As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Smith.
Josh Smith is the Chief Financial Officer at INE. Prior to joining INE, Josh spent 6 years with Narrative Science as Vice President of Finance, and Director of Finance and Controller. He also spent nearly 8 years as a Manager with Ernst & Young. Josh earned his Masters and Bachelors degrees from The University of Iowa. He currently lives in Raleigh, NC with his wife and son.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
From working in the rural corn fields of Iowa as a kid, to becoming the Chief Financial Officer of a multi-million-dollar company, I’ve taken a pretty unique career path. As a teenager, I really only knew that I wanted to break out of the world I was in. I can remember with such clarity trying to quickly make change at the fast food restaurant where I worked as a teenager, and the satisfaction I found in unlocking mathematical solutions to problems. By the time I entered college on scholarship, I knew my future was in public accounting. After an internship in finance with a successful Chicago business, and with a Master’s Degree under my belt, I joined Ernst and Young. I spent 8 years there before taking the biggest gamble of my career and joining a private Venture Capital-backed company as a Vice President. I’m currently the Chief Financial Officer at INE, a global Information Technology training firm.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
OK believe it or not, I had to eliminate the stories with X-rated boardroom views and network interviews involving Tom Brady’s deflatgate … finance can actually be quite a ride! When I think of the most striking experiences that have stayed with me throughout my career, though, I keep going back to an experience I had as a young Controller doing my first round of financing. An investor was looking to pour money into the business, and I was charged with setting up the data suite of financials and projections — basically amassing every possible internal financial document that any business values. Somehow I ended up sending the direct link to those internal documents to the investor before we had an official Letter of Intent. It was a rookie mistake, an unmitigated disaster, and I was pretty sure I was going to be fired. Fortunately for me, the numbers worked out and I ended up keeping my job. But that experience taught me an invaluable lesson at a young age: you can never be too careful. From then on, I have made it a point to pay exceedingly close attention to detail. The lesson paid off recently when I closed a round of debt at a previous company within a month of COVID hitting. I was aggressive with the deal but also painstakingly deliberate when it came to the details. The deal closed right before the pandemic hit, and quite frankly, I’m not sure the company could have survived without that financing. To me, that just reinforced how important it is to learn from your experiences and use those lessons to propel your future success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I have always had a bit of imposter syndrome starting with school while I was growing up and all through my career, a sense of self-doubt and incompetence relating to any recognition or accolades I receive, a sense that “I am not as smart as they think I am”. However, whenever, I feel this way I am reminded of a quote from Steve Job’s “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” Sure, there are some individuals who are clearly at another level, but the vast majority of everything that we have accomplished as a civilization was achieved by people who are generally no smarter than you or I.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
I’m a huge reader. I have a stack of books literally 6 feet tall, 3 feet away from me, that I have plowed through in recent months. There are a few I keep close at hand. “The Hard Things About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz is a great read. What I love about Ben is he doesn’t mince words. He lays out some very difficult and realistic scenarios. I read this book shortly after I started working for my first CEO. It was really eye-opening to get a very intimate glimpse into the challenges that CEOs and C-level leaders face, specifically when it comes to making decisions that affect everyone in the company. Those can be everything from head count, to budget, to investment and strategy decisions. As a CFO, I make these kinds of tough calls on a regular basis, and I think reading Ben’s book and understanding that being a good leader means doing what’s best for the overall group, even when it’s not popular.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
INE has a great product. But what makes us stand out is our commitment and genuine love for our students and clients. We have lifelong learners who come back to us year after year to train their teams for some of the most important work they’re doing as a company, and we take that responsibility seriously. We also celebrate our clients — their success really is our success. Take a look at our LinkedIn feed — you’ll find tons of engagement between students, clients, instructors, and INE employees — just taking time to chat with each other, and celebrate the wins. We have a passion for learning, and for teaching, and that transcends anything we could ever put in an advertisement.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
I’d say play the long game. It is one of the biggest investments you will ever make in your life. You wouldn’t trade your $50,000 car for a $5,000 convertible just because it was a nice day and you felt like taking a joyride. By the same token, don’t fall for every shiny new offer that crosses your career path. I learned this lesson early in my career. It was just after the 2008 financial crash and I was working for a big firm. Instead of the large raises and lavish company culture that had been touted during recruitment, my class was experiencing cutbacks across the board, and money was very tight. I began exploring options in the healthcare audit space, and found a job where I would be making significantly more money. I made it to the final round of interviews, but didn’t get the job at the time. I think I was secretly relieved, because my heart wasn’t really in that field, but the salary was enticing. Ultimately, they came back and offered me the job, which I turned down. I still think about that today, how glad I am that the opportunity didn’t pan out, because I think I would have been very unsatisfied by taking a sharp left turn simply for a short-term financial gain.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Earlier in my career, I was criticized for not selling enough of the business to the board. At the time, I was not at the C-level, but was involved in a lot of board activities. There were some who felt strongly that my realistic assessment of financials was too conservative and not optimistic enough at the board level. I was strongly encouraged to be less of a realist, and more of an optimist. I’ll say … I did try. Ultimately, that is not really my style. I’m transparent to a fault, and have been throughout my career. Looking back, I am proud to have stayed true to who I am and what I believe.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I learned the value of hard work as a kid in Iowa, working in the fields all summer detasseling corn. As a teenager, I worked in fast food restaurants, scrounging and saving all I could, and finally entered college on a scholarship. Working hard and sacrificing for my dreams is ingrained in who I am as a person today, and has certainly been a huge part of my success in accounting. I’m also a huge believer in honesty and transparency, particularly when it comes to financial issues. As an accountant, you have a lot of fiduciary responsibility to report numbers accurately, and you can’t have room for error or gray area. That said, I do try very hard to be empathetic, and put myself in others’ shoes, especially in my current role as a CFO. The difficult decisions I make on a daily basis impact so many people, I think a certain degree of empathy toward outcomes and who they will affect has helped me become a very effective leader.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
Sometimes I think the “C” in “C-Suite” should stand for “Cross-functional,” because so much of my job is to solve problems for the entire company, not simply the Finance function. That is much different than even the VP level. Once you get to the C-level, you have to understand and embrace the notion that your C-level colleagues are your “first team,” as Patrick Lencioni calls it in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” Across departments, I along with my C-level colleagues are charged with doing what’s best for the company, even if it means making decisions and sacrifices for the departments we manage.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think sometimes people assume that people at the C-level are all-knowing, and we sit around playing chess with people’s careers. This is so far from the truth. Sometimes we do have all the information we need, and we just have to make tough decisions that are not popular. But sometimes, we do the best with the information we do have, and hope it works. We do have a certain level of expertise at this level, so we aren’t completely flying blind, but I’d love to dispel this notion that CEOs and CFOs have every piece of information needed, 100 percent of the time. Sometimes we shoot from the hip, and sometimes we’re right, but sometimes we’re wrong, and the target is squarely on our backs.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
One-on-one meetings with those who report directly to you are essential. I’ve seen C-level leaders who say they don’t have time to meet with their directs, or frequently cancel meetings or make time for them only occasionally. I think it’s a huge mistake for executive leadership to not make time for these types of meetings and interactions. Right off the bat, you can help teach your employees how to delegate better. I find that if I put in an hour with a direct report, it usually takes 3 to 4 hours worth of work off my plate. I look at these one-on-one meetings as my direct report’s meeting — they set the agenda, lead it, and carry the meeting; I’m there to answer questions, unblock issues that are tied up, and assist with guidance. On slow weeks, I love to take the time to go back and examine what they’ve done over the last quarter or two that has been exceptional and/or is resume-worthy. You never want to lose a good team, but building them up and helping them grow is a key trait of a great leader, and I think that starts with investing in those one-on-one relationships.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
It sounds cliché to say that your people are your greatest asset, but it is true. It is especially true in the SaaS industry — where your people aren’t just important — they are everything! Think about it — there is no machinery at these SaaS companies, no inventory, no physical product to build. The ideas your people produce will make or break your business. I think it is a huge mistake to underestimate the importance of investing in your people, and similarly, making smart investments in the HR sector to keep your teams happy, motivated, and bringing their best ideas every day.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1 — Joining the C-Suite is like owning a business. Being a Chief Executive is a massive role in any organization, and it requires a change in mindset from positions you have held in the past. Whereas I was once able to schedule vacations, weekends, and time off by delegating my tasks to the team, that’s really not possible at this level. Keeping the entire organization running smoothly is a 24/7 job, and calls for all C-level hands on deck all the time. Similar to owning your own business and being in charge of all the details, C-level executives have to be willing and ready to jump into action at all times.
2 — The executive team is your first team. When I first started in my role as CFO, I was very used to prioritizing the finance department over all others, because it was “my” department. Once I stepped into this role, I had to change that mindset and put the good of the company before the good of my department. That might mean sacrificing on the Finance end for something Marketing needs, vice versa. Being able to make those decisions as an executive team for the good of the company, without favor for individual departments, is critical.
3 — People will treat you differently. My move from a VP level to the C-Suite didn’t come with any special powers, but the change in title dictated a change in attitude for some team members. This caught me off guard at first, because I certainly didn’t feel any different. But people were treating me differently, and I struggled with that. There are entire books dedicated to how chummy executives should be with their team, and at least as many different opinions. No matter where you stand on the issue, be ready to make the call — because your team will take their cues from you.
4 — You will have more bosses than ever. Those who imagine the C-level as a welcome respite from the demands of all those bosses and managers will be sorely disappointed. As the Chief Financial Officer, I am responsible not only to each of our employees, but also to the CEO, the Board of Directors, Investors, Stakeholders, and plenty of others. The pressure is on constantly to perform at the highest level, and there are no excuses. Make sure you are mentally ready for the challenge, and passionate about the cause.
5 — You will do A LOT of presentations. As Vice President of a sizeable company, I thought I did a decent number of presentations. That was nothing compared to what I do now. At the C-level, we are constantly aggregating information from department heads, translating it into digestible information, and assembling that into presentations for All Hands meetings, Board of Directors meetings, and Financial Reporting updates. Invest some time and effort into developing presentation skills — it will pay huge dividends.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
A great workplace culture is worth its weight in gold! A company I previously worked for had a cool tradition — the Donut Party. Team members were randomly paired up with others in the company each week, and they would go get coffee, or a donut, or whatever. It was an opportunity for people who would normally not interact to get to know each other on a personal level, as well as learn more about what they did professionally. The pairing was position-agnostic, so the CEO could be paired with an intern, etc. It was a relatively simple step that really helped our company begin to gel more and work as a team, instead of as a group of individuals.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think we should pay teachers more money, and maybe significantly more money in underserved communities. I remember reading a Y Combinator blog which was their “Requests for Startups” and they listed a bunch of ambitious topics that they are looking to solve and then it came down to “Education.” They said “If we fix education, we can eventually do everything else on this list — Human brain power is vastly underutilized on this planet because most people lack access to a good education. Strong education systems lead to greater social mobility, better workers, better citizens, and more and better startups. A small increase in the learning output of education systems across the globe would have an enormous impact on human productivity and economic growth.” and that really stuck with me.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I occasionally write for INE’s blog, and appear on INE Live, which streams across social media platforms including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube. You can also find me on LinkedIn here.