30th July 2014

The Vice President of Finance & Operations, Latin America at Oracle sat down with LBC to discuss her view on the changing position of the CFO, and her experiences with professional development.

By Mark Keller

How is the role of the CFO evolving, and how does professional development play into that? How do you keep your skills up to date? How do you get ahead in your career? And what specifically should women do to advance to the top of the ladder?

These are some of the questions Latin Business Chronicle addressed with Cheryl McDowell, Vice President Finance & Operations, Latin America at technology company Oracle. An active participant at Latin Trade’s CFO Miami series, and also a member of Latin Trade’s CFO Advisory Committee, McDowell is uniquely qualified to answer these questions.

McDowell also spoke with Latin Business Chronicle about her experience with Dartmouth College, Tuck School of Business , Strategic Financial Leadership Program. On November 6, Latin Trade will host a CFO Master Class in partnership with Tuck on Strategic Communications for Finance Executives in the Americas with Tuck Professor Paul Argenti. Argenti is Professor of Corporate Communication and Faculty Director for Leadership and Strategic Impact, as well as Brand and Reputation programs. This Master Class is designed to provide chief financial officers operating in Latin America with a vision into strategic corporate communication and concepts needed to navigate through a highly competitive globalized economy.

LBC: How is the role of the CFO changing, and what are the implications of that change?

McDowell: I think the role of the CFO historically has been one of gate-keeping, primarily around accounting: looking at budgets, looking at what occurred in the past.

Today, the CFO is being asked to play a more proactive role in planning and adding more value to the strategy of the company. You have to change the way you look at things: looking forward more, not backward. You have to look at both non-financial and financial information to make your decisions. Also, you and your team have to gain the trust of your business partner. You have to be seen to have the right skills to be able to work with your business partner.

This change requires a more analytical skillset and also that the CFO have strong communication skills. At Oracle in the past year we have invested heavily, and will continue to invest a lot to train our employees on these new skills. This includes not only communication and improved analytics, but how to talk and master communication new styles.

Does this affect how you recruit or manage talent?

Doing a lot of recruiting lately – we’re looking for people who have experience working as a partner – people with experience doing presentations to senior executives , and specifically the type of analytical work they prepare. We consider how they communicate and how they work in teams. Are they comfortable presenting before an audience? The role of the CFO is much more outward-facing than before.

As for existing talent, you have to look at your employees and see if you need to change them: retrain them, hire new ones, or some mixture of the two. In addition, sometimes in order to get the job done right you might need to get some new blood.

How important is professional development in furthering one’s career?

Professional development is definitely important, especially with this change in the role of the CFO. People must always have that desire to learn something new. I think in order to be successful, you have to have a curious mind and to be curious, you constantly have to look at new information. If you’re within a company, you need to look at how other people do things: find out information on how the company performs against others, or how your division works in comparison to others. If you’re working with customers – researching them, the industry and understanding what their pain points are.

But personal development is really up to each individual person – it’s up to each individual person to handle. This can include getting an MBA, or just taking classes like I took at Tuck. A person can pick up new analytical skills or presentation skills. You need to make yourself or keep yourself up to date. Things change a lot in this industry– you need to be on your toes. You need to not only maintain, but constantly update your knowledge level. Again you have to want to know…be curious.

I know you attended one of Tuck’s Executive Programs, Strategic Financial Leadership. How important was the peer learning aspect of attending that program? Have you made valuable business or personal connections?

I found the Tuck program to be really fantastic. For me I find it was helpful in three key areas: 1) how to look at the business differently, 2) developing leadership 3) perfecting communication. I’ve been trying to apply some of this learning to my everyday work.

I took a lot away from the program. In terms of leadership – they look at leadership styles in a way that was new to me. This is very valuable – and different from your typical situational leadership or Meyers Briggs. I enjoyed all the discussions around leadership. Communication was extremely valuable not only from the day to day perspective but from a corporate leadership perspective.

Through the program I made contacts all over the globe, but that diversity also reinforces some of the teachings. You have not only global diversity, but also representatives from lots of different industries. There’s a lot of training in the program that gets you to learn from other people, or share information to help other people. It includes a lot of interaction through how the program is done that gives you a new perspective, or a new approach to things like leadership style or managing a business.

Specifically, Professor Argenti was one of the professors who taught in the SFLP program at Tuck – he will be presenting a Master Class on strategic communication for CFOs in November at our conference – how valuable was that topic for you?

Professor Argenti’s lessons were extremely valuable. Communication is one of the key areas where as the CFO becomes more strategic, this skill becomes invaluable. Argenti really taught us to look at things in different ways to therefore be able to communicate appropriately, either through case studies or through short movies and some roleplaying. He really touched on ways of improving your communication through planning and analysis.

Ethics and compliance are important as well. The Dartmouth program also made you think about your moral compass, which I thought was a great take away as well. As a CFO you need a strong moral compass – and the way Professor Argenti got us to think it through really made it more personal. It affected me in such a way that I spoke to our compliance department, and looked for ways we can incorporate it into our training. Taking a compliance class can be mandatory, but when coupled with thinking about one’s own moral compass helps to drive home the point and make it more personal.

As a prominent businesswoman, what advice do you have for women with aspirations to ascend to top leadership positions in Finance?

My advice would be: keep plugging away. Do what you do well, and make sure you have a strong network – get out there, meet people, don’t be shy! Networking to me is the best way to find out about things and have more people find out about you.

The other thing would be, if you can, find a mentor or a sponsor. A mentor might be able to help you to develop an area where you need help. A sponsor is someone who will sponsor and fight for you within the organization – who sees your value and pushes you to the next level.

What is one thing you wish you had known when you were beginning your career?

I was naïve when I first started out – I didn’t really think there were going to be barriers. In one of my jobs I encountered some difficulties being a woman. It took me a little while to understand that that was the issue. But by being able to show that I knew what I was talking about and that I could add value to their business, I was able to overcome it. Initially it surprised me, but I would advise women to work hard to prove themselves and make sure to overcome it.

I would also say no matter who you are – the interpersonal relationships, and networking, communicating – that whole area is so key to success. I’ve seen people who were maybe smarter than I am be not as successful because they lacked that side of it. Networking is essential – if you want to be in this position or move up, you need to have strong interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate and network. Without that, it stops you in many different ways.

dennis rodriguez
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