Redefining the “Finance Guy”: An Interview with Lever CFO, Ed Tang

How do you carve out a unique career path for yourself on the way to becoming CFO? Is it even an option in the world of Financial Planning and Analysis? As CFO at Lever, Ed Tang’s career has redefined what being “the finance guy” really means. From leading entire Operations groups to fundraising, there are few places Ed is unwilling to go. In our in-depth interview, Ed shares about the power of mentorship early in his career, why it’s important to have a well-executed opinion, and how speaking up can create opportunities you wouldn’t think to apply for.

Leslie Boudreaux: First of all, thanks for being here and congratulations on your new role as CFO. As a starting point, can you give us a brief rundown of your background?

Ed Tang: Thanks for having me. For the last six months, I’ve been the CFO at Lever. Previously, I spent five years at Box running a number of Finance, Operations and Analytics teams. Before that, I spent nine years at Salesforce also covering a lot of finance and strategy roles. I grew up in the Bay Area, went to school at UC Davis, and love Silicon Valley.

Follow Ed Tang on LinkedIn.
At what point in your career did you know you eventually wanted to be a CFO?

At the tail end of my time at Salesforce, I was considering some opportunities at smaller companies as CFO. But when the Box opportunity came about, I was excited to be in a company that had some scale and that I could help take them from private to public. It was an iterative process, but I felt like I was getting great training for the role along the way.

Was that role you accepted at Box different from what you were doing at Salesforce?

It was broader in the sense that I wasn’t running the entire group at Salesforce. At Salesforce, the group was called Finance and Strategy and led by Sarah Friar, who eventually went on to Square and then Next Door. So, I was reporting to her and running Corporate FP&A, but I had also run several other FP&A functions at different times. The Box opportunity was to run all of it. And then over time, they added different departments underneath me. The first addition was Sales Operations. It was a team that I knew well in the business and worked closely with, and I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to run it.

It’s unusual to run that organization in addition to FP&A. Why do you think they had the confidence in you to effectively run both?

This might’ve been the beginning of realizing I could play a bigger, much broader role in a corporation. The lines between my functional job and my impact in the business started to blur. I believe that because of my perspective about the business and what was necessary to improve performance in various pockets, while also possessing the willingness to take feedback from leaders, executives and peers looked at me as someone they could trust. When I voiced my opinions in open settings about how we could leverage operations and analytics to drive improved Sales performance, my views were taken seriously, given my ability to show the data that proved it and the support from stakeholders involved who genuinely wanted the help so they could drive change in underlying business processes. I don’t think folks I worked with saw me as only a finance guy taking on an Operations role. It was more like one of our capable business leaders taking on something that needed to be fixed.

That’s fantastic! How would you advise someone in a similar position to voice these concerns so they are well received by the company?

If I see a problem, I exercise an empathetic approach because there might be another side of the coin. The consistent feedback I’ve received from company to company is they trust me. That’s based on not just putting in the work, but going beyond a traditional finance function. I try to understand our product really well, like how marketing works versus only measuring it, as well as the pipeline and demand statistics. I want to get on the inside, to be an advocate, because if something is working, I want to resource it better. Creating a trusted model or being a trusted business partner is key. From there, a lot of doors opened and real business change ensued.

It sounds like you also eventually expanded past Sales Operations.

Yes. The founders asked me to take on not just Sales Operations but all the go-to-market operation functions — Marketing Operations, Customer Success, Channel Operations, and Technology Stack. And then about a year later, they gave me the centralized Business Analytics team.

That’s a big job. Was it new for Box to have someone in Finance to lead those groups?

Yes. Admittedly, it’s unusual. At Box, Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success had de-centralized and under-resourced sub-teams running their Ops orgs, and primarily overseeing the basics of systems and process improvements and reporting – and doing so in very inconsistent, fragmented ways. This was a pretty radical shift moving everything under me.

“It’s an old cliche, but I think you should be willing to run to the fire and not away from it. Don’t get too comfortable, build a little wall around your world, earn a paycheck, and think you can play it safe.”

You asked about when I knew I wanted to become CFO, but at one point I was considering going down the COO path instead. And to be totally honest, that’s still out there because I had so much fun running Operations and learning all the business process issues and systems gaps. When I met the brilliant co-founders at Lever, Sarah Nahm and Nate Smith, we had this same type of conversation. I believe that’s what started to separate me from other candidates — I could talk shop about Operations and Analytics. It was a little surprising to them.

And probably exciting for them as well. How did that opportunity [at Lever] come about?

An executive search firm reached out and put me in touch with Sarah, the Lever Execs and Board members. At that point, I was fortunate to have a few opportunities in front of me. The timing at Box also felt right. After five years there, I was starting to think, “It’s time to take on the next big challenge.” I felt like I did my part to help them go public; I set them up with strong systems and infrastructure to understand their financials, and probably most importantly, built great teams over time with terrific leaders who were all highly capable and smarter than me – Justin Coulombe, Chris Foley, Joyce Chan, Meaghan Maher, Yasser Said, Eden Kung just to name a few of the true standouts. It’s worth noting, Dylan Smith, the CFO and Co-Founder at Box was such a terrific mentor. He let me in on so many things. I was a standard fixture at board meetings and was able to be a part of those conversations, and I know my opinions and views were genuinely valued. He did an amazing job of positioning me for success.

So when you look back, how do you feel about the decision to join Box as a VP Finance in lieu of going directly from Salesforce to CFO of an earlier stage company?

I’m very fortunate. With Box, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, and—hopefully, they read this out there somewhere on LinkedIn—amazing founders and company culture. My experience made me realize it’s not about my specific career path. It’s about growing as and thinking like a leader, setting a culture, the impact you make on a culture, and how you use culture to drive performance. It wasn’t about the checklist of things I needed to be a CFO. They taught me a lot about leadership, the importance of attention to detail, execution rigor – and because of all those lessons learned, I had a lot of confidence to join a company with more scale than I would’ve been able to before Box and could make an even bigger impact.

Putting the leadership piece aside for a minute, when you interviewed at Lever, what do you think specifically got you the job?

When I reflect back to the final stages of recruitment, the broader business perspective was an important differentiator. And that perspective came from working and progressing at top SaaS companies such as Box and Salesforce. Lever has big plans for the future, and having someone like myself in place to run Finance and Operations—I think the founders saw that I could set a strong vision, and would know what it takes to set up a company for both short and long-term sustainable success—all the way up and through an IPO.

Is fundraising anything you’ve had experience with in the past?

Indirectly, yes. I’ve supported a lot of fundraising efforts from an analyst and VP perspective, and have sat at numerous strategy, planning and investor negotiating tables and participated in every type of conversation. But I haven’t fundraised as the CFO of a company. During the interview, I was transparent about this and they had no problem with this, given their own successful experience in raising several rounds prior to my joining. It’s really important when you’re taking the step to be a CFO to be honest with what you bring to the table. Those early and super transparent conversations that we had set the tone for very productive and motivating conversations to follow. Knowing that a future employer was going to set me up to execute to my strengths early on and then surround me with mentors and proven advisors to help me learn in areas I was less experienced in also gave me a lot of comfort and assurance I could just be me initially, and then over time enjoy the challenge of continuing to grow and learn as a professional.

For a first-time CFO, the last thing you need is to not be in lockstep with the rest of the leadership team. That would just make your job a thousand times harder. Is there anything that you know now that you wish you had known then?

A lot. Whether it’s Lever or any other company, the fun part is the leadership aspect. One of the surprises was just how big of a deal it was for a new executive to join a company this size. It is so fun to be a part of a leadership team in a smaller company setting – where yes, you are asked to leverage your skills, experience and expertise to lead specific functions. But you are also needed for cross-company leadership far more than what I had expected.

“It’s really important when you’re taking the step to be a CFO to be honest with what you bring to the table. Those early and super transparent conversations that we had set the tone for very productive and motivating conversations to follow.”

I am finding those things out now, as I spend more time at the company, but had I realized the true broad-based impact I could’ve made even earlier, I may have dedicated more time upfront in my early weeks to learn the entire business, end-to-end and top-to-bottom. It’s one of the hidden benefits of working at a smaller company. You can literally meet and speak to nearly every employee.

You said you could have done the job earlier, and in my experience, many high-performing people hold themselves to a higher standard than anyone else ever will. Tactically, do you think there are certain boxes that you need to check to come in and set yourself up for success?

That’s a great question. I would answer that in two different ways. First, there are the technical qualifications. Someone who’s thinking about becoming a CFO needs to know their accounting and corporate finance basics. They need to understand what analysis really means and the fundamental building blocks of whatever business model they’re entering, and how to get the most leverage out of it. For me, I’ve latched onto SaaS, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave it. But having command of the entire business model coupled with the financial qualifications are some of the basic table stakes you would need. On the other side, I give a lot of credit to one of my managers at Salesforce, Sarah Friar. She taught me more about the ‘art’ of leadership, in addition to the science. Earlier in my career, it wasn’t hard for me to form an opinion about what was or was not going well in the business. But the way I was communicating across the business was limiting because I would live by the numbers, die by the numbers, and earlier in my career – hide behind the numbers, knowing stakeholders couldn’t really challenge me given the access I had to information. Sarah taught me the art of coming up with business improvement ideas, and then selling them – authentically – to internal leaders/stakeholders and most importantly being effective in making the ideas stick. The other thing I would advise folks who feel they’re ready, is to ask themselves, do they feel like they’re effective in influencing how decisions are made? In some cases, it’s a matter of being ready to own their decisions versus deferring to someone else to make the decision.

Having an example to follow and seeing Sarah model effective leadership is an incredible experience in and of itself. What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t have that example to follow in their company?

Network. That was the other thing I didn’t do terribly well. It’s not going to come to you. It takes effort to go out there, create a network and meet people. Think of it as an investment in yourself. If you do it in earnest, there’s a good chance you’ll bump into someone who you can connect with or is going through something very similar to you or even a few years ahead of you. Tied to that, ask people you already know, “Hey, do you know someone who is a CFO today?” Most people are very gracious and willing to open up their network to you.

In addition to networking, were there other challenges or lessons you faced in your career?

I had a lot of good friends whose parents were in financial services, or they had a template to follow. My father was in academia, and my mom was a doctor, so business was an unfamiliar route to either of them. The one thing I had was courage. So, I jumped into things, took on different challenges, and finance and accounting happened to be the thing I was good at. I used that to join a start-up, wear different hats, and fly around the world, set-up new branches and also help drive corporate development (M&A) activities. For me, one of the mistakes I made was following a person to a company versus validating within my own value system whether this company was going to be the right thing for me. I learned that the hard way as I followed a person and then they left six months later. I realized quickly and harshly that I really didn’t like that place or the culture, and the product wasn’t something I was passionate about. Being a high achiever, admitting this mistake was very hard. At the end, I reached a point where—I had never done this in my career—I just walked up to my manager at the time and said, “I quit.” And it’s never been in my DNA to quit.

I’m sure that wasn’t an easy decision. You touched on taking risks, and it sounds like you’re not afraid to marry that with being conservative in accounting and finance. So, what do you think about the fear of failure versus taking risks?

While that sounds like a contradiction, those two things are on slightly different vectors. For example, I can be conservative in making a decision to go from Williams-Sonoma to Salesforce because Salesforce was already a successful company at that point in time. But when I think about taking on risk, once I accepted the role at Salesforce, I took many chances on the different types of projects and new jobs – diving into different and highly uncomfortable situations, and trusting my gut that what I was working on was the best way I could help create new value for the company. Looking back, it was those chances I was willing to take after joining a new company, that led to a progressive career and the development of a growth mindset over time.

“You don’t learn if you don’t confront real adversity. You learn the most when you try, fail and iterate – and then repeat that cycle until you help your company find the best solution.”

It’s an old cliche, but I think you should be willing to run to the fire and not away from it. Don’t get too comfortable, build a little wall around your world, earn a paycheck, and think you can play it safe. Instead, be transparent – exhibit radical candor. Build partnerships with as many stakeholders across the business (as time consuming and challenging as that may be, and in a non-political sense) and offer to help (and lead) where the toughest business problems exist. I realized, at the time, that seemed kind of insane because the job oftentimes didn’t have any structure or definition. It was just about solving the biggest problems at that moment. In hindsight, and this is where I give similar advice to people rising in my organizations, you should consider taking similar steps because you actually learn and develop the most (and fastest) by taking on huge challenges early in your careers. You don’t learn if you don’t confront real adversity. You learn the most when you try, fail and iterate – and then repeat that cycle until you help your company find the best solution.

What have you found is the most challenging part of your job today?

Wow. There are so many fun challenges. Going to a company a tenth of the size, you have an idea in your head it’s going to be different, right? You’re going to have fewer resources to get done what you could at your previous job, and you convince yourself that you know what it’s going to be like, but you’re going to be wrong. It’s going to be so much more. So, I’d say the biggest challenge has been adapting to minimal to no resources to do certain things that felt like table stakes at a larger company. I’ve also realized, not only on the resourcing side, but things just move faster. I forgot that during my fifth year at Box, not that things move slowly, but the business was simply more complex, and there are far more cross-functional stakeholders to run decisions through before they can be made with buy-in and support. Another thing is the speed at which organizational decisions get made. I’ve taken on more responsibilities and teams over the six months I’ve been there. These additions would’ve taken months or quarters at a more mature company. At Lever, decisions can get made within weeks.

Is there advice you would give to finance professionals who envision themselves moving up the ranks to CFO?

One piece of advice is to build the best team around you. In my experience, a critical question to answer is: Do I hire someone fit for the role today or do I hire someone fit for the role two years from now? My view is to lean in and bring in people who are more experienced. In my years of succeeding and failing as a people manager, when I have leaned in and hired, potentially someone who’s over-qualified, it’s been more productive than not. I know not every company can afford that. We’re a Series C/Series D company. We’re watching our resources very carefully. But I find bringing in folks who have more of the “been there, done that” sense at an early stage can reduce the number of mistakes because they know what to avoid. They’ve seen around corners enough to know what the right path is. As an aspiring CFO or soon to be CFO, you have to learn the art of recruiting. If you don’t get good at that, and good meaning, not you’re selling someone, but authentically convincing someone this is going to be a great opportunity for them and following through. Put in the time and be clear with people.

I’m curious: How early are you involved in the interview process?

Pretty early. If you’re talking about an experienced role. About a month ago, I hired my senior director of, what I call, Strategic Planning and Analysis — a hybrid between FP&A strategy. From the beginning, I was all over him. He was a referral, and when I spoke to him on the phone, we really connected. And I was able to pull him away from where he was making a lot more money. You have to attack recruiting no differently than any big challenge you’re dealing with in the company.

Well, I’m not surprised you’re a great recruiter because you are such a pleasure to work with and learn from. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your amazing story with us.

Thanks for having me!  

Featured Image: Lever

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