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Finance chief and GE alum Marcia Dall says diverse experience is key to success as a CFO.
Kate O'Sullivan, CFO.com | US
July 25, 2012
Name: Marcia Dall
Company: Erie Insurance
What was your most important career decision?
One of the most important earlier career decisions was to join the corporate audit staff at GE. It was such a great training ground, seeing so many different businesses in such a short time frame. You find you've got the ability to navigate space you've never been in before. After being on the audit staff - one of the other personal decisions I made was to leave the audit staff early because I wanted to stay married - I went back to the aircraft engines division in Cincinnati. The next big decision was to go to GE Capital, moving from manufacturing to financial services. It was a great structure with great leadership and gave me exposure to Kathy Cassidy [now treasurer at GE]. She was a great role model early in my life because she has three boys and her husband retired early so she could pursue her career. She gave me a chance. She took a chance. Letting me go from manufacturing to GE Capital was a big leap even in the GE culture.
What were some other big career decisions?
I got my master's at Kellogg. I do think that is one of the milestones in my life. I left finance to run a customer-service organization and got my master's at the same time. It's so important to be a strategic CFO, not just technical.
When did you decide you wanted to be a CFO?
I knew I wanted the role, but I'm not sure when I decided. I became GE Rail CFO as my first internal CFO role. I remember Bob Speetzen [then head of GE Capital Railcar Services] asking me if I wanted the role. I didn't blink and said yes, but I'm not sure I had planned it before then. I thought if I just did a great job in whatever role I had - I didn't look beyond where I was, I was just making sure I nailed it where I was. There were people who noticed, and that was an important part of the equation: people like Kathy Cassidy, Jim Park, Bob Speetzen. I probably wouldn't be here today if not for those great leaders who were watching me and noticing.
How can other aspiring CFOs get noticed?
By working on what matters to your leaders. Make sure you're not working on stuff that at the end of the day may not make a difference. Advice I give to people today, women and men, is that picking the leader you work for is becoming more and more important. Is it a leader who is interested in developing you? Who is interested in giving you exposure, who is willing to coach, willing to develop? More interested in you than in his or her own advancement? Who have been their successes in the past that could be pointed to that they have helped to grow and develop?
Who or what has been your most important source of advice?
[Current and former GE executives] Jim Park, Kathy Cassidy, Bob Speetzen, Tom Mann. They were always asking questions to learn. Through that learning, they were able to discover and find things others might not have found.
I'm trying to push myself to grow and develop, not becoming passive or comfortable. I'm currently in the middle of taking the seven classes I need to become a CPCU [chartered property casualty underwriter], a well-recognized insurance certification, in four or five months instead of several years like most people do. I've said to myself: push yourself, continue on the journey of understanding the operations side of the business.
When I started this role, I had one month until our first earnings call, board meeting, and first A.M. Best review. Within the first three months, I had run the gamut. What enabled me to do that was a great team here. I am forever grateful to the team [for] helping me to do that. You can't learn everything, so make sure you learn what's important.
Do you think it's harder for women to be CFOs than it is for men?
I don't think it's harder for women than men, except that it is hard when you're raising a family and trying to get all of the experiences you need to be a CFO. I was fortunate that my husband was willing to change jobs and work for a number of different companies. When I was getting my master's in Chicago - that was tough. But it's tough for men, too. It's across women and men: it comes down to who do you work for, and do you have the fortitude and willingness to push yourself to get the diversity of experience you need? It takes tremendous fortitude, that fire in the belly, and willingness to be humble, to ask basic questions.
How do you feel about the pipeline of talent in your organization?
I have some great women and some great men. I always focus on hiring the best talent for the team. I try to be gender-neutral. One thing I took from GE is to just recruit the best talent. I don't know the exact numbers.
The thing I am working on with both men and women is getting diversity of experience. If you're in accounting, do a project with the investment team or the treasury team. Or move to FP&A [financial planning and analysis], or have actuarial do a project with another part of the team.