At a recent Fortune CFO Collaborative event, a group of panelists described their varied paths to leadership positions in the finance function—and they shared how their companies think about meeting emerging trends.
Unconventional Paths to the CFO Role
Asked to define their unique paths to the CFO role, the panelists detailed a broad range of backgrounds that all helped to inform their focus, their management styles, and their approaches.
“I was raised by an accountant and an artist,” said Tania Secor, global chief financial officer, R/GA. And despite her degree in art history, Secor has spent the bulk of her career in the software-as-a-service industry. “I bring my software experience as a CFO to this very human and professional service organization, but it's with an appreciation for the unpredictability and the organicness of that creative process, and that's really what ultimately will be driving … profitable growth for our agency.
“As a CFO, you need to have a broad wingspan and technical skills.”
Kristina Salen, chief financial officer, WWE, noted that she was a technology investor for nearly 20 years before becoming a CFO—a perspective that has provided her with a sort of sixth sense. “You're looking at hundreds of companies and meeting with CEOs and CFOs over the years, to kind of have pattern recognition of what some of those problems and opportunities might be,” she said.
Salen added, “I don’t think in terms of ladders. I think in terms of experiences and collecting experiences across your career.”
Harmit Singh, executive vice president and CFO, Levi Strauss & Co., recounted a career that spanned five industries. “I worked in private companies and public companies. I spent 50% of my professional life overseas. And I've never done the same job I've done before, other than this job,” he said.
Singh said one element he focused on was nurturing employees: “I think it's important that you bet on talent to develop talent.”
Tammy Romo, executive vice president and CFO, Southwest Airlines, with three decades at the U.S. airline, said that leaders’ willingness to develop talent presented her with opportunities. “I was always very fortunate in that I had leaders who believed in me, and that gave me the confidence to step into those new roles,” she said, adding that supporting talent is something she fosters with her leadership team.
Romo also extolled the virtues of pushing one’s boundaries. “Really believe in yourself and be willing to step into that new role, and maybe learn to be open to learning new things that are outside of what you grew up doing,” she said.
The Growing Importance of Technology
When the topic turned to technology, the CFOs emphasized the importance of smart automation, skilled staff, and robust integration tailored to their organization’s unique needs.
Singh described a good working relationship with the CIO, a role that has reported to him for the past two decades. “One plus one is actually equal to three,” he said. “It helps drive commercially driven, technology-driven decisions.” Singh also noted that technology is changing quickly, and even established companies such as Levi Strauss must adapt. “The company has been around 160-plus years, but the world's evolving, and we are spending two-thirds of our capital on technology,” he added.
R/GA’s Secor said, “Our economy has changed, and especially with the pandemic, we at R/GA believe that technology is complementary to and a facilitator to a more human future.” She described a close collaboration with her company’s COO to drive efficiency—and job satisfaction—for its employees.
Technology is ubiquitous, Salen said. “Maybe 20 years ago, it was a department in the corner. It now permeates every aspect of your business and every aspect of the finance function, so there's lots of opportunities to learn,” Salen said, adding that while at Etsy, she enrolled in a SQL class to better understand the engineering function.