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Secrets of Their Success

How the top women in finance staked their claims to the C-suite.

June 2008
by Alix Stuart/CFO Magazine

Things were going very well for Christa Davies. She'd been recently promoted to a plum divisional-CFO post at Microsoft, charged with everything from integrating the company's largest-ever acquisition to helping it battle Google in the fast-growing search and online advertising markets. And she had just given birth to a baby girl. Now was not the time to make a major life change.

And then the phone rang — while she was on maternity leave, no less. Would she be interested in moving to Chicago, to become corporate CFO of $10 billion Aon Corp.?

For the 36-year-old Davies, the offer presented a chance to take a deep dive into risk management and human capital — "two incredibly fast-growing businesses" at Aon, which owns both an insurance-brokerage practice and a human-resources consulting firm. She said yes, and joined Aon this past November, plunging into a major operational restructuring and launching a stock buyback to help shore up the company's stock price. "It wasn't that I thought it was the right time for a change; this seemed like a unique opportunity," she says.

Davies's story flies in the face of the notion that companies sideline women for fear they will suddenly trade corporate life for domestic bliss. Over the past year, she and 9 other women moved into the top finance spots at America's largest companies. In all but one case they replaced men, tackling such tough assignments as keeping Lehman Brothers afloat amid the subprime crisis and spearheading a major acquisition at ITT. (Not that the CFO suite has become more welcoming to women: 10 also departed, most replaced by men, keeping the composition of Fortune 500 female CFOs constant at 38, or 7.6 percent. See "No Net Gain" at the end of this article.)

In many respects the women who ascended to large-company CFO posts got there the same way that men do: half were promoted internally and half were outside hires, a split that was constant across the entire Fortune 1,000 in 2007, according to executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. Some were CFOs of smaller companies, while others were divisional CFOs or CEOs, posts that often serve as launching pads for men who become large-company CFOs. And the women who joined the elite ranks of global CFOs almost always combine deep business experience with impeccable finance skills. Aon chose Davies out of "hundreds and hundreds of candidates," says CEO Gregory Case, in large part because of her experience with complex global operations, and because she looked to be "a great business athlete, someone who not only could perform as CFO, but who also could be a key member of the team."

Behind those similar backgrounds and qualifications, however, loom some key differences. For one, the odds are against women — literally. Slates of CFO candidates, for example, typically include a female choice, but are still predominantly male. Getting to that level requires difficult choices that often work against cultural norms. There could be "many, many more" female CFOs at big companies, says Charles Eldridge, partner and managing director of the financial-officers practice of Korn Ferry International, if not for the fact that a woman's career opportunities are often very difficult to reconcile with a spouse's job demands and children's needs. And then there are certain intangible factors, including hazily defined qualities like leadership ability and "executive presence," which have historically been associated with men.

Given that the percentage of female CFOs in the Fortune 500 has remained flat, it's clear that those complexities remain very much in force. But change may be in the offing: the number of female controllers, a key position in the CFO pipeline, increased from 16 percent to 21 percent. What does the next crop of female CFOs need to know as they climb the corporate ladder? CFO draws lessons from the 10 who made it this year and an additional 25 (see "25 Women to Watch" at the end of this article) who hope to find out.

Talent Incubators
To make it to the top, "start with the premise that the best talent usually sits in large, sophisticated companies," where complexity, scale, and diverse opportunities forge strong finance leaders, says Peter Crist, CEO of executive-recruiting firm Crist Associates. Indeed, many of the women who have made it in the past year come from brand-name companies, including new United Stationers Inc. CFO Victoria Reich, who spent her career at General Electric and Brunswick Corp., and new ITT Corporation CFO Denise Ramos, who was previously at Arco and Yum Brands. Interestingly, only 2 of the 10 (Lizabeth Zlatkus of The Hartford and Sabrina Simmons of The Gap) list a Big Four accounting firm on their résumés.

Build your résumé at a large company known for nurturing finance talent and it's a double bonus. Eldridge says he would automatically give finance people who work at Disney, General Electric, Pepsi, and Procter & Gamble "a few extra check marks without even knowing them," because of the people with whom they work or the training programs to which they have been exposed.

A history of frequent promotions is also critical. "If you've been a controller for 15 years, honestly, you can't substantiate that you've grown your portfolio," says Crist. In fact, any more than 5 years in a role and "that person is not promotable," says Eldridge. What's ideal is a 2- or 3-year stint, say recruiters, with anything shorter a bit suspect. Most of the women who became Fortune 500 CFOs this year stayed at one company for more than a decade, but were continually promoted. Among our 25 up-and-comers, each has held at least four significant executive roles.

Operations experience counts as well. Running a division, as either CEO or CFO, "is now a requirement at many companies, because it helps you relate so much better to the business units," says Lorraine Hack, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles. In fact, most of the women who have recently become CFOs point to their experience in the business as a major milestone. New USAA CFO Kristi Matus, who was promoted from CEO of the life-insurance division in January, for example, ran an insurance billings and collections call center at her previous employer, Thrivent Financial. She nearly passed over that chance to get into the "guts" of the organization, she says, but after heeding a mentor's advice she found the experience helped her "connect to the customer and what's happening on a day-to-day basis."

That's not to say there aren't still places for pure finance gurus. Both Simmons and Douglas came from corporate finance roles without holding executive business-unit titles. The ideal path ultimately depends on what a company needs, says Hack. In the case of Hertz, financing its fleet of rental cars means that "treasury is an integral part of the business," says Douglas, making the former treasurer a natural choice for CFO.

The Right Vibe
Still, a potent résumé will take you only so far. "Whether or not someone is going to become a CFO is much more personal than can be reflected on paper," says Jenna Fisher of executive recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates. The winners have "this kind of vibe: they carry themselves in a certain way and have a certain way of articulating themselves."

Indeed, leadership, confidence, and communication skills are nearly always the first words that emerge from recruiters' mouths when asked to describe a viable CFO candidate. While there's nothing gender specific about those qualities, the bravado that executive presence requires can conflict with deeply ingrained female behaviors. "A lot of the old-school types will question whether women can be tough enough," says Howard Seidel, an executive coach and a partner with Essex Partners in Boston. Women often don't help themselves, says Lori Dernavich, president of Step Ahead, an executive consulting firm in New York, because they "tend to be too apologetic. They'll say, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I haven't been a CFO before, I may not be right for the role.' They'll downplay their strengths and go right to their weaknesses. A man would never consider doing that."

This article has been excerpted from CFO magazine. View the full
article here.

Alix Stuart is a senior writer at CFO.

© CFO Publishing Corporation 2008. All rights reserved.