A Q&A With SurveyMonkey’s Finance Chief

Christel Deskins

CFOs are now strategic leaders who continue to learn. getty The role of the CFO has changed immensely in recent years – and will continue to change. In a recent Q&A with Debbie Clifford, the CFO of SurveyMonkey, I asked about how finance leaders can adapt to a position that […]

The role of the CFO has changed immensely in recent years – and will continue to change. In a recent Q&A with Debbie Clifford, the CFO of SurveyMonkey, I asked about how finance leaders can adapt to a position that is in constant flux. She discussed how the 21st century CFO needs to learn continuously and permanently. Additionally, I asked Clifford about issues ranging from the fallout of COVID-19 to ongoing efforts around Diversity, and how SurveyMonkey uses its own renowned platform to gauge investor sentiments and inform decision-making.

Jeff Thomson: The role of the CFO has evolved from that of “chief bookkeeper” to being a more public face of the company. How were you able to expand beyond core finance and business skills to become a communicator and team leader? How does current finance education need to change to equip future leaders with more of these “soft” skills?

Debbie Clifford: My favorite part of the CFO job is the partnership I have with the CEO and all the functional leaders in the company. Working together to set and execute against the company’s strategy is very rewarding and ultimately is what drives growth and strong financial performance. And while monitoring the debits and credits is still an important part of the job, it’s not enough in today’s world. Successful CFOs are now also strategic, well-rounded leaders. Those who stay in the “chief bookkeeper” mindset are not serving their organization as fully as they could.

You can get these skills by being in constant learning mode. Learn not only the “what” of the task at hand, but also the “who,” “why” and “how.” And take on a truly holistic view of the problems at hand— challenges in product and sales are company challenges, which are the CFO’s challenges as well. It’s not enough to limit your focus to what’s happening within the finance organization.

Finance education has come a long way in trying to educate students about these newer demands for finance leaders. I found my MBA program to be instrumental in teaching me the importance of business strategy as well as interpersonal dynamics and the power of relationships in the workplace.

Thomson: SurveyMonkey equips customers with the tools they need to gauge opinion and to seek feedback. How as CFO do you use your own product to better understand the mood of investors and to gather information for better decision-making? How critical is customer feedback to product development and innovation? 

Clifford: Feedback is more important than ever before in today’s uncertain world. Soliciting feedback from all key stakeholders is critical to delivering value to customers, staying competitive and driving strong financial performance. 

As a public company CFO, investors represent one of the most important groups of stakeholders that I engage with in my job. Some are already shareholders and I have a responsibility to them as owners of the company. Others are exploring an investment thesis and conduct significant research as they evaluate investment opportunities. All have an informed point of view about our strategy and performance, which is important to understand as we navigate our path forward and tell our story.

At SurveyMonkey, we frequently leverage our own survey platform to gauge investor sentiment. And we’ve found that investors are willing to provide feedback about everything from corporate strategy all the way to our participation at events and in specific meetings. We recently conducted a survey to learn how investor appetites

have shifted after the onset of the pandemic and asked questions to gauge sentiment about SurveyMonkey and the economy. Nobody knows what the future holds so we are really interested in what investors are thinking about our business and the shape of the economic recovery. It’s the survey data – and the insights we glean from it – that makes the work of a CFO more strategic.

Thomson: The COVID-19 global pandemic has necessitated that companies across every industry to shift and to adapt to a new normal for doing business. CFOs and senior leadership have had to maintain confidence among key stakeholders like investors, employees, and the public. What did you do during the COVID-19 crisis to maintain or instill confidence among your key stakeholders? What advice would you give to others who are charged with building morale during difficult times?

Clifford: Employees are hearing the same news as everyone else – unemployment is skyrocketing, and friends are losing their jobs, all while the number of COVID-19 cases continues to roller coaster across the nation. As the steward of the company’s money, it’s critical as CFO to project calm and stability. I have seen how important it is for employees to not only hear from HR or our CEO but also to hear directly from me as CFO. At SurveyMonkey, we hold weekly all-hands meetings where our CEO and I share insights about company decisions and news. In addition, I hold regular meetings with smaller groups of employees to answer questions and become less of a figurehead and more of a human. CFOs also have to show they mean what they say. Seeing the CFO calm, transparent and collected sends a message of confidence to the company.

Thomson: The bottom line of many companies has been hit by the COVID-19 crisis, which can result in missed vendor payments. As a vendor, how does SurveyMonkey approach the sensitive issue of collecting fees from clients? What happens when pressing vendors can damage crucial relationships?

Clifford: First, a significant majority of our business comes via credit cards where customers pay us up front for the services they receive. So, unlike some companies in this crisis, the bulk of our business has not been impacted by vendor payment challenges. But having said that, our overall philosophy is to focus on our customers’ success and to help as much as possible while we all work to navigate these challenging economic waters. We’d prefer to retain our customers in any form and focus on the long-term health of our relationship rather than do anything short-sighted in the immediate term. CFOs still have a responsibility to manage the finances of the company properly and with wisdom, but when the crisis subsides, those with the best customer experience and relationships will emerge stronger and recover faster.

Thomson: Racial equality has been a powerful issue this year – and companies cannot ignore its importance. This applies not just to public communication but human capital management as well. As a CFO, how do you promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the finance function at SurveyMonkey? Further, how do you think the finance profession as a whole can both build out more diverse talent pipelines while also fostering inclusive cultures?

Clifford: What we’re doing in the CFO organization doesn’t look different from what the company as a whole is doing. Diversity, equity and inclusion is an important topic across the whole company, not just within finance. We care deeply about these topics at SurveyMonkey and our goal is to foster a workplace where people from any race or underrepresented group, with varying ideas, values and perspectives, can do the best work of their lives. We aren’t a company of just words; we’re trying to make tangible progress to drive change. And employees and shareholders want to see real action behind our words. Our leadership team has committed to donating funds, implementing new programs and policies, and expanding resources dedicated to recruiting and supporting a diverse team. We are developing programs to better educate our employees and to hold each other accountable for living our values. And we are making charitable donations as well as double matching employee donations to nonprofits that support DEI causes. While I’m optimistic about what we’ve accomplished to date, we have so much more work to do. DEI is of paramount importance to our success and will be a top focus area for me for many years to come.

This article has been edited and condensed.

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