesses, the owners’ primary focus was no doubt on business neglecting the finance function. Having direct contact with key decision-makers and participating in management and board meetings, I can, as their part-time CFO, make a difference by giving the owners a different perspective on their finance function and their business. It is very satisfying knowing I had a role in aiding the business growth and learn how owners and directors appreciate me and what I’ve delivered for them over the years.
Portfolio work style provides diversity but can be challenging. My long-term clients’ backgrounds cannot be more diverse with each of their needs varying immensely and changing constantly. It’s crucial to listen and understand, voice out concerns and provide solutions workable within applicable constraints. The part-time CFO needs to be very versatile as it is no longer just about numbers. Owners of small businesses do expect the part-time CFO to be the missing link in the organization and be able to handle any matters that may arise regardless of whether they are financial, operational or business-related. An inherent key but challenging aspect of working with small businesses is the importance of fitting in with the company’s culture. Each small business has its own unique cultures instilled by the owner’s entrepreneurial mindset. Fitting in may be difficult when manoeuvring between clients, but it is crucial in forming the foundation of a long-term working relationship. I found that it is more of a struggle if I am unable to adjust myself and fit into the mindset of the rest of the senior management team. When mindset misalignment happens, it is crucial to resolve quickly. Mindset alignment is something that requires constant work. For me, approaching my clients with these traits helped me to foster trust very much needed in building and sustaining a long-term working relationship with my clients.
This model is not for everyone as it demands entrepreneurial thinking and the luxury of the work-life balance comes at a price of reduced financial reward (as compared to full time), but it worked for me. Six years plus on, under abundantly clear expectations on what I want, what I can give and what I can get from this platform, my journey as the accidental part-time CFO continues, making my fantasy of a work-life balance into a reality.