Ep. 243: Alissa Vickery - Stepping Into CFO: Balancing Multiple Finance Roles

November 20, 2023 | 26 Minutes

Welcome to Count Me In! In this episode, our host Adam Larson welcomes back Alissa Vickery, Chief Accounting Officer, SVP Accounting and Control at FLEETCOR, who shares her journey as an interterm CFO at FLEETCOR. Discover how Alissa balanced multiple finance responsibilities, handled the weight of the CFO role, and developed her leadership strategies. Get ready for an engaging discussion that will inspire and inform.

Full Episode Transcript:
< Intro >
Adam:            Welcome to Count Me In. In today's episode, we are excited to have Alissa Vickery back on the show. Alissa is the Chief Accounting Officer, Senior Vice President, Accounting and Control at FLEETCOR Alissa, who served as the interim CFO at FLEETCOR shares her experience stepping into the role, navigating the transition, and balancing multiple responsibilities. She discusses the importance of building a strong team, seeking advice from mentors and auditors, and effectively communicating with peers and leaders. 
She candidly shares her success stories and learning opportunities, during her time as the interim CFO. Lastly, Alissa reflects on how this experience has shaped her career trajectory, and emphasizes the importance of being a business partner within the finance leadership role. Keep listening to hear Alissa's insights and advice. Let's get started.
< Music >
Adam:            Well, Alissa, we're very excited to have you back on the Count Me In podcast. And today we're going to be talking, a lot, about your role, how you served as an interim CFO at FLEETCOR. And, so, to start off, maybe, you can briefly describe your experience as an interim role and what were your main responsibilities?
Alissa:            Sure, so I guess I'll back it up a minute, when you get asked to sit in that kind of seat, even on an interim basis, it is quite overwhelming and humbling, all at the same time. And, so, after serving in various roles in the finance sector here at FLEETCOR over the last 12 years, stepping into the role and the responsibilities, and I'll just call it the weight of the position was, quite frankly, a moment where for me, professionally, I had to really look in the mirror and say, "Okay, I can do this. I'm ready. I can accomplish what my leaders are hopeful that I can accomplish."
But in terms of what prepared me for that, I think it's the experience of being on the journey of the FLEETCOR trajectory over that 12-year cycle, and holding various roles throughout the organization. But always in a global capacity, and always in the interest of, I'll call it the overall finance good. 
Whether it's helping with a deal and making sure that we're thinking through the risks and rewards appropriately, working on valuation, thinking about internal audit. It's really those experiences that prepared me to be able to step into the role in that moment, at that time, whether anticipated, unexpected, whatever. And, so, it was quite the opportunity, at that time.
Adam:            Yes, I can imagine the weight of stepping, into something like a CFO. Because if you're not used to that, if you've never been in that role, there's a certain level of responsibility that is on your shoulders, all of a sudden. Like one day you're not, and then the next day you are. So it's a big transition. How did you navigate that transition to that new role?
Alissa:            I would say I spent as much time as I could with my outgoing CFO, that was step one. Talked a lot with HR around how to navigate the executive ranks, if you will. I was already in the room, but having the CFO hat was a very different hat. And then I would say getting advice from both of those parties, as well as my external auditors. Who were already, I'll call it trusted business partners, as we navigated forward, and just trying to be, quite frankly, as prepared as I could be. 
But then also have the chats with my CEO, to understand exactly where he wanted me to focus. Because I knew that it would be challenging to be all things to all people. I already know that in my personal life/professional life. You can't do all things excellent, at the same time. If you're being a great employee, sometimes, you're not as great of a mom or a wife. And, so, always striking the right balance.
And, so, understanding what he was hoping that I would help control, and help manage, and get him comfortable with, as we moved forward. And, then, I think getting the advice from my outgoing CFO, who was quite gracious with the time he had left in the organization, around making sure that I was leaning on others. I was not in this by myself. I have a team. We have a strong team, and they help to build and support a great finance organization. "Don't forget to lean on them, ask for help, and seek the advice of others when needed."
At the end of the day, I had already built the trust throughout the organization through my tenure, and through the various projects I've worked on over the years. And, so, not discounting the value, and I'll call it just the level of experience that facilitated in the new seat.
Adam:            I can only imagine, but it sounds like you had a great team. And having a great team around you really helps lift you up, and prepares you for that. Are there certain leadership strategies that you had to implement to try to navigate this waters? Because one day you're same level as other people, and the next day you're suddenly a C-level person, right?
Alissa:            Yes, it's just the short answer. It was super fascinating because suddenly I had a new peer group. And, so, working directly with each of those peers, and I have to say they were so gracious, and saying, "How can I help you be successful?"
"Let me know what you need." So I think that's part of it. 
But, then, too, in terms of the skill sets, it was really having the fortitude to find the right help. Back to my statement, I can't be all things to all people, at the same time. I already was the chief accounting officer, still am the chief accounting officer. But I had to elevate to CFO and wear both hats. 
And, so, making sure that I brought in some help to supplement where I knew I needed to step out, and being thoughtful about what that skill set looked like. Knowing that I wasn't going to be able to give every piece of the process, the time that I would have had I only been wearing the single hat. 
And, so, I would say learning to let it go, it's very difficult. Learning to trust your people in a way, I was already trusting them. But I had to trust them in a whole new level, and they're all fantastic, but it's just a change in mindset. I think type A personalities tend to keep it close, and close to the vest, and understand all the moving pieces, and then you can release. 
And, so, I had to get out of my comfort zone, greatly. And I had to figure out new ways, quite frankly, to manage my calendar, manage my availability for those team members. Provide the right level of support to my new peer group, as well as be available to my CEO whenever he needed it.
Adam:            Yes, and the whole thing about being able to wear multiple hats. You can't wear both hats, at the same time, and be available for both sections. So how did you balance having two different roles in your lap, at the same time?
Alissa:            I would say focusing on the hottest fire or the most important thing, at any one point in time, and, quite frankly, having a significantly longer day. I would start my day a little earlier than I would typically, and certainly ended it later. And it is no joke when you take on a new role, even in the same org. It takes a level of commitment, and a level of just dive down, and hunker down, and get the work done attitude. That you don't typically have when you've sort of been in the role, in that same role, for a period of time.
And, so, just being quite reflective on what were the most important things, at each point in time. Looking at my week, that weekend, in advance, and really being thoughtful about where I was going to be able to spend that time, working in time, to at least have one touch point with my finance and accounting team. So that I was super clear where we were in either budget cycle work, or in 10-Qs, 10-Ks. 
Because that's really what we're hyper focused on, as well as I'll call it the internal audit work. Making sure we're tracking through supporting our auditors. Having enough of an awareness of what's going on, but not being able to own it. Really expecting my team members to own it and report up to me. So that we are striking the right balance and achieving the outcomes that are expected.
Adam:            Were you able to identify different strategies or better strategies, on how to deal with different tasks that you may have done differently, if you just had the one hat on? Were you able to identify different strategies to do things more efficiently, and maybe find better ways to do things for the organization, overall?
Alissa:            Well, sure, and I think implementing technological tools that help you to do things in a smarter, and more effective, efficient way, are always huge. And, so, we did that in a number of, I'll call it the budgeting process pieces. And it was probably the best thing that ever happened to the team, and to the process, because it forces you to take a step back. You have to find a way to do it smarter, more effectively, with the most accurate answer you can have. Because if we know anything about a budget or a forecast, it's wrong. But we're trying to get it as on point as possible.
And, so, bringing in a little bit of contract help, combined with the team really having to take ownership. It forced that level of, "Okay, let's use this system to do this piece of work. We haven't used the system to do it before." Engaging with the leadership team to make sure that they're thinking through the risks, the same way I might. So that when I step in, I'm just asking the very top of the house questions. Okay, "Did we do A, B, C, D, E,?" 
Okay, "Yes. Wait, F you haven't done that, yet? Go back, make sure this is part of our model, and then come back to me to where I feel really good about whatever the output is." And that's more on the budgeting and forecasting side, on the Qs and the Ks' side, it's really being super conscious over what the open items and tasks are to get us to end a job. 
Knowing that when we acquire businesses, that entails a level of incremental effort documentation. It makes it from a deal document to a piece of accounting support, and memo, to the 10-Q or 10-K. It's a journey that involves a lot of third parties that help us to get to the right answers, and the team had to own it. And, so, I had to get comfortable that the team could own it, with just my sort of at the top, read the document, feel comfortable, that it's not materially misstated because they've done their jobs.
Adam:            Mh-hmm. How did your leadership style evolve throughout this process? Because I'm sure you had to adapt as a leader, with two different teams, and different peer groups. How did that evolve over this time?
Alissa:            I think it fundamentally shifted from being a little bit more hands on because I couldn't be, to the trust but verify, have the conversations that give you confidence. So we all do these DiSC Surveys here at FLEETCOR, which I think are really useful in terms of how somebody's brain works, and where they pivot on a cycle. 
And I would say I would absolutely tend to be highly analytic, a little less direct, probably, a quieter person in the room, unless I feel like I have value to add. Stepping into the CFO role, I had to get a little uncomfortable. I had to be willing to find my voice. I had to be willing to speak up. Because I do know the business, I do know the risks. I do know the people at the table, and I know their businesses, and their products. 
And, so, trying to ensure that I'm adding value, supporting our CEO and his efforts to get to the final envelope for the budget. But then, ultimately, being able to translate everything that I'm doing from a financial leadership role and pivot that into an investor purview. 
So where I'm sitting on stage, at an investor conference, being asked questions that are, quite frankly, at a very high-level about the organization. But then dive down into the details, and finding my voice and being able to answer those in a way that is clear, concise, and eloquent. Because they're trying to get comfortable with what we're doing as a business and a public company, and, ultimately, to build investor confidence in the stock.
And, so, that is a muscle that I did not have prior to the role. It is one I feel like I exercised quite a bit. I worked a lot with my investor relations team, and they are fabulous, I have to give them a lot of props. Because that prep work and the homework, to then be ready to go, step on stage not three months, probably three months into the role, it was fantastic and a great learning opportunity for me.
Adam:            Yes, that sounds like a great learning opportunity, it really stretched you as a person. And, so, thinking about your career development and where you see yourself going. How did serving as this interim CFO, how did that change your trajectory, of where you saw yourself going in your future professional development?
Alissa:            Yes, it's a great question. I would not have said that my end goal was CFO prior to taking the role. Not because I didn't think I could do it, but just because I think we, as humans, we get comfortable in roles, and comfortable even in the space in which we serve. "I am an accountant, it's comfortable. I know what I'm doing, it feels like home."
But stepping into the CFO role, forcing me to get a little uncomfortable, a little out of my comfort zone. And finding that voice where I'm more of a leader in the room, as it relates to business as a whole; being thoughtful, strategic, partnering with our different operators to where we all achieve the ultimate, bigger, better outcome. 
I think, then, it changes your mindset a little bit. And, so, I absolutely see a future role where, hopefully, it benefits me that I've served in the role, but perhaps as a CFO in the future. Of course, for now, though, I would say having served in the role, it's not like the respect goes away, those relationships exist. And as my new CFO came in, we had a very direct and honest conversation about what I hoped it looked like going forward. And very pleased, so far, that I'm still allowed to have the seat at the table, to be a voice in the room. 
I know my place as the lead of accounting versus the lead of finance. But striking the right balance, and being a business partner for him, as well, as he learns the business, the people, the risks, what we're trying to accomplish. And, so, hopefully, I'm a much more effective chief accounting officer, for having served in that CFO role at this org.
Adam:            Yes, it gives you a whole new insight. And, plus, you've walked in his shoes, so you can say, "Hey, this is what I was doing, but let's talk through a better way of doing that." And it gives you that newfound respect, right?
Alissa:            Yes, it's interesting, as you walk along the journey, especially, given that was my first time in that CFO seat. You have perspective coming out the other side of it. 
Adam:            Of course.
Alissa:            That you absolutely don't have, as you're trying to just work through your days, your weeks, your months, your deadlines, your filings, your earnings' calls, whatever it is. And, so, watching him come in, as brand new to the org, and how he operates has been insightful, for me. 
But also, it has allowed me to reflect on the experience, which was almost 10 months in length. To really have my takeaways as, "Okay, this is what I did. Here's what I could have done better. Here's what I think I actually did a pretty good job on, and here's the things that I didn't touch at all. So I want to go figure out how I can continue to grow and learn in those capacities."
Adam:            Yes, so I imagine there's somebody listening to this podcast, and thinking they either have the opportunity, or they're saying, "What if I get this opportunity?" What advice would you give somebody who has the opportunity to step into interim CFO or balance multiple finance responsibilities? What advice would you give them, walking into that?
Alissa:            I would say, first, take a deep breath, it's going to be fine. If you're asked to step into the role or you volunteer to step in the role. If you have the gumption and believe you have enough of the skill set to perform in that role, you probably do. 
And, then, from there, I think, it's assess your team where your gaps are, fill in for where the weaknesses exist. Whether that was you stepping out, so you don't have anybody to fill that role, or you have known other challenges in the group and fill those holes. So that you were able to focus on the bigger picture, the more strategic aspects of the role, as opposed to getting sucked back into the weeds. I think it's the weeds that can tend to bog you down and, potentially, drown you.
And then once you've got that core team and you have confidence, lean on them, empower them, make it a growing opportunity for them as well. Because I think, collectively, we all get something more out of it if we all benefit from the temporary elevation in title/role responsibility. Provide the guidance, lead them well. You are in the seat to be the financial leader, not just to make sure the numbers are right. 
And, so, that entails working with your business operators. But also working with the individuals who, maybe, used to be your peers, and helping them ensure that they're able to convey the messages, and the answers that the CEO is looking for. Or at least the outputs that the CEO is looking for, maybe, it's not always the answer that he wants. But provide the support for them when they need it, along the process, and creating trust in the org is ultimate. 
I tend to have an open-door policy, sometimes, to my own detriment because the door just opens. I'll be honest, I debated whether I needed to shut the blinds and lock the door, just to ensure that we aren't interrupted, but it's a good thing, it's a good problem to have. And I think my personality just lends itself to that, in general. But being available for there’re individuals who need you when they need you. Because they may walk down the hallway and they may not do it again. 
And, so, being available and ready for that chat when it occurs or when it needs to occur. And, then, I think being a change agent when appropriate, knowing that the way we've done things isn't always the way we need to continue to do things. Being thoughtful about how we use technology, I've always said, especially, in large orgs, it's a little bit like eating an elephant, you're not going to do it all in one bite. It's one bite at a time. 
And, so, while we may not build the Titanic, all in one year. What we can do is make incremental improvements to our technical debt, to our financial processes, to how we analyze our business. To the outputs that, ultimately, help investors better understand what we're doing, or leadership better understand what the performance of the company truly is. So that we do make improvements year over year, to where over a period of time, it is much more meaningful.
Adam:            Yes, I think that's some wonderful advice. And I was wondering if you'd be willing to maybe share a success story while you were interim and maybe even a failure because you've been telling some great things. But I'm sure everything wasn't flower beds and roses the whole time you were the interim CFO.
Alissa:            I think a success story is when I was appointed to the role, immediately looking for somebody to fill my spot. To fill the gap that I was going to leave. So that I could truly focus on supporting the business and my leadership team. I cannot speak to how important that decision was now after the fact, and how finding the right person. Not just somebody, but the right somebody or somebodies to come in and assist.
Having a network in the payments and tech community, and the financial community, in the Atlanta market, enabled me to identify who those right individuals might be. And I interviewed a lot of people to try to identify the right resource, and that was a total home run. It enabled me to step out of the role and just know it was going to get done.
But it also empowered my team to really own their pieces of the business, and their pieces of the finance puzzle, in a way that they had not had to prior because of my level of engagement and involvement. So I'm super proud of what we accomplished there. 
So, perhaps, a learning opportunity that I got out of the experience, is just learning how to ensure that I'm always effectively communicating with all members of my leadership team. There were a couple of instances where I felt like I could have better communicated or more proactively communicated. And it was one of those things where I didn't figure it out until after the fact, which is on me.
I did have the grace of being in the role on an interim basis. And, so, those individuals who really needed me to communicate that information more proactively, they absolutely rationalized where we were. But it's something I can grow from, absolutely.
Adam:            I think it's amazing, and thank you for being vulnerable to share that learning opportunity. Because it's not easy to share those things because, sometimes, you just want to talk about all the successes, but it's difficult. And you mentioned a little bit when your new CFO came in and you had those conversations. Can we talk a little bit more about what that transition was like, as you transitioned back out of the role?
Alissa:            Sure. So I would say our new CFO is a very experienced financial executive. And, so, he came in with his views as to what finance looks like, certainly, in other organizations. A benefit that I didn't necessarily have stepping into the role. 
And, so, he was cognizant of, perhaps, the situation that I might be feeling, certainly given the situation I was in. But just trying to be open and open-minded, quite frankly, about how we would hand off the responsibilities, the tasks. Even as simple as, "Well, if you came in right before earnings, who's going to speak on the earnings' call?"
And, so, just striking the right balance, in those very first days. And, then, once we had those first days behind us, then, just being open to the learning experience. But also trying to share with him as many nuggets of knowledge as I could. But allow him to ask me questions as it was organic to his growth trajectory, and learning experience here at the company. And, so, I would say really trying to treat it as a business partnership. 
Because, ultimately, I believe that this organization needs a leader like this individual that is brought in, with a lot of financial acumen, a lot of experience, which enables them to lead in a different way. We are a large global S&P 500 company. And, so, I'm really excited about what the future holds with him at the helm.
Adam:            I think that's great, being able to partner, be that business partner. And a lot of examples you've been sharing today have been about being that business partners. And I wonder if you could, maybe, share a little bit about how you view the finance role and the leadership, as the business partner within an organization.
Alissa:            So I think that finance becomes the connective tissue. Without finance, it's really difficult to understand what the results are, what the performance looks like, gathering KPIs. Gathering them in a way that's consistent, accurate, and complete across an org, to where you have comparative metrics. And, so, it's not just in terms of producing the results. But then having those next-level conversations with operators or being part of their executive meetings, to understand what's happening in the belly of the beast.
We don't have a ton of businesses, but we have enough to where going that extra layer down helps you to just really rationalize the why behind what the numbers are trying to tell you. Because the numbers only can go so far. 
And, so, understanding that sales is connected to credit underwriting, which is connected to bad debt. Which is, ultimately, connected to the financial performance of that business unit, is super helpful. But then understanding that the personalities at play, and perhaps how you compensate individuals may drive behaviors that either were intended or unintended. 
And, so, it becomes this great web, if you will, of, connectedness. That if you insert yourself into the process at the right points, whether it's credit, sales, operational results, recruiting, whatever. It really does help frame up the why behind the business performance, and business results, and how we plan to move forward from those as well.
Adam:            Yes, Alissa, your story has been wonderful to hear, and it's not every day you get to hear somebody's story of being in an interim position, especially, a CFO's position. 
And, so, I just want to thank you so much for being able to share your experience with our audience, today. And thank you so much for coming back on the podcast.
Alissa:            Thank you, it was really good to see you again.
< Outro >
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