Top Women CFOs: How They Got There

By Liz O’Donnell (Boston)Young beautiful business lady standing in a suit

In an effort to support and promote women looking to become Chief Financial Officers, Deloitte Consulting LLP interviewed 15 of the top women CFOs in the United States and Europe. The firm asked a series of questions including:

  • What were the significant moments in your journey to becoming a CFO and your current role?
  • What are the skills important to being a CFO, and how did you acquire them?
  • What advice would you give other aspiring women professionals on managing their journey to leadership?

Deloitte wanted to understand what career paths, key relationships, traits and decisions led to these women joining the top ranks of financial professionals. The results are published in the report entitled “The Journey to CFO: Perspectives from women leaders.”

Barbara Adachi, national managing principal for Deloitte Women’s Initiative (WIN), says she hopes the report helps women see that the CFO position is available to them. “Women can do this,” she says. “The report opens up the dialogue.”

Adachi says gender was not a factor in the careers of the interviewees. Being a woman neither helped nor hurt their careers. “It wasn’t an issue as far as their getting selected or holding them back.” She says more important were the traits they had. “These are traits that both men and women have.”

The interviews show that the most important skills required to advance to CFO include communication and sales, listening, negotiation, operations, conflict resolution, and good strategic judgment and prioritization for decisive choices. The most important traits are curiosity, ethical responsibility, courage and self assurance.

The Confidence to Lead

More important than possessing self assurance, however, is demonstrating it. Carol Coughlin, CPA, Principal and Founder, of BottomLine Growth Strategies says, “From my perspective, if I sat in a board room and didn’t show confidence I would not earn respect. I’d be sitting at the table with mostly men.”

“The biggest thing I see is women who are technically brilliant. But if they aren’t showing that brilliance at the table, the men won’t see them working at a public company. I don’t think men have the same challenge. It’s just life,” she continued.

Coughlin earned her stripes working in companies that experienced significant growth. One company grew from $10 million to $100 million during her tenure and another grew from $10 million to $250 million. She also worked with turnarounds and helped broker acquisitions. This experience helped her gain valuable experience and recognition.

Taking on tough assignments is key in advancing your career, says Kelly Battles, the newly appointed CFO at cloud computing company Host Analytics. Battles’ career path prepared her well for her role. She graduated from Princeton, then worked at J.P. Morgan before getting her MBA from Harvard University. After graduate school she worked at McKinsey and then Hewlett Packard. But it was the risks and opportunities that she took that Battles says helped advance her career. “I never said I want to be a CFO and will do these 10 things to get there. I started broad and picked the best companies with solid cultures and the smartest people.”

The Importance of Taking Risks and Networking

Battles says it is important to take risks. After HP, Battles joined a technology start up firm which was eventually acquired by Cisco. “In any choice there is always a leap of faith. One way I’ve always mitigated risk is through personal connections,” she says. “Of course, there are things you can’t take risks on — ethics, values, and bending values.”

Both Battles and Coughlin agree that networking is another key step in getting to the CFO’s office. “One of the things that I think is just critical,” says Battles, ” is surrounding yourself with people and teams who give you energy and who you can learn from. I try to grow really thick roots with people.”

Says Coughlin, “Networking is really important. Both men and women (in this field) have problems with this. Financial people aren’t the best at cocktail parties so networking is sometimes a challenge.

The study also recommended that women looking to become CFOs take four key career steps to secure their career paths:

  1. Start your career well by joining a large, branded firm.
  2. Step up to the plate and seek tasks that others may shy away from.
  3. Proactively own your career by networking.
  4. Always envision what role you want to achieve.