Eric Ellis is past council chair and a current member of AFP’s Financial Planning and Analysis Advisory Council (FPAAC), which is instrumental in the delivery of relevant and timely content to the membership and community. Ellis recently took on the role of interim CFO of the National Restaurant Association where he has been working for nearly six years, starting out as senior director of FP&A.
AFP: What have you learned in going from staff accountant to interim CFO?
My greatest lesson has been how to lead. And honestly, I learned it from a place of pain and dissatisfaction. I learned how to put together good PowerPoint presentations from a woman who belittled me in a meeting for a good half hour because I hadn’t used the right color fonts consistently throughout. But from that I learned how I did not want my employees to feel when they mess up.
I also learned a lot from a stint at a for-profit college, particularly, I learned how I would not manage people. I wasn't meshing with anybody, and I just wasn't aligning with the culture. The top players on the team, including the CFO, all came from the big four, and they had a certain attitude about getting the work done. There was no such thing as home. Forget a balanced life. You get the job done, then you sleep.
It became my expectation — one that caused me a lot of anxiety — that every time I walked into someone’s office with a report, they were going to pull out a pen and start marking it up. There was no room for anybody to improve in that type of environment. I never want my employees to feel like they can't come to me with a question. I never want to leave an employee feeling dumb when we're having a conversation about business matters. I want to motivate my team, and the way to do that is to be a good person.
The contrast is with my current situation at the National Restaurant Association. I had good advocates in the association who saw potential in me, which allowed me to move up.
How do you think FP&A prepares someone to be CFO?
FP&A pushes you to think broader, beyond the numbers. You’re coming from a more strategic vantage point as relates to the business because you have to, especially nowadays. You have to think about not only financial risk, but enterprise risk as well. FP&A teaches you how to engage with your peers. You have to be able to tell the financial story to non-financial people. You have to know what's right around the corner, and you have to understand: if we pull this string on this end with this department, what's going to happen to the string at the other end of the department.
So let me ask the reverse of that question: If you are in FP&A, what blind spots or skill sets do you need to add in order to become the CFO?
You need to be able to build a good team around you. You have to think about not just what does the FP&A team look like, but what does the entire accounting team need to be in order to make me a success? Because as CFO, you're going to gravitate to one area of the business; you're not going to be able to do it all, and you're going to go deeper into those places that, quite frankly, interest you more. For example, if audits and financial controls don't necessarily interest you, then you need to have a strong controller team.
There's a Gartner report that showed 37 unique tasks that the CFO does, and you can't be an expert on all of them.
You can't, and you will kill yourself trying to be involved in everything. I hate micromanaging, and I hate to be micromanaged. I've taken that philosophy with my team. When I was interviewing for the job at the National Restaurant Association, at the end of the interview, I asked the proverbial, what's your management style? And quite bluntly, my soon-to-be boss said, “Well, I'm not the type of person to micromanage. If I have to micromanage you, then I shouldn't hire you.”
That really stuck with me. And that's how I go. I'm giving you autonomy. I'm encouraging independent thinking to let your own intellectual curiosity carry you throughout the organization, but I need you to have discernment. If something needs to get elevated to me, let me know. We can work it out without fear of you losing your job.
You've been on the advisory council for three years now, chair for the last year. What have you learned from that experience?
We are not alone. I have real, live resources outside of reading an article or someone who works in my own shop that I can reach out to and bounce ideas off of and collaborate with. I’ve learned that it’s okay to reach out because it can't be a dumb question if somebody in this group either had or is currently in the middle of the situation that you might be possibly in.
What would you like to see the advisory council do in the future?
I've been giving this some thought. We all joined AFP because we believe in the value of what AFP brings, particularly to the FP&A community. We all have a vested interest in helping AFP progress forward. And we all have the opportunity for greater advocacy within our own networks. We could do a better job of that, introducing that into our own networks, our own companies.
I have an opportunity now that I am the CFO and have influence throughout the organization. I have an opportunity right now to talk about the value proposition of AFP to my team and to present opportunities for funding. If you want to get your certification here, if you want to go to the conference, I've already put the money aside.
In addition to being your source for FP&A expertise, AFP administers the Certified Corporate FP&A Professional designation, which serves as a benchmark of competency in the FP&A profession, as well as the Certified Treasury Professional designation. AFP also hosts the largest educational and networking conference worldwide for corporate financial professionals, and FinNext, the preeminent FP&A conference.