Finance Leadership Blog

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Communicating Upwards: The Art of Supporting Your Start-up Founder

finance leadership hr relationships Sep 01, 2023

In the fast-paced world of start-ups, the relationships you build and nurture can significantly influence your success in your career.  It takes time to build these relationships, however you will find that time and time again they are worth the investment.

I'm still constantly building relationships and it's one of the most important tools you have as a leader.

One of the most critical relationships is the one between a Finance Director or CFO and the Founder / CEO.

While it's easy to assume that regular communication might suffice, the intricacies of "communicating upwards" in this dynamic can be the game-changer.

Make sure that you treat this relationship quite different to the way you did as a junior accountant to your Finance manager.

1. Understand the Visionary Mind of a Founder

Founders are visionaries. They are constantly absorbing a deluge of information, making critical decisions, and ensuring the company moves in the right direction. For a Finance Director or Finance leader, it's essential to appreciate this perspective. It helps in framing conversations in a manner that aligns with the broader company objectives.

They care less about the details of the accounting function and more about what the numbers are telling your about the business from a Commercial perspective.  Especially when looking forwards.

What have you learnt that can help the founder with this mindset?

2. Be Proactive: Offer Solutions, Not Questions

An essential aspect of communicating upwards is understanding the difference between presenting a challenge and presenting a solution.

Founders are often swamped with decisions that span multiple departments and realms. Hence, when approaching them:

  • Come Prepared with Options: Before presenting a challenge or issue, think it through. What are the possible solutions? What are the pros and cons of each?

  • Provide Recommendations: Rather than just listing out the options, highlight your recommendation. Explain why you believe this is the best course of action, considering the company's objectives and current circumstances.

  • Facilitate Decision Making: Your role isn't just to offload decisions onto the Founder but to streamline the decision-making process. By presenting clear, well-thought-out options, you're allowing the Founder to make informed decisions quickly.  This is the difference between a manager and a leader.  Make your Founders job easier, not harder.  You will be respected for this approach.

3. Listen Actively

When a Founder shares feedback or provides insights, listen actively.

They have a broad view of the company's operations, and their feedback often contains nuggets of information crucial for future decisions. Active listening also demonstrates respect and shows the Founder that their perspective is valued.

4. Regular Check-ins: Finding the Right Balance

Communication is a two-way street. Regular check-ins with the Founder or CEO ensure that both parties are on the same page. However, it's essential to strike the right balance. Over-communication can be as detrimental as under-communication. Find a rhythm that works best for both and stick to it.

It's also worth finding out how your Founder / CEO responds to different types of communication.  Some prefer instant messaging (so they can make quick decisions) or F2F conversations or emails (where they can ponder over time before responding). 

Work out either through trial and error or conversing with long standing leaders within the business the best way to communicate.

5. Honesty is the Best Policy

Trust is the foundation of effective communication. Always be transparent about financial forecasts, potential pitfalls, and challenges.

The more informed a Founder is, the better equipped they are to steer the company in the right direction.

This is especially true if there has been a material error that may need to be communicated to the board.  Talk to the Founder upfront about this as soon as reasonably possible (once you know the facts and proposed next steps) rather than surprising them at month end.

Being a Finance Director or Finance leader in a start-up isn't just about crunching numbers. It's about effectively communicating upwards, facilitating decisions, and working in tandem with the Founder to realise the company's vision. Remember, it's not about making decisions for the Founder but empowering them with the right information to make the best decisions for the company's future.


    1. Get your FREE Guide: Stepping into the role of Finance Director or CFO
    2. Register for the mini-course, Upgrade your Management Accounts and get noticed by the business 
    3. Work with me in the Financial Leadership Foundations course  that includes monthly Q&A sessions where we can discuss all of your questions and how to apply your learnings to your current role. 
    4. Work with me as a Founder needing guidance and support from experienced Finance leaders.





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