Position: Chief financial officer of GovPlace, a Reston company that designs and manages IT software for government agencies.

By Vanessa Small

Mark A. Serway was always good with money as a kid. He bought his first house while in college and rented it out to college students. So after a few years in an IT career, he moved to finance, where he led the financial operations of government contractors, helping to take a few public, without having a traditional chief financial officer background. He now leads financial operations at GovPlace.

What was a key move you made when taking your first company public?

It was knowing what I didn’t know, but drawing from other resources to make that happen. I didn’t know how to do Securities and Exchange Commission filings and all the things needed to prepare those filings. But I learned and surrounded myself with people who could help me. Then I figured out what needed to be done and what needed to change. That opened my eyes to the chief financial officer role of a public company. But that’s also what made me realize I didn’t want to be at a public company. Public company chief financial officers need to have more technical skill sets than I possess. They need to be CPAs and have worked for one of the Big Four accounting firms.

What makes a successful chief financial officer?

They have to live with integrity. People are always watching what you do more than what you say. You need to be visible and spend a lot of time understanding where the company has been and where it wants to go. You need to be spending time with the chief executive. Work hard and smart, and then people will follow.

How have you grown most as a leader?

I came to learn early on that if I was going to have people report to me, I had to feel responsible for them. You realize you have to assess the skill sets and make sure there’s no one weighing the organization down.

What is the secret to building a strong team?

First you have to understand what capabilities are needed for the organization, not only for today, but for the future. You can always get by with things that are done just because it works. But does it really work? When it comes to the people side of things, you have to recruit and build the skill sets and talent pipeline and transform it where it needs to be. At one company whose team I helped build, of the 85 that are there today, there were only three that were there when I started. Not that people were bad, they just didn’t have the skill set to take it to the next level or were hired in positions they shouldn’t have been. If you put people in the right positions and provide the right mentorship and ongoing training and open communication, it’s amazing the wonders you can do with folks. I’m amazed at how often that doesn’t happen.

What books are you reading?

One book I found very informative, and actually just shared with my chief executive, is called “Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together” by Christine Comaford. It provides a systematic approach to getting an organization to the next level of performance, which could be increased sales, innovation and emotional engagement. It focuses on the different inflection points to go through and what companies must do to reinvent themselves, whether it be the people, money or business model.

— Interview with Vanessa Small