Getting Ahead of the Curve
It was being a more social person, which really helped me land a job offer from Arthur Andersen right out of university, amidst a recession when probably half my friends didn’t get job offers out of the gate.
I was always the quieter kid, I wasn’t the jock. However, I just found a different voice in university that worked for me. I became very involved in university. I liked having fun, organizing parties, and helped in organizing student recruiting events with mock interviews (20-30 firms that came to the Old Mill for food and drinks).
I was a little more social than a lot of other people, and I think that really helped.
A Controller by 28
I really enjoyed being in public accounting, but after getting my CPA, I was offered a Controller position at Vickers & Benson at age 28 and never really looked back. I had 15-16 people reporting into me, some of whom were twice my age.
I’ve always felt I had some horseshoes in unmentionable places. Some people say you create your own luck, and I get that also because I did work so hard to get there.
The people at Vickers & Benson liked my approach and personality – I was someone who could work with creative types: people who don’t get finance, process, policies, and procedures. Given my personality was more out there, I fit in well. I could get my point across in order to make meaningful change.
Sage Advice to an Atypical CFO
Someone taught me early on: “If you need something from someone, you need to make them think and believe you are giving something to them, in order for you to get what you need out of them. To do that, give them something first” That advice has really worked for me in my career.
Also, when studying for the UFE, Al Rosen taught me that “in every transaction, there’s a winner and a loser”. What I took away from that is how everything is a negotiation. There’s a balance of power, people wanting to get something out of a transaction.
There’s a lot of people who don’t understand finance and money and what transactions mean to an organization. For instance, in my case, creative professionals really don’t want to hear you say no. Most people would say I’m not a typical CFO because I don’t come out of the gate saying “No”—but you still have to convince me first with good reasoning.
Communication is Key
I’ve never labeled myself an accountant. I always considered myself a business person–and if you do that, you don’t put yourself in a box. You need to climb out of the box and see what’s outside. That’s always been easy for me, but I can appreciate that a lot of people aren’t built that way. That’s why I ended up in a creative business—because that came naturally to me.
I attribute part of my success to speaking a more commercial language that isn’t just finance and accounting. As a CFO, COO, and EVP, I only spend 10% of my time looking at numbers because my role is very much operational. Learning to talk to other things (social media, digital, creative, etc) has made me stronger, more competent, more respected, and understood. They all make me a better operator. I’m a big believer that finance/accounting people have to learn how to speak the other person’s language as opposed to other way around.
Advice for Becoming a CFO Yourself
One of the things I’ve always done in every job has been making my direct supervisor’s role redundant. By taking things off their plate, people around me always noticed that I had the penchant and capability for more work. It allowed me to get the opportunity to see things at a higher level than I normally would’ve been allowed. By doing that, you get these “aha” moments where you realize, “I can do this!” and the only difference between these people and myself was just the years of experience.
You are smart, capable, and have both strengths and weaknesses. We all have things we need to work on and things we don’t. For myself, I learned early on that I was a learning sponge, and I try to provide others with that opportunity now. I give people a lot of rope; sometimes they fly, sometimes they climb, sometimes they fall flat on their face. But they inevitably learn.
I always tell my team: I’m not better than you—we’re peers. We’re the same. I’m not better than those who don’t have these letters yet. For me, it’s about your experiences and what you do with those things.
I realize I was fortunate. I loved my work, and asked for more. I had an aptitude for it and people took notice and offered me a job. The rest is history. I’ve gathered many skills for my toolkit over time.
But no matter how fortunate and blessed you may be, remember you also have to always work hard and be humble. That’s the key!