Bookkeepers vs. Chief Financial Officers: A Conversation with Adam Lean of the CFO Project

for bookkeepers May 27, 2024
chief financial officer



Today, we’re going to talk about what it means to be a CFO—a chief financial officer—and how the work differs from bookkeeping.

And to go over this topic, I’ve invited a guest to come on and chat with us today: Adam Lean, co-founder of The CFO Project!

At The CFO Project, they train accountants, bookkeepers, and CPAs on starting or adding a chief financial officer advisory service to their practice. And if they don't have a practice, they help them start one. 

I’m really excited to see where this conversation goes, but first, let’s start with the basics…



Bookkeeper vs. Chief Financial Officer

Katie: So, Adam, what is the difference between being a bookkeeper and being a chief financial officer?

Adam: That’s a good question. You’ll hear a lot of different definitions for what a CFO is,  but we have one standard definition that we feel works best.

Ultimately, a chief financial officer—and by the way, we use chief financial officer and advisor interchangeably, so we typically call it a CFO advisor—is somebody that a business owner can trust to guide them towards having a growing and successful business.

The biggest difference between an accountant or bookkeeper and a chief financial officer is that an accountant or bookkeeper records the past. They literally keep the books.  The CFO, on the other hand, takes over once the books are closed. They advise the business owner from there so the business owner can have a better future.

Now, the chief financial officer and the bookkeeper can be the same person. It doesn’t have to be, but we do have a lot of people in our membership program and The CFO Project that do both. So it’s certainly possible!


The Definition of Success

Adam: Now, when we tell people that our job is to help our clients have a growing and successful business, we define success in two ways.

The first definition of success is whatever our client defines as success. For example, let's say one of our clients owns a roofing business. They may define success as being able to employ a hundred people in their hometown. But somebody that owns a restaurant, for instance, might define success as being able to add three new locations.

The second definition of success is what we, the financial person, define as success. For us, that is getting the business to generate positive cash flow on a regular basis. We all know businesses will die if they're not generating positive cashflow—not positive revenue, not positive profit, but positive cashflow.

Of course, that does not resonate with most business owners. Most business owners focus on profit. So in order to get them to our definition of success, we need to speak their language, not ours.



Translating the Language

Adam: At the end of the day, our goal is to help our clients have a growing and successful business. But when it comes to how we get there…the client doesn't care about that. They don’t need us to explain the difference between positive cashflow and positive profit and the different ways we define success. They just want the end result.

It's like that saying by the Harvard marketing professor: “People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole.”

In other words, they don't want just another tool in their garage. They want a tool that will give them what they want.

We can accomplish this by treating the CFO advising like a product. We’re going to go to the client and say, “Look, I'm going to help you have a growing, successful business. Here's what I'm going to do for you: we're going to meet once a month. During that month, I'm going to give you a color-coded scoreboard of exactly what's working and what's not working in your business.

“The scoreboard is made up of drivers. If we think of a business like a machine, the drivers are the parts that make your machine function. We call them drivers because they drive cash flow. We’re going to measure all these drivers for the business and put them on the scoreboard. The drivers in red are the ones we want you, as the owner, to focus on; the drivers in green or yellow, not so much.”

This way, the client can better understand their business. Because the fact is, most business owners do want to understand their business—the problem is, most accountants and bookkeepers really, really mess this up. They make accounting and bookkeeping so dry and boring and complicated that the business owner dreads having to get on a call to talk to them.

Katie: I’ve seen this happen. Accounting is a language that we forget that we're speaking, but if we can remember that they don’t need all the nuances of the “how,” it makes everything easier for everyone!


Ask the Right Questions

Adam: Another important aspect of being a chief financial officer is utilizing your client’s expertise. Our job isn’t to become experts in every client’s business; our job is to ask the right questions.

For example, I have a client who is a doctor, and he performs colonoscopies. He frequently gets referrals from family practitioners. But when we looked at his conversion rates, the percentage that actually showed up to their scheduled appointment was ridiculously low; only about 60%.

If the patients aren’t showing up 40% of the time, that’s a big problem, because he’s already reserved the room, the anesthesiologist, the nurses, etcetera. When the patients don’t show up, that payroll is wasted.

I told him that I wanted him to focus on one thing: getting the percentage of referrals who actually show up from 60% to 65%. But at that point, my job shifted to asking him how to accomplish that, because I'm not an expert in the medical field. I'm not an expert in running doctor practices. He is. I told him what he needed to do, but he told me how to accomplish that.

Hopefully, this will help anyone who might struggle with imposter syndrome when considering becoming a chief financial officer: you don't have to be knowledgeable about every industry. You don’t have to be an expert. Your job is to ask the right questions in order to get them to do the thing that you want them to do.



Join The CFO Project!

If you’re a bookkeeper who has been thinking about dipping your toe into the CFO world, The CFO Project is offering a FREE training called Bookkeeper to CFO, which will show any bookkeeper how to add on advisory or chief financial officer services to their practice. You can sign up for that right now as well!

I’m so grateful Adam came on to chat with me. To hear the full interview (that’s right, there’s more!), tune in to Episode 179 of the Profits + Prosecco Podcast!



Join The CFO Project’s FREE masterclass exclusively for bookkeepers, Bookkeeper to CFO: 

Learn how to take your bookkeeping skills and turn them into a business that allows you to replace (or surpass) your corporate salary, be present for your life, and profoundly impact your clients without selling your life in the process by joining Life by the Books (LIBBY).  

Need to boost your bookkeeping basics? Join BABs now: 

Want a peek behind the curtain into LIBBY, my program all about what it really takes to have a simple and scalable (and successful) bookkeeping business? Get access to my free, on-demand four-part series, 6 Secrets to a Simple, Scalable Bookkeeping Business: 



Sign up for The CFO Project newsletter: 

Follow The CFO Project on Instagram: 




For first dibs (and the best prices!) on new offers from me, follow me on Instagram, then subscribe to my email list: 


Email Opt-In: