Community Article

From the Cricket Field to the Boardroom With Phil Halbish, CFO at Who Gives A Crap

A snapshot of the evolution of a CFO

In a candid interview, “Who Gives a Crap” CFO, Phil Halbish and Think & Grow Partner, Dan Spencer delve into the unique journey of transitioning from a sporting background to the Healthtech industry, to the helm of a global corporation. This article explores the multifaceted role of a modern CFO within today’s market.

From the cricket field to the boardroom 

Phil’s undeniable passion for cricket led him to take a detour from his accounting degree to playing professionally in England. However, a sudden back injury interrupted his athletic aspirations, compelling him to make a resilient return to the accounting field by acquiring both Chartered Accountant (CA) and Certified Practising Accountant (CPA) qualifications and eventually becoming CFO at Virgin Pulse, Tribe and Who Gives a Crap. 

Can you share your experiences from your first CFO role?

My initial CFO role involved stepping into a small start-up backed with external financing and investment. The Founders and investors sought more financial rigour and it was a mandate triggered by a desire to grow alongside the need to meet the requirements of institutional external funding. There comes a time in a business's lifecycle when the Founder handling finances hinders their ability to perform their role. In this case, external investment brought in reporting requirements and a board, and that's when you need a CFO. It's about recognising the right moment and being early in that recognition rather than too late.

How did Who Gives A Crap present a challenge for you as a CFO?

It was an exciting and unique challenge because the business was experiencing phenomenal growth, dealing with complexities beyond a traditional tech company. The global supply chain crisis hit just as I joined, impacting international freight costs and gross margins. I had to quickly change our forecasting and financial approach. Simultaneously, I commenced expanding the finance team to the point we’ve grown from four members to 17 in just over 2 years and we implemented an ERP system, enhancing efficiency, data integrity and accuracy. We needed to adapt to unexpected challenges and build a team capable of creating the required financial rigour.

How can you ensure you’re making the quick and commercially sound decisions needed in a fast-paced environment?

Over the years, I've honed the ability to swiftly assess what's vital for the business, whether it's profit, cash or both. Having managed multimillion-dollar businesses in previous roles, I learned to respond effectively when something went wrong. My processing time to make decisions has quickened as I’ve gained more experience over time. I've developed confidence in my decision-making based on the experience gained over the last 25 years. Dealing with ambiguity is a part of the job and my desire to maintain a positive outlook contributes to a more agile decision-making process.

What's in your toolkit as a CFO with diverse experiences in different types of businesses?

My diverse CFO roles have equipped me with a toolkit that includes understanding both large and small businesses. I've seen what works well and what doesn't, whether it's about implementing ERP systems, managing international tax, or expanding into new markets. I emphasise not changing something unless it has the ability to scale, ensuring stability in processes and a clear roadmap for people and systems. My experience allows me to quickly assess situations and apply past learnings, making me effective in various scenarios.

What’s your advice for a first-time CFO entering a start-up environment?

Align your skill set with the business's immediate needs, building credibility. Recognise the Founder's mindset and adapt to their decision-making style. Utilise the Founder's knowledge of the business history and nuances. Don't try to do everything alone; leverage the experience of those who have been running the finance function before you. Engage in open dialogue with the Founder(s), focusing on making the business as great as they envision. Understand that start-up CFO roles require adapting to ambiguity, being flexible, and managing various responsibilities, both within the broader business alongside the finance function itself.

How do you define individuals with high potential for leadership roles?

The key is identifying those with the capacity for growth and the ones I could push beyond their comfort zones. A lot of this comes from my sporting background, being a part of high performing teams and seeing people grow beyond their own belief in themselves. Getting to know my teams personally over a couple of years - I'd assign them challenging tasks, tasks that could have gone to their manager or other hubs. I would tell them, "I know you can do this; I see the capability within you." More often than not, they excelled. Once they succeeded, their self-belief and confidence soared. It was about finding people with capability and upside, individuals who had the potential and the desire to grow.

How do you define individuals as high potentials that could go beyond their comfort zones within just a couple of interviews?

I like people, so I get to know them. I'm a pretty open transparent guy myself, so I like spending time with people to understand them and a lot of these high potentials I'd known for two or three years in their existing roles and it was time for them to be challenged into believing they could be more. The flipside of that coin is that I’ve managed a lot of high performers that were subject matter experts who weren’t looking to become a CFO or Finance Director but were huge assets to the business. When people start to know themselves and where they are trying to grow and are willing to work hard, they are great team members, both for finance and the wider business. I talk to recruiters about this a lot these days.

For a Founder hiring a CFO, what key qualities should they look for?

  • Chemistry and fit for a start-up environment are crucial.
  • Willingness to experience the broad spectrum of challenges, from handling small bills to dealing with multi-million-dollar issues. 
  • A diverse skill set, excelling in team-building, understanding systems, data and processes, and being adaptable. 
  • The ability to balance getting into the details while also looking at the broader picture.
  • The ability to thrive in ambiguity and work effectively with the Founder(s) and board, understanding their vision, is paramount.

What do you want your advice to a Founder who's hiring a CFO for the first time?

It’s not just about funding rounds or investments; it's about recognising when the CFO tasks are overwhelming your role as a CEO. Having stepped into a newly created CFO role on three occasions, I have witnessed that there comes a point in time where handling the finances of the business as well as the demands of a CEO/Founder role becomes too great. The decision should be based on the impact on your effectiveness as a CEO, not just external factors. The key is to assess whether your time as a CEO is hindered by CFO responsibilities. Additionally, when hiring for a start-up, seek someone with an open mind, capable of handling both small and large financial matters. The breadth of experience matters, and it's not just about hiring a well-trained individual, they also need the willingness to invest in the required infrastructure and support for the growth of their career.

If you’re a Founder/CEO looking for an experienced CFO to take on your challenges or a CFO looking for their next role, drop Dan an email: 


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