Xerxes Cooper | Crain's Toronto

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Xerxes Cooper

Background:  

IBM Canada Ltd. is a leading provider of advanced information technology products and services. As a technology-based solutions company, IBM is dedicated to helping its customers solve their business problems, pursue new market opportunities and become more productive through the innovative application of business and technology services, cognitive solutions and cloud platforms. 

The Mistake:

Not doing more face-to-face client engagement early in my tenure as chief financial officer.

After serving as the CFO of IBM Canada for three years, I was recently appointed general manager of the technology services business for IBM Canada. It’s the largest business unit at IBM Canada. So it’s a big leap from the finance discipline and function, to new responsibilities for sales and overall business development.

In my three years as CFO, I spent a lot of time with clients, especially in the past year. But if I knew then what I do now, I probably would have engaged even more with clients, and earlier. I would have spent more time in front of clients in the first two years, leveraging the CFO title and building that network earlier with clients – not just with CFOs but with CIOs and CEOs.

Too often in our careers, especially in the finance function, we think of our role as internal. Accounting and finance professionals think of our role as “in the building,” working in the back office and in a support function, versus being out there with clients. But the role of the CFO is much more focused on business strategy and transformation rather than simply minding the books.

When you meet with clients, you gain better insights on their market and demands, insights that will help to influence your strategic focus and internal execution plans. Client meetings help you stay current with market trends, dynamics and competitive threats. They can give you advance insight into disruptive forces in the marketplace.

The modern CFO gets out there in front of the clients. And it’s not just the CFOs but COOs and CIOs as well. We have a voice and we can provide a valuable point of view to the clients.

If you’re a finance professional, get out of the office and meet with clients.

The Lesson:

If you’re a finance professional, get out of the office and meet with clients. Understand your marketplace. Understand your clients. You can play a role in supporting your sales and leadership teams with their agenda. My most fulfilling client engagements were when I was able to transform the relationship, working with the client CIO or COO or CEO, to address prior issues, align focus and deliver a fabulous client experience.

In client meetings, you can also be a catalyst for change. Sometimes the current relationship isn't working and, as a senior executive – with a voice to the president of IBM Canada and influence over all matters – you can be seen as an influential leader in front of the client, and help address relationship issues or challenges.

That means more engagement with clients, more engagement with the marketplace. It doesn’t mean you have to be out there closing deals, but you should be out there building professional networks.

Try to build your own brand as a market or thought leader. Be social, in terms of both social media and networking. Participate in panel discussions as a subject matter expert. My industry is IT and I spent a lot of time as a CFO on panel discussions about cybersecurity and digital transformation. If I knew now what I knew then, I would have done even more.

Follow IBM Canada on Twitter at: @IBMCanada

Pictured: Xerxes Cooper | Photo courtesy of IBM Canada

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