Companies are hiring a record number of female chief financial officers, 90 at last count in the role at S&P 500 and Fortune 500 companies as of Aug. 1. That still makes women a big minority in terms of top finance jobs, but it is heartening to see progress being made.
I spent more than 30 years in finance before becoming a CFO. As I look at my career and assess my development as a leader, I see five major lessons that have served me well. I hope they help other women, and men, too.
1. Find your why
When it comes to defining your ambitions, be authentic about what you want to achieve, and be comfortable if you don’t know what that is yet. It takes courage to trust your instincts, especially early in your career when you may be less self assured. Asking, “Why am I doing this job, what am I getting from it?” — will get you in the right headspace. I learned that by chance. One day, a colleague took me aside and said: “You don’t seem very happy. Is this what you want to be doing?” I was working in a high-pressure role, with long hours, while juggling two small children at home. The question prompted me to step back. I moved jobs so I could spend more time with my family and became much happier.
Ever since, I ask myself the “why” question all the time. It keeps me honest. Life changes, and sometimes you need to find a new “why.” Your career may go in new directions, and not always up, but if the move makes you happier, you’ll have more holistic success than sticking to a path you aren’t passionate about.
2. Every conversation counts
Networking doesn’t come naturally to me. I thought that might hold me back. I’ve learned that networking takes many forms. You might work a room and command an audience. Or, like me, you prefer individual conversations. Both are valuable methods of communicating and growing connections. Genuine conversations are about finding and strengthening connections, which don’t have to be work-related. It means being willing to share something of yourself, because that’s how you build trust. And it means being constantly curious, so that every conversation has the potential for a new opportunity. Conversations beget more conversations, and your network is the byproduct of that. As your network grows, the more you find yourself in other people’s thoughts and contact lists.
3. Strength in numbers
Coming together with people on shared issues—but with diversity of thought—can bring about change that benefits everyone. Red Hat’s “Women In Finance” group is an example of this. The group emerged from a conversation I had with two female colleagues. They had both experienced the same issue, but felt powerless to do anything by themselves. We decided the business would benefit from an informal group, which would give women a channel to air concerns, share experiences and life tips, and ask for advice. Within two months of starting, the group had 100 members. It has more than doubled since, with new chapters launching in Ireland and India.
The group has influenced new corporate benefits and rules, underscoring that there’s strength in numbers. So join in, never underestimate the contribution you can have, and always recognize that the amplification of others is a powerful tool.
4. Stay calm, but not quiet
I learned early on that professional life can be hard to navigate and, at times, it’s natural to feel frustrated. I also learned the importance of separating the emotion from the issue, and sticking to the facts.
Prior to joining Red Hat, I was passed over for a promotion to VP, only to discover that two newly hired men with less responsibility had just been hired at that level. I had more experience, a larger team, and managed higher areas of risk. I needed to say something, but I also knew I needed to be thoughtful, professional and to seek a conversation versus present an accusation.
I built the business case to management for why my position also should be VP level. I considered the pieces at play; what was the wider business and financial environment, how did my analysis factor in others at the same level, what were the business drivers, and what did they as management not have insight to that I could share to influence the decision to promote my role? Only when I was confident I had the full picture did I ask for a meeting and successfully presented my case.
5. Nurture the next generation
Another powerful, “softer” skill that I find invaluable is empathy. Being able to relate to others and truly understand (or at the very least, try to understand) what they’re going through is important, especially as a manager. In practical terms, it’s about asking yourself: “What would have helped me at that point in my career?” ”What was I missing?” Leaders have a responsibility to help those around them progress in their careers by removing obstacles that prevent hard work from translating into success.
Four years ago, I created ‘CFO Connect’ with this aim. The program connects talented and skilled associates with others from cross-functional areas and gets them to work together on business challenges. The results have led to new initiatives such as a job rotation program and the creation of a business acumen curriculum available to all finance associates.
Nurturing talent is now one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job. In fact, it has become my new “why.”