10 questions for Cormant CFO Catherine Goodison

Name: Catherine Goodison

Age: 47

Time with company: 10 years

Education: Bachelor of Arts in Economics, Virginia Polytechnic and State University

Company headquarters: San Luis Obispo, California

Company locations: U.S., U.K., Australia and Philippines

Number of employees total: 54

Number of employees the CFO oversees: 3

CFO's areas of responsibility: HR, finance, general policy

About the company: Cormant provides IT infrastructure management software systems for midsized to large enterprises across a range of industries.

1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?

Right out of college, I started in public accounting. I joined a small firm that was based in the Washington, D.C., area. It was great. The senior partner there had almost 50 years of public accounting experience and he really developed a client base which covered everything from car dealership owners to large military supply contractors to the government.

I was thrown into everything from year-end financial statements to tax-return preparation to audit to general accounting consulting services. It was tremendous, but what I discovered early on was that to be able to give good financial advice I really needed to be able to better understand the private sector, so after almost four years, I left public accounting and landed a job as an assistant controller for a company in Washington, D.C., that provided travel insurance services. Let's say you had an emergency while traveling and your credit card covered your trip, you would call the 800-number on the back of your credit card and we were the company you spoke to.

It was an international operation -- at least 80 percent of the staff spoke two languages. That proved crucial even in the finance department because we received a lot of paperwork from all over the globe written in different languages. This was my first experience in international finance. I learned that working styles and reporting standards and requirements differ around the globe. That was, and still is, interesting to me.

I left that job after two years because my husband was offered a great job in Singapore. We went without any expectation of me working. I was very fortunate to land a job almost immediately with KPMG Peat Marwick in their international tax department. I provided tax services to U.S. citizens working in Asia and companies in Singapore that needed to file tax returns in the U.S. I worked for them almost four years until we left Singapore.

In 2001, while living in the Philippines, Cormant started and the owners of the company said, "You seem to have a little time on your hands, Catherine, why don't you provide us with some of your expertise and help us get off the ground?" Within a couple of years, the board said, "Why don't you be our CFO? You've known us from the ground up, why don't you just go for it?" I've been with them ever since. Of course while all this was going on I was raising two small children, so it really made me focus on what is important to get the job done.

In that time we've expanded the business, adding branches and divisions along the way. It's like starting a new business every few years. I'm with Cormant now in the U.S.

2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?

I think every boss is an influence and they should be, really. You take on the experiences and bring that information and knowledge with you to the next position. But my first boss, the senior partner at the accounting firm, really made me feel important from day one and that made me work hard and smart.

The second one is my current boss. He's the one who reminds me that it's not always about the bottom line when you're making business decisions.

I think those two bosses really reminded me that it's the investment in the people in your business. The more you invest in them the more you get back and that has been true with everything I do. Besides that, they also remind me that I always need to be prepared. I will get hit by very challenging questions in my career and if I don't know what I'm talking about it takes a long time to recover trust.

3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?

In the last decade, 9/11 and numerous financial crises across the globe really changed both how governments operate and how consumers spend. Companies are now up against forever-changing reporting demands and the costs associated with those reporting changes are high, and because customer spending is really volatile it's difficult to think about capital spending and anticipate company growth.

You want to grow and invest in your business and it used to be easy to figure out a midterm plan -- a three- to five-year plan -- but that's challenging at the moment. You have to do it, but it's a risk and you have to think smart.

Also, there is the challenge of finding a market. You can't just think locally anymore. You have to expand your horizon when looking for people who would be interested in what you have to offer. It is important to learn different ways of thinking, different cultures, and different attitudes about business. It is demanding, but fascinating and really exciting. If you're willing to take that leap, the benefits are tremendous.

4. What is a good day at work like for you?

That's really easy. If we make a sale to a new customer, we get a really good review from an existing customer, and I can hear that staff are really happy and productive -- I hear lots of giggles and jokes and that sort of thing -- and when I'm able to delegate a responsibility to a staff person and they really appreciate what I'm trying to achieve, that's great. It means that the company is working like a well-oiled machine. I love it.

5. How would you characterize your management style?

I am a hands-off person, but I do have an open door policy. When you hire really good people and you provide them with really good resources you can just stay out of the way and wait for the results. Too much micromanaging and imposing your views on others means that you're losing out on an opportunity to learn from them. It's my job to keep the corporate culture and to set standards for how we do business, but the details and the style of an individual I leave to them. As long as the tasks gets done, I'm good.

I like to have my door open because it's great seeing people walk by and they're inclined to wave and say hello. You learn a lot about what's going on in the office outside of what you do. There is a tangible vibe. We have some very special people who work here and I learn a lot from them. That helps me in my decision-making for the company, as well as helping me to stay connected.

6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?

Really, they are the basic traditional ones. I'm looking for honesty and integrity. I do like to see a diverse background and an interesting education, which tend to give candidates skills that allow them to think outside of the box. They should also possess good communication skills and show attention to detail, which is obviously very important in finance. And finally, the applicants should be interested in new challenges and open to change.

These days, if you're looking for a 9-to-5 job where you just sit at a desk and you want the same things to happen every day, you're going to be hard-pressed to find a great job. We're in a time where everyone needs to be smart and efficient and flexible to what each day brings.

In our office, everyone wears several different hats. That makes for an interesting person and a motivated person, especially when they realize how much they can learn and grow by being open to news skills.

I think it's great to see when someone is quite surprised by their own abilities. If you don't let someone loose a little bit, they assume they "can't" achieve something new and can't is just never a good word in anyone's vocabulary.

7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?

It sounds very self-serving, but I like to ask what the candidate thinks about our website and our products. It's interesting to see who actually does the research about us and what information they're able to bring to the interview. It shows me whether they're really looking to work for our company and if they're really engaged in the interview. I find that when someone is interested in what we do they're able to talk about what they do and how they can be useful to our company. The information is very revealing and insightful.

When you live with your product every day, you think you know everything about it and it can be good to get a different perspective. Those are the kind of candidates I'm interested in.

But what can also be really interesting is hearing from the candidates who didn't do the research and what excuses they have for that. That can be a red flag. If you're not going to show me any effort into the interview, I'm not interested [in hiring you].

And I would say that keeping quiet in an interview is quite important. I was always amazed when I would go to interviews for a job, I'd walk in the door, say a few words and the interviewer was off chatting for a half hour. In the end, it was fine because I would be offered the job, but I'm not sure how much they really got out of me.

What I learned from those interviews was to keep quiet and listen to the interviewee. You learn a lot about them, from their mannerisms and their eye contact and even just the silence that's in the room when they finish. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the lack of noise and they start filling that space with responses that they probably had not planned. Those responses are very interesting because they are revealing something unprepared and not always appropriate. Those moments make a difference in an interview.

8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?

Not everyday is filled with traditional CFO duties. I have done a lot of sales and marketing in my job. I have done editing. I have done legal. You name it. We are a global company with sales on five continents and 20 countries, so I can be dealing with people in Europe in the morning, North America during the day and Asia in the evening, that's fascinating and still excites me. However, I still buy groceries for the pantry on occasion!

Starting with a company from the ground up has allowed me to learn a lot about every aspect of the company. Not only have I learned how to do a lot of different jobs within the organization, I've learned how to do them on a global scale. Everyday is new. I've learned to expect the unexpected. It's exciting. I love it.

9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?

Hang out with my family. I have two kids who are about to go off to college and I really want to make the most of the time we have together before they go off into the world. They're a lot of fun too, so it's not hard to be with them. I recently started gardening and -- wow! -- that's therapeutic. There's nothing like pruning back bushes that have gotten out of control.

10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?

I'm somewhat of a frustrated architect. My drawing skills are less than desirable, but I love to travel and explore cities and towns and see how they work practically and esthetically. I'm quite a visual person and I would love to be able to acquire some of those practical city planning skills and maybe apply them in a nonprofit capacity. Having lived in Asia for almost 20 years and just in traveling the globe I've had a chance to see a lot of interesting places and understand the importance of having a good and safe place to live. I would like to be able to ensure that is available to more people.

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