You don’t have to be perfect. This is a lesson I have to keep learning over again, because as an Enneagram 1, I know I have perfectionist tendencies. I’m learning to accept that I don’t have to have the answer to everything and that I can trust others to know what I don’t. Depend on people who have the skills, knowledge, and experience to light up your blind spots.
Angela Blanton is the VP and CFO at Carnegie Mellon University. This interview shares the journey she has taken in becoming the finance leader for an organization with a $1.3 billion operating budget and a mission, not only to prepare the next generation for the challenges ahead but also to instill in them the responsibility to shape the future.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One interesting thing is that I’ve come full circle in my career. I have the honor and privilege of working at my Alma Mater! I had already been blessed to have had the opportunity to attend the pioneering Tepper School of Business for my postgraduate studies. After participating in a unique executive training program that focused on values-driven leadership and purpose-driven strategy, I started to reflect on my career, personal progress, and my value drivers. What I determined is that I wanted to work with a deeper sense of purpose which lead me to a mission-driven organization that was making major positive impacts on society — Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). I started at CMU as the Director of Operations for the Finance Division. Six months later, the vice president and chief financial officer departed and the Board of Trustees appointed me to the interim role. This opportunity lead to my permanent position as vice president for finance and chief financial officer of Carnegie Mellon University.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
― Brene Brown
I’ve learned that to be an effective leader you must be willing to be open. That means showing vulnerability by seeking rounded feedback and constructive criticism and then having the courage to admit and confront your own weaknesses. Leadership is a journey along which you grow and evolve. Sure, you can focus on your strengths as a leader, but it’s acknowledging your blind spots, and being willing to lean on others to help fill those blinds spots that will make you a great leader. Learning to be vulnerable and to trust others is the key.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
Lead by greatness: How Character Can Power Your Success, by Rabbi David Lapin. I loved it because he explains how every company and team has its own identity — its own soul. And, he lays out a servant-leadership philosophy based on authenticity. It was reading this book that made me start to think about making a career change. I began to think about my purpose and if I was deeply gratified in my work which inspired me to seek out the opportunity at CMU.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It was my desire for the purpose that attracted me to CMU. I admired it as a place of optimism and ambition. Here, we challenge the curious and the passionate to imagine and deliver work that matters. At CMU we don’t just prepare the next generation for the challenges ahead, we instill in them the responsibility to shape the future. This mission has become my life’s work. I am blessed to have the opportunity to serve and to learn at such an institution which also happens to be my alma mater.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
My advice to young people is to never be intimidated by success — accept challenges head-on. When an opportunity comes your way, don’t be afraid that you’re not experienced enough, not knowledgeable enough, not talented enough. You are enough! Lean into new opportunities. You can always study or get advice and support on your journey. But you need to be willing to take that first step. I learned this firsthand by taking on the role of CMU’s CFO. At first, the challenge seemed daunting. But I took the opportunity and jumped in with both feet.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
For me, I think it’s more relevant to talk about the advice I decided not to act on. When I was taking on the role of CFO, a few people advised me to make a fresh start by quickly bringing in new blood. But as I assessed the organizational culture, I decided to take my time to first understand the relationships and to give individuals the opportunity to shift to a new operating model alongside me.
I had only been with CMU for six months when I was offered the CFO role. For me, it was a new industry and a completely different culture from what I had known. I wanted to take the time to develop a clear picture of the challenges ahead before making personnel changes. I was depending on my team to help me navigate my first year on the job.
One key strategy was to build relationships across the organization, and my team supported me in my efforts to lead through influence. Since then, there have been a few changes in the team due to normal attrition and somewhere I ultimately did make a few strategic appointments. I’m confident my approach has delivered a stronger, more effective, and trusted team.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I believe that the best, most effective leaders have a high level of self-awareness. This is something I’ve been working on developing with the support of the leading experts at Trilogy Effect. Their work is grounded in the Enneagram, a development framework that allows leaders to explore their character traits and understand how these affect their choices and decisions.
I have learned that I’m an Enneagram Type 1, also known as The Reformer. Type 1s, like me, have a sense of mission that drives them to use their influence to inspire others. As I mentioned, this drive is what landed me at CMU and ultimately in the CFO role. It influences the choices I make every day and is a crucial aspect of my approach to leadership.
The second characteristic of Type 1s is a propensity for self-discipline. We endeavor to be rational and moderate in all things and this means we often know the best action to take in each moment. For me, this means following my gut instincts in the hundreds of decisions I make every day. Leveraging all of what I’ve learned so far, I often have a sense of the best action to take, which helps to make decisions more quickly.
Finally, Type 1s tend to be well organized and we strive to maintain high standards. This served me well in my early career. My undergraduate degree is in engineering and I worked as an engineer for almost four years. Being an engineer required me to be methodical and analytical which I have and continue to carry through my career in finance.
In just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
The difference is largely about who you work with. When you think about CMU’s board members, where they come from and the positions they have held, it can be intimidating for someone new to the C-Suite.
I learned quickly that I needed to find better ways to communicate. Making board presentations meant translating financial data to make it meaningful for everyone on the board. My goal is to motivate them to ask questions that we can reflect on to make CMU a stronger organization.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I would like to dispel the myth that a C-level job title makes a person unapproachable or inaccessible. People assume that we have too much on our minds or that their concerns are inconsequential to our ‘big picture’.
This is not true, especially now. I care about my people. I worry about their struggles and the pressures they and their families are facing. I’m concerned about how they are coping with life in a pandemic. Since we’ve all been working from home, I’ve called every person on my team to check in on how they are coping. Their well-being is very important to me.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A big mistake I’ve seen is a new leader coming in and thinking they are going to change the culture — quickly. Culture hits at the heart of people’s beliefs about how things are and how things work — and they have been part of creating, aiding, and abetting that culture. Now imagine a new leader comes in and basically says your culture is bad or wrong. That means that you’ve been doing something wrong all these years. It goes right to people’s self-worth and self-value. The new person in the C-Suite now becomes a common enemy that people whisper about at the water cooler. Instead, drawing on emotional intelligence and engaging their employees in the possibility they see for the organization, the new leader ends up being the cause of resistance and defensiveness to the very change they want to make!
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I think people underestimate how much energy and time is spent on dealing with human issues in business. No matter what the industry is, the main challenge is finding, developing, and retaining talent for your organization. There are many aspects to this challenge: you need to find the right experience, skills, cultural fit, and resilience. In addition, you need to invest in your people because the world is ever-changing and requires ongoing learning. It takes a team to provide leadership, and it is critical to creating aligned purpose and values at the top of an organization. The “soft stuff” really is the hard stuff, and you cannot afford to ignore it when you are leading an organization. It affects everything!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- You’ve earned the right. I’m responsible for administering two committees of board directors. I knew that I’d be responsible for managing all of the finances for the university, and I didn’t find that intimidating. But running committees made up of board directors, many of whom held esteemed positions as CEOs as CFO’s and all of whom are very knowledgeable in their areas of expertise was a real learning curve for me. I was concerned about what value I could bring to them. Nobody really talked to me about that. What I had to figure out on my own is that my being at that table meant I’d earned the right to sit with these captains of industry.
- You don’t have to be perfect. This is a lesson I have to keep learning over again, because as an Enneagram 1, I know I have perfectionist tendencies. I’m learning to accept that I don’t have to have the answer to everything and that I can trust others to know what I don’t. Depend on people who have the skills, knowledge, and experience to light up your blind spots.
- Changing culture is never easy. Change is a process and cultures constantly shift. Five years in and our culture change is still a work in progress. But there have been wins along the way. Silos are crumbling. Trust is building. Empowerment is growing. It may seem small, but I first noticed a change in the Finance Division culture when I contrasted my first Finance Division Town Hall meeting with one we had a year or so later. People were engaged and chatting among themselves. They seemed relaxed and were laughing and having a little fun rather than the frowning faces in silence I experienced the first time. Another indicator was the teamwork we shared with our campus partners through a significant technology change. We hit a few bumps in the road through the implementation, but our campus partners were right alongside us working to resolve the issues in the best way possible.
- Communication is oxygen. I work with a broad range of stakeholders ranging from the board of directors, the university leadership team, my immediate reports, my larger team, other CMU staff, faculty, students, and more. As an environment, it’s complex at best and the reputational and bottom-line risks of getting communications wrong are real. Understanding perspectives and lenses through which people will digest information is key. For me, communications must be relevant, well-timed, and anchored in empathy.
- The C-Suite will change you. Since taking a C-suite role, I’ve become a lot more self-aware, and this has had a ripple effect in my personal life too. For example, I’m taming my perfectionist tendencies and I can feel myself become more patient and trusting at work, as well as at home. I appreciate the people in my life so much and value our relationships highly. This serenity strengthens me as a leader, a mother, and a friend.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I mentioned that, although our culture change is a work in progress, we’ve made great gains. Part of this is to make sure that everyone has a clear direction. People understand exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. They understand their contribution to the organization, through both a division and university lens. I hold annual goal-setting sessions with the leadership of the Finance Division, and they take the same approach with their teams.
In these sessions we ask ourselves, what should we be focusing on? We seek insights from the latest trends as well as input from our board of trustees and stakeholders across campus to gain insight into their pain points and how we might help address them.
The net benefit is getting team buy-in — a shared sense of ownership of the mission and the direction. And that’s a solid foundation upon which we’re building our culture.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think we can all agree that COVID-19 has proven to be a great leveler. Throughout the world, we are all experiencing the collective trauma of the pandemic. This shared experience of emotional disruption and loss has touched everyone in some way or another. My hope is that reflecting on this time will change the way we approach life, how we value each other as individuals and create empathy for one another. We should build on this experience by prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of daily life and celebrate each day of ‘difference’ to strengthen the collective!
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!