Success secrets of women who have risen to CFO in major companies

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Despite the relatively large number of women working in the finance function of major corporations, few have attained the position of Chief Financial Officer (CFO).  To gain some insights into how women succeeded in reaching this level, three leaders from Deloitte's CFO Program and Deloitte Consulting conducted a series of interviews with 15 women CFOs and executive recruiters in the United States and Europe.  "The Journey to CFO, Perspectives from women leaders", found that these women shared many personal traits and values, and that many of their experiences - `the shaping moments' -- challenged widely held views of gender issues and essential components of a successful career path, including the importance of mentors.  The open-ended questions asked by the authors led to answers that demonstrated the interplay between personal traits and skill sets.

Five sets of personal traits and values

The Deloitte interviewers identified five common sets of personal traits and values that were essential to a Chief Financial Officer.  These were: curiosity, courage, perseverance to mastery, self assurance, and ethical responsibility.  Some of these traits were thought to be innate while others were developed over time with practice, or learned in moments of crisis.  Some women interviewed said they had been born with curiosity or perseverance, but most said that self assurance and confidence were acquired through experience.

The courage to move to the unfamiliar, the authors say, to master new skills and move outside their comfort zone helped these women to grow and gain confidence.  Confidence and assurance was one area where more than one woman interviewed spoke about gender differences - notably in the ways that men and women communicate.  Men tended to "shoot from the hip" while women tended to prepare in detail and as a result, often appeared less confident.

The interviewees held strong views on what it means for a CFO to have a sense of ethical responsibility.  Coreen Sawdon, chief accounting officer and acting CFO of Shuffle Master, said she believed",It is vital for CFOs to speak up and stick to their guns in exercising their responsibility to shareholders and the company.  The CFO needs to be the truth teller to the CEO, to the board and its investors, combining the traits of ethical responsibility and courage to stand for what is right."

Sharon McCollam, an executive vice president, and chief operating and chief financial officer of Williams-Sonoma Inc., is quoted as saying",Each individual needs to develop a strong personal code of ethics and not just adopt an organizational code of ethics."  According to the report",Early in her career, there were many times when her personal code of ethics was challenged and she was forced to take a clear stand, despite the fact that she could put her job at risk.  In the end, though, it never did. It actually defined her and she believes it became a foundation of much of her success as a CFO."

Skill sets

While accounting, financial, and hard numbers skills are required of any CFO, five additional skill sets that incorporate soft skills were also found to be essential:

1. Communications and sales skills: Selling the company and oneself

Susan Wang, the retired CFO of Solectron, said that a key role of the CFO is to",Communicate effectively the vision, state, and prospects of the company to the investor, not just as a CFO but in the journey to CFO."  The study found that "from participating in Toastmasters, to media relations training and coaching, the interviewees continuously invested in these skills and practiced to refine them."

2. Listening and approachability: Knowing what is critical

Sallie Bailey, CFO of Ferro Corporation, emphasized that the ability to build trust and be approachable are key skills CFOs need to make sure their constituents provide them with timely and accurate information and are not intimidated by the prospect of communicating that information when something goes wrong.

3. Negotiation and conflict resolution skills: Driving solutions

Bailey noted that a career in public accounting and the finance disciplines does not necessarily prepare professionals to be good at negotiation and driving a fair bargain, skills women should actively seek to hone through roles and responsibilities.

4. Operating, change and influence skills: Adapting to new realities

In a number of interviews, the authors say, these women said that the journey to CFO required mastery of influencing people to achieve change instead of directing change in the organization.

Executive recruiters interviewed found a shift in demand from CFOs who only concerned themselves with compliance and control, toward those who also have operating and influencing skills.

5. Strategic judgment and prioritization: Making decisive choices

Susan Wang said that",far from just 'number crunchers,' CFOs need to be strategic thinkers."

"Strategic thinking", according another interviewee",is the ability to not just look ahead, but to do so with an understanding of the inter-linkages between various disparate parts of the organization."

Shaping moments

The interviewees tended to view personal learning experiences that encouraged growth and personal experience that led to decision making as the "shaping moments" on their path to success.  The authors found that these personal accounts fell into three broad categories:

1. Crises as crucibles for learning

Crises are often periods of intense learning.  Many of the crises the women CFOs described involved the departure of a senior executive or the need to attend to legal or other issues that had not been part of their regular function.

When the CEO and CFO of Ahold left in 2003, in the midst of a company crisis, Kimberly Ross, the current CFO",worked with a larger team to help hold things together until an interim CFO was appointed.  This "baptism by fire" was a turning point in her career and an invaluable learning experience."  It helped to build many of the skills that allowed her to transition to the full time CFO of Ahold in November 2007.
As Assistant Treasurer at a major global manufacturer that was facing an increasingly distressed credit, Ann Marie Petach, currently CFO role at Blackrock, learned a variety of skills that serve her well as a CFO.  According to the report",As the company's credit environment was deteriorating, she was called upon to communicate with the investor and analyst community, and bond and fixed income investors, as well as the Board and various internal Board committees such as the Finance Committee and the Audit Committee."  She developed several scenario analyses and contingency plans, and put together a funding plan that helped raise $32 billion in financing.
2. Seizing opportunities to grow

Other events, not necessarily crises, provided the context for making the choice to learn.  During her career, Judy Bruner, CFO of SanDisk, encountered several opportunities to take on more responsibilities than would be expected of someone with her experience, when her boss left the company.  When the firm had not identified a suitable CFO a year later, Judy filled the CFO spot at age 27.  This choice helped Judy realize that she wanted to be the CFO of a large organization, so in her next move she pursued a role that would allow her to acquire the broader skills required to be the CFO of a large public company.

Susan Wang's advice to young professionals: "Never tell people that it's not your job."

3. Choosing life over work

The interviewees described moments outside of work where circumstances challenged them to re-examine their values and make critical choices.

One woman's decision to take a six-month sabbatical from work whiled pregnant with a second child and faced with serious illness in her family",allowed her the space to attend to her family and express and focus on the values she brings to her work.  Her choice `to attend to life before work' did not adversely impact her ultimate journey to being the CFO of a major company, but it was a vital experience in that journey."

The authors said were impressed by the way each of the individuals took ownership of these shaping moments.


Nearly all of the interviewees said they wished they invested earlier in relationships.

Working for great CEOs and bosses was central to the careers of these women CFOs.  Vanessa Wittman, EVP and CFO of Marsh & McLennan Companies, said her former boss Bill Schleyer was",A true role model who had the amazing skills of a world-class chief executive officer.  Working as partner to Bill in the turnaround of her former firm allowed her to gain operational skills that needed to be developed at that point in her career."

Peer networks were also important, including those outside the firm.  The women advised others to pick individuals "who are smarter than you."  With the exception of three, the authors of the report say",All of our interviewees noted that they did not have mentors in their careers, i.e. people who actively engaged in a coaching relationship or a formal mentor-mentee relationship that helped guide them across various stages of their careers."  Finding their own roles models was more common.

Early life experience, with parents, in forming relationships in extracurricular activities and on sports teams, helped to "shape the journey to leadership -- especially the core traits that matter."


Most of the CFOs interviewed did not see their own career development in terms of gender, the authors concluded.  Many noted that there was a tougher standard for women to be accepted as leaders of organizations.  Work-life balance and being a parent remained the other challenge.

Most interviewees said",It was not important to be one of the boys, but to develop confidence and strength of character to succeed in a male-dominated field."  Wittman admits that she did not tend to see things in terms of gender as she "was always used to being the only woman in the room.  Until now the fact that she was in the minority never used to bother her."

A banner quote from the study: "Don't try too hard to be one of the boys." - from Barbara Parker and Sallie Bailey.


Much of what the women CFOs said about their personal traits and the choices they made have implications for all aspiring CFOs, both men and women, the authors say.  In part because the sample is so small, they do not draw any conclusions about why there are so few women CFOs in the Fortune 1000.  Interviews with recruiters suggest that CEOs "like to hire those who have had prior experiences as a CFO and the CFO package requires broad and diverse experiences."  Thus, they say",It is critical for young professionals to seek out broad and diverse experiences and for today's CFOs to sponsor their staff to experience work roles and tasks that broaden their skills and relationships."

The authors of "The Journey to CFO, Perspectives from women leaders", are Dr. Ajit Kambil, the global research director of Deloitte's CFO program; Isabel Feliciano, who specializes in the financial services industry within Strategy and Operations of Deloitte Consulting LLP.; and Cathleen Domes, leader of the U.S. CFO Program Center of Excellence and a director in Deloitte Consulting's Finance service line.


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