ON HOW TO THINK BEYOND YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION FOR UPWARD MOBILITY.
a broader view of your company and
you'll have a better opportunity to broaden your career.
Lisa Yoon, CFO.com
March 12, 2004
Once there was a
finance manager who worked hard and consistently met expectations. Eventually
he ascended to become a divisional head of financial planning and analysis.
As he steadfastly pursued excellence in fulfilling the requirements of his
job, the manager became the go-to person whom senior executives relied on for
accurate financial information.
season returned, however, the manager was passed over. As Rick Smith and
James Citrin relate in their recent book The Five Patterns of Extraordinary
Careers (Crown Business, 2003), after the manager endured a frustrating period
in which younger colleagues were promoted over his head, he was laid off.
(When the book went to press, add the authors, the manager remained
"incredulous as to why he went off the tracks" and was still
"desperately looking for a job.")
handicap - one that's not uncommon, according to executive career consultant
Larry Stybel of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire was an inability
to think beyond his job description.
Finance is a
discipline that encourages conservative thinking, of course, and creative
approaches to accounting have "consequences you don't even want to think
about," notes Stybel. Yet the ability to think in different modes - and
to recognize the importance of disciplines outside finance - is what
ultimately distinguishes great CFOs from the merely competent. In an informal
follow-up to their book, Smith and Citrin asked executive recruiters at
Spencer Stuart for extraordinary examples of men and women who held a rigidly
defined finance title: controller. The names that ended up on their list,
explains Smith, turned out to be the controllers who were considered the most
innovative in their roles - who had "the business perspective to most
effectively apply financial tools."
In finance, Smith
continues, it's very easy to fall into the mindset that defines success as
"avoiding unexpected negative outcomes." That attitude is
reinforced by many nonfinance executives, who often have little regard for
finance executives once they've stepped beyond the bounds of their usual responsibilities.
But those low expectations, says Smith, offer finance executives a
"phenomenal opportunity to deliver unexpected value." Once
operations employees see the light, adds Larry Winkler, CFO of wireless
provider InPhonic, "they never let go of the finance person."
Operations is the
key word, says Dennis Lacey. The finance chief for Teletech, a provider of
outsourced customer-management services, insists that you'll "do a
better job as a CFO if you have operating experience." (His own story -
more about that later - seems to bear him out.)
Currie, CFO of Royal Bank of Canada, agrees. "You have to have tangible
experience" with your company's products or services, he says. And to be
truly a part of the team, adds Currie, "you have to identify with the
people in the company who are making the product." By contrast, says
Winkler, "if you're just counting things, you're not adding value;
you're a historian."
Once you accept
that simply delivering the numbers is not enough, what next? Larry Stybel
maintains that an act as simple as scheduling time to get outside the finance
department can have a profound impact. You'll learn a lot - and you'll help
other executives to perceive you as a business partner. Tell other managers
that you'd like to spend half a day on the factory floor, or accompany sales
staff on client calls.
a mid-career finance executive, says Stybel, sales experience is a
particularly good idea, "even if it's just for a few months." Currie
of Royal Bank, where understanding customer behavior and profitability is a
management priority, sees this as an especially compelling motivation to
broaden your view. "The world has changed substantially," explains
Currie; financial-services customers are shopping around more.
gain experience and visibility, you don't need to restrict yourself to your
own company, either. Stybel encourages his clients to join the boards of
other companies (though these days you'd certainly want to be very
selective). A lower-pressure option might be to volunteer for a nonprofit organization,
say in treasury or fund-raising.
A tough situation
can be a golden opportunity. As related in Extraordinary Careers, Teletech's Dennis
Lacey was once an audit partner at Coopers & Lybrand. In 1989 a Coopers
client, Capital Associates, recruited him to be its vice president of
operations and chief operating officer. Shortly thereafter he added the title
of chief financial officer - and determined that the company was deep in
financial trouble and headed toward bankruptcy.
respond by sticking to finance. While honoring his and arranging bank
financing, he kept his hand on the COO throttle as well. Once the company's
rehabilitation was under way, the board made him CEO, a job he held for the
next seven years.
executive, he restructured the company, installed new management, and came up
with a new strategy for the company's direction. The company's share price
rose from 3 cents to $5. After taking the company from near-collapse to 21
consecutive quarters of profits, Lacey led the successful sale of the
company. He went on to lead the turnaround of CKE Restaurants Inc. before
joining Teletech. "It was a trial by fire," says Lacey of his
experience at Capital Associates. "And that was actually an
advantage." He credits his rise to chief executive to addressing the
company's problems holistically, with an eye on both administrative and
financial solutions. It's hard to imagine what kind of career Lacey might
have had if - in the midst of his company's crisis - he had stuck to crunching
take-charge attitude was welcome because Capital Associates needed help and
leadership. But Rick Smith warns against confusing proactive with overly
aggressive. In other words, make sure you have permission - or at least an
implicit understanding - that you can exceed your normal role.
shouldn't "demonstrate authority when you don't necessarily have
it," adds Smith. He tells of one executive who was working on a special
project with a team. She finished the project on her own and presented it to
the CEO, who was impressed - but the executive also alienated her teammates,
who felt she was showing them up.
That same warning
holds in more-ordinary situations. If you haven't been invited to a
nonfinance company meeting, don't simply invite yourself. Instead, obtain
buy-in from your boss by explaining how your participation would help you perform
your finance job better. (Naturally, you will have carefully selected a meeting
where you believe you'll have something to add, too.) As Smith puts it,
"Just because you weren't invited, doesn't mean you don't belong in the room."