Career Check With CFO Recruiter Samuel Dergel

In this episode of the Financial Executive Podcast, we speak with recruiter Samuel Dergel of Dergel Executive Search about how to improve our LinkedIn profiles, what CFOs can do to land a coveted board seat, and more.


As senior-level financial executives return from much needed summer vacations, it’s an opportune time to make sure their careers are moving in the right direction.

In this episode, we speak with recruiter Samuel Dergel of Dergel Executive Search about how we can improve our LinkedIn profiles, how technology has impacted recruitment, and what CFOs can do to land a coveted board seat.

An edited transcript of the discussion appears below the podcast player.


FEI Daily: I want to welcome everyone. Today I'm speaking with Samuel Dergel, a search consultant assisting companies with their C-suite and executive talent needs across the United States and Canada about the trends he sees as companies search for CFOs, controllers and other senior-level financial executive roles and how FEI members looking to transition into board seats can best position themselves and their resumes. 

Samuel, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really looking forward to our discussion. 

Samuel Dergel: Me too. Thanks for inviting me. 

FEI Daily: Let's start with what is unique about the job market right now.

Dergel: Well, the good news is, from a macro perspective, the job market is doing very well for senior finance executives. Now, there may be people on the call for who it's not going that well for. There are macro markets and micro markets. So, there could be people that are facing challenges, but overall things are very good. It probably hasn’t been like this since before the last recession. Things are good and the reason for that is pretty simple. There's lots of activity in the market. Private equity is driving a lot of activity. Companies are changing hands. Companies are changing where they want to go and how they want to get there and the CFO of a company today may not be the right CFO for a company tomorrow. So, executive change is happening a lot at the CEO level and that's driving CFO changes as well. 

FEI Daily: What would you say are some of the most common misconceptions about the job market today? 

Dergel: That search is easy. There are a number of people who've been in comfortable in a financial executive role in a company or a series a companies as they've moved on in their career and then at some point in time something happens outside of their purview, whether it's a change in ownership, change in the marketplace, CEO change and then they're looking for a new job. It's not easy to find a new job and as someone that works with companies, I can also say it's not easy to find the right person that a company is looking for. 

Now, when a company is looking for their next CFO, it's not just one person doing the hiring, although there may be one person that's running the search or having a big input into what a company is looking for. But, in the end, a lot of people have a say as to what the right CFO is for a company and that can make that search take a little longer than one would hope.

FEI Daily: Right. It sounds like it can be a challenge on both ends - for the job seeker and for the recruiting company. So how does your role come into play? 

Dergel: When we're hired by a firm to help them hire their CFO or a senior financial executive, we really try to, as much as we can, to make sure that we understand what the company is really looking for and why. Sometimes companies are really clear as to what they want and need, sometimes less so, they just know they need someone in the role. Regardless, the more time spent up front to ensure that the scoping of the role and the need is there, the easier the search can go over time. 

If you think about why any executive search fails, there are two reasons. It's because either they know what they want and they're looking for the wrong person so they hire the wrong person. Or they were looking for the wrong thing and hire the right person for that wrong thing for the company. Those two reasons are why they fail. 

FEI Daily:  When you're talking to companies and they're very clear on what they're looking for, particularly in a senior-level financial executive candidate, what are some of those common skillsets that you hear from those companies? 

Dergel: I would say more and more companies are looking for an operational CFO. They want someone to be able to help the business and impact the business. The CFO being just a numbers person anymore is less and less relevant. That's really key.

Many finance people start their training in the numbers, but those that have the ability to learn about the business and impact the business and grow their skillset way beyond just the numbers are those that companies are looking for today, no question. 

FEI Daily: Okay. I wanted to know how you've seen technology have an impact on recruitment. 

Dergel: So, from a professional space, LinkedIn has changed the landscape of recruitment, no question. Especially for professional and executive roles. We are a search firm. We had our own proprietary database but I'd be lying to you if I say we don't use LinkedIn. LinkedIn has sources and access to a lot of people. Now, I write a weekly blog called CFO Moves and in that, for the last seven years every week, we've been putting out news of CFOs being hired and retired and all those things and in it we link to the person's LinkedIn profile. So, in addition to the searches we do, we see a lot of LinkedIn profiles and there are some people that aren't on LinkedIn. There are some people that are on LinkedIn but don't have much information there. 

If you're a CFO or want to be a CFO today and you're not visible on LinkedIn, you're losing opportunities. Now, some people say, ‘Well, I want my life to be private. I don't want to have all my information out there.’ That's fine. But today if you don't have an electronic trail for your professional life, you don't exist. 

FEI Daily: Right. So what are some of the important do's and don'ts on LinkedIn?

Dergel: Number one, you’ve got to be there. It’s an important place to start. You have to be there. Number two, you have to have a profile that's professional. I mean, the worst that I've ever seen is somebody putting up a profile picture of them taking a selfie in a bathroom mirror. 

FEI Daily: Oh no.

Dergel: Now, it's an extreme example, but a professional profile picture is helpful. It's what people expect. If you don't have a profile picture on there, people are going to ask, ‘Why don't you have one?’ It's part of your image. You have to look the part. You have to look professional. On a comparative basis, if you're not doing that, it means that you haven't taken the time to be taken seriously. So why should I take you seriously? So that's important. 

Have enough information about your career so that people can understand a little bit about it. It doesn't need to be extremely detailed, but certainly enough to be able to understand what you've done in your career, what progression you've had, what kind of companies you've worked at, what  your roles have been, some of the things that make you stand out. 

LinkedIn is a tool. If you don't open LinkedIn, it's not helping you. So you need to see what's going on there. A key part of career management is visibility. If you're not managing your visibility… you don't have to be out there shouting from the rooftops that you're the best CFO in the world because nobody will believe you, number one. Number two, it's a little bit much for the role. You're not the chief marketing officer. But if you're not out there being visible, if you're not engaging on LinkedIn, nobody's seeing you and they're forgetting you. You may have 500 contacts, but if you don't engage with them, nobody's going to remember you and the opportunities are out there for the people that are memorable and will be remembered so you have to engage. Doesn't mean you have to post or create content per se, but you can share an article once a week at minimum with, ‘I found this interesting. What do you think?’ and kind of see what engages your network. That can certainly be helpful. 

FEI Daily: Great. Outside of LinkedIn, do you think job boards should be a part of executives’ job search strategies? 

Dergel: My opinion is no, but I'm not saying that there isn't opportunity out there. The fact is that if you’ve reached a stature as a financial executive, if you're looking at job boards, the probability is that career opportunities that are there are not for you anyway. I wouldn't invest time in that, frankly. 

FEI Daily: A lot of our members are interested in joining boards of directors. What are the different things that financial executives can do in their careers that will put them at the front of the pack and help them transition to a board seat if that's something that they're looking to do?

Dergel: It's important to be aware of what changes have gone on in the board search space over the last few years. Diversity at the board level is something that is more and more required and demanded by companies. That's just a fact. So female and minority CFOs will have a leg up on the white male. It's just the way it is. It's something that needs to be accepted as fact. However, companies, when they're looking for board members, specifically those with financial expertise - and that's why they'd be looking for a CFO or someone coming from a similar background to that - they're looking for the best fit. Remember, if you're going to be a board member, other than the fact you want to be a board member, what value are you going to be adding to the board that you're on? So that's number one. 

Number two is being a board member is not like being a CFO. It's another side of the table and don't think you can be a board member just because you're a CFO. You have to really prepare yourself for it. You have to be able to understand what's required, how to act as a board member and the best way to do that is to really learn from your own board. Take all those learning experiences from the board, both with what you've seen that you've liked and not liked, and try to package that together. 

Look, if you're a Fortune 100 CFO and you're about to retire, the probability is that you'll have access to board seats. But if you're not a Fortune 100, remember there are only 100 of them at the time, why are people going to want you to join their board? So the hardest board seat to get is the first one. How do you get onto a board? Really, networking is number one. Certainly companies use search for board positions, but more often than not, it's who do we know? Who do we know that has the right experience, the right personality fit, the ability to get things done in a board environment? 

The people on your board are really great resources to be able to say to them, ‘I'd like to get on a board eventually. How can I get on a board?’ Because board members get asked to be on boards more often than people that are not on boards and they turn things down. So they have access to board opportunities. That's something to consider: have your board members help you. 

But also, a great way to get onto a first board seat, if you take a look at where board people come from, and especially sitting CFOs going onto boards, usually there's some strategic relationship between the companies. Suppliers, customers, that will make sense for one company's board to have someone else from a supporting business to be on there, to be able to add value at the board table to be able to move the business forward. 

I also caution… people will say, ‘Yes, I can be CFO of my company and be a board member.’ Being a board member can be very time consuming and can take away time from your job. So, before considering accepting a board position, you may want to clear it with the CEO and the board that it makes sense for you to be able to do that. It can end up not working well for you if you take a board position for that's not supported by your current company.

FEI Daily: That's a great point. So, you've spoken about how executives can really utilize their personal and professional connections to find opportunities, whether they be board seats or probably other roles. We spoke about skillsets earlier, and I think a lot of our members are interested in improving their networking skills. Do you have any tips or thoughts on that? 

Dergel: Honestly, just do it. I recommend executives and finance executives specifically to carve out a piece of time for it. Now, you're very good at tracking KPIs for your department and for your business. What about for your own personal career growth? Two meetings a month with people. One cocktail a month. Going to industry conferences beyond finance. If, worse comes to worse, you have a month where, ‘Okay, I didn't have my meetings,’ but at least you're aware of it, you didn't have your meetings, you're not moving your career forward. You have to carve out one to two percent of your time specifically with regards to networking. Not networking and saying, ‘Hi, my name is.’ The best way for anybody to - and we tell it to people who job search because they have a little more time, but it applies to everybody- if you don't add value to your network of business friends, you can't expect people to when you need them, return your call, when you need them, make a call for you. We're all busy and we have people reaching out to us and saying, ‘Hi, I'd like to speak to someone. Can you help me?’ How many of those did we return when we were very busy? Do we? Why not? Well, I'm busy. We forget about it. Yes, you have to be selective, but if all you worry about is the job that you're in today and you don't take care of your own career, nobody's going to take care of it for you. At some point in time, you're going to hit yourself in the head and go, ‘Oh, that's why I needed to network.’

FEI Daily: What about when you're working with someone who's more introverted and it doesn't come as naturally to them? Are there any specific tips that you would give somebody who maybe is not particularly outgoing?

Dergel: That's a great question. It pains me to say this, but if a CFO-level individual is very introverted, they're going to have a very hard time getting a new job because the world today requires an executive not to be just technically oriented, but to have emotional intelligence to be able to deal with situations. There's nothing wrong with being introverted because, if you think about it, especially in the finance profession, a lot of us are but very introverted to the point that we can't get along with dealing with people. The fact is today, the CFO job, it's not a numbers job. It's a people job. 

To anybody that feels that they can't, that's okay. Then you don't have to be CFO. You can be a career chief accounting officer and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. I think it's fantastic. The requirement is huge and it's getting more and more complicated. Become an expert in it, they'll love you for it, and you'll be the CEO's best friend. The CFO will adore you because you make their job a heck of a lot easier. They can trust you. The CEO will appreciate you, but you won't be CFO and that's okay because not everybody has to become CFO. Nor should they. 

FEI Daily: That actually leads me into a member question that we got. The question is, what's the best way for senior-level financial executives other than the CFO to obtain board of director roles? The members said, ‘While I have a strong resume, most recruiters seem to be looking only for that CFO role.’ Is that true in your experience, Samuel? 

Dergel: Yes. Again, from a buyer's perspective, why does a board want a CFO? Because they want someone who's proven themselves in business, that they can deliver and they have a track record of that. Someone like myself, who truly understands the role of finance and how it fits in, not all recruiters can make the shift, even for someone like me it will be hard to be able to say my clients need the person to have been a CFO and to hire them. I go, ‘Yeah, okay.’ I mean, remember, when board members bring on a new board member and the 8K goes out and they talk about the background of the person, there is a demand for someone of substance and experience. When you've been stamped as CFO, it's like being stamped CPA or stamped anything. You've done that job, you understand it and therefore you can represent the company well.

Unless you have something that you can bring to the table that the company needs, whether it's a certain industry experience, which is very specific, or something else, it's going to be hard for, in a a board search that's being run by a search firm for someone to put you forward without having that background. 

It's hard to get around this. Not Impossible, but there needs to be a compelling reason why. There can be, but it's not likely. 

FEI Daily: Well, Samuel, I don't want to take up too much of your time today and I really want to thank you for your thoughtfulness in your answers. I think it was a really great discussion. 

Dergel: I agree. Personally, for me being on this call is very important. Your members are my audience and I appreciate them and I thank them for taking the time today to listen to us and I only wish everyone continued career success and all the best.

FEI Daily: Absolutely. Thank you again everyone for joining us today. Have a great day. 

Dergel: Bye-bye.