Insights & Career Lessons From 6 Women CFOs
The story of women CFOs in the 2020s is a case of good news, bad news. The good news is that 2021 saw an all-time high of women in the role at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies. The bad news: that number is only 15.1%.
That’s despite evidence that businesses with women CFOs are more profitable and do better in the stock market.
In the face of increased awareness and mounting pressure on boardrooms, there’s still a significant gender gap in senior corporate leadership. And with few female peers at the executive table, it’s imperative for women CFOs to be seen and heard.
In this article, we celebrate the talented, thoughtful leaders CFO Connect is built by and for. They offer career lessons and leadership techniques that any successful CFO can learn from and implement in their companies.
Table of contents
Taking chances & learning by doing
There are many paths to CFO success. Some get there through education first - an MBA from a renowned business school and internships with huge firms. Others do it through experience, often through Big 4 consulting roles, or by working their way up through one company.
Rebecca considered both of these paths, but chose to take a calculated risk instead.
“I was working at Red Bull, which had always been a bit of a Mecca for me. And I was actually due to do an MBA when I started chatting to the guys at MOJU. It just sort of clicked: I really believe where this company is going to go. I really believe in the team and what they want to achieve.
“The question was, do I do an MBA while working at Red Bull, or do I go and learn it ‘boots on the ground’ in a high growth company? Leaving my comfortable position in a really well-respected, really successful brand to go and move into a smaller, quite high-risk company where I was going to be working hard, but I was passionate about it.”
This isn’t to discredit the MBA or working your way through the ranks. It really depends on your personality, how quickly you want to become a CFO, and your ultimate goals.
“I describe myself as an all or nothing type of person. And I think I learn by experience. So I want to put myself in these situations where it's sink or swim, because as hard as it will be, I know I will be able to swim.
“I feel more impactful in this role because I'm making more decisions that actually have weight, and they definitely change the direction of certain things. And it's being part of that team that makes those decisions very fulfilling for me. It's certainly been a learning curve, but I've loved it. Absolutely every minute.”
Embracing non-linear careers & company stewardship
Similar to Rebecca, Cyra’s career path isn’t exactly textbook. She went from a consulting background to Director of Finance in a world-famous non-profit, but with numerous stops along the way.
“It can be a windy road, so don't see that as a bad thing. When I look at my resumé, it looks like there’s no connection between positions. But after thinking about my experience, it actually makes sense.
“When you come from a Big 4 and auditing or consulting background, you will be fully prepared to deal with the many challenges non-profits face. Every twist and turn led me to do what I love for a cause I strongly believe in.”
The lesson is to not obsess over the milestones you think you must hit. Goals change and so will you. But you should be open to new experiences along the way.
“Don’t be afraid to go from corporate to a university or a nonprofit. Especially in smaller nonprofits, things can be done in such unconventional ways, and there are many ways to translate a corporate traditional finance role into the uniqueness of a nonprofit. What makes a strong nonprofit finance leader is having this varied experience.”
But whether you’re in the private or public sector, profit or non-profit, Cyra believes that all CFOs must focus on making a positive impact.
“There’s a shrouded cliche about what finance is, as if finance teams are only looking into budgets, ways to increase revenue etc, but not worrying about anything else - including having negative effects on the world. It's up to us, as finance leaders, to ensure our organization is being a good steward of the money that we receive regardless of whether it’s a for-profit or non-profit organization.
“If you want to fight against the stereotype of the company taking advantage of the world, you can start by pushing your organization to be transparent and to play by the rules. In the end, the impact comes from organization and your people, because no policy will ever be enough if no one follows, we’re all actors of change.”
Adapting with the circumstances
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic was that the best companies - and leaders - can change when needed. Company finances depend on local and global conditions, and strategies can be forced to adapt rapidly.
The CFO role also brings a constant flow of new challenges. And for Elodie, change comes on a daily basis.
“No one day is ever the same, and it all really depends on the maturity level of the company and your team. At 360Learning when I began, it was all about putting recurring processes in place. As the team grows, it becomes more about validation, and then dealing with the exceptional.”
“The only things I do on a very regular basis are the board meetings, company all hands, KPI meetings, and leadership meetings. Those are very regular. But the rest of the day is about managing the team - not on a step-by-step basis but more giving them good duties and helping them in their roles.
“And we want to support other teams, to make sure the whole business operates well. You want a full vision of the company, and to respond and challenge strategic decisions.
“Once you’ve reached that point, you’re really the right hand of the CEO.”
Building women’s financial confidence
Clearly, CFOs have an easy relationship with financial matters. Confidence with numbers — plus experience and a position of authority — means things like negotiations come naturally. But this isn’t the case for everyone.
For Jana, this confidence needs to be shared.
“There’s the topic of salary negotiation - women are often very shy about that. So, I help them find arguments. I tell some women, when they apply at omni:us, that what they’re asking for is ridiculous. A lot of women stop at a certain point in the process because they're afraid of not getting the job, or getting fired or whatever. And I always tell them, this is not the case. If you are good at what you do, it will never cost you the role.”
Jana also takes her skills outside of the business world. She recognizes that many women don’t have the same level of financial confidence, and is working to change that.
“When I listen to friends and family members, they always tell me the same things: 'I don't have money. I cannot save. I rely on my husband.'
“In Germany, women are getting 50% less pension than men because of working part-time, taking care of kids, and parents getting lower salaries. I want to make sure they have enough money when they're retired and have more time. So, I just help women take the fear away from the stock market. I help them set up a brokerage account, things like this. It's a side project to make women more independent from their partners.”
Leading with empathy
Every CFO makes the transition from finance or business expert to company leader and mentor. But these skills aren’t always drilled in like accounting best practices or forecasting strategy.
As both a company role model and department head, the CFO needs to lead and inspire. For Alka Tandan, that requires a combination of caring and direct communication.
"I consider leadership an essential skill required to build a solid career in finance. I aim to really lead with wisdom. That means to lead with compassion and empathy, even when mistakes are made.
"I like to think that I’ve created a safe space for my team members, which enables trust. I also am their biggest supporter — I'm very fortunate to have an incredible team across the board. I try to ask on a very regular basis what they need, not only work-wise, but also just professionally. I always tell them they should be taking me out of my job!”
But this doesn’t mean always saying ‘yes,’ or avoiding criticism. Taking a page from the book Radical Candor, Alka suggests leaders tell staff exactly how they can progress.
"At Gainsight, we put a lot of emphasis on empathy and on caring, and we do that by stating things - telling people what they can do to improve - rather than sugar coating everything and working around the edges. I really appreciate that as a leadership trait.”
Communicating openly with the wider company
The finance function is too often the secret weapon in companies. It provides huge value and insights, yet most employees are unaware. So the best CFOs demystify the numbers and show just how valuable their teams are to everyone else.
“I think it's really important to be transparent. I think that's the main purpose of the finance team. What else should we be doing? It's not information that we’re getting for ourselves. We’re getting it for the company.
“Of course there will always be people who don’t really mind. But if they want to understand, they should have the chance.”
So what does this look like in practice? Pavla is a huge advocate of automated digital processes, and her communication strategy fits that description.
“I have a dashboard in our BI tool that we send out every single day to a Slack channel. Everybody can subscribe, have a look, and ask questions. And we’re really active with the finance team, answering anything that anybody might want to know.”
A parting motto: “let them say ‘no’”
CFO Connect lets finance leaders exchange ideas, learn from one another, and offer advice. And from the six experts in this article, one piece of advice really stands out.
As Elodie explains, “in my family we have a motto: ‘let them say ‘no.’ It’s applicable in practically any situation. For example at 360Learning, they were looking for more than five years’ experience, but I only had three at the time. But I applied anyway - I let them say ‘no.’ (They didn’t.)”
This isn’t just a personal maxim. Elodie applies it constantly in her role as CFO.
“As a CFO, I have to ask for help from banks, or from the government administration. You just have to try, and if they say ‘no’ it’s ok - at least we tried.” CFO Connect is a global community of finance leaders. We host regular meetups & virtual events, have a private Slack channel for CFOs, and produce helpful content on our blog. Join Us!