CFO Snapshot: Sweating in Front of the Board

Meryl Zausner, the U.S. finance chief of Novartis, shares her thoughts on the CFO role and the path she took to get there.
Kate O'SullivanJuly 27, 2012

Name: Meryl Zausner
Title: CFO
Company: Novartis Corp.

When did you know you wanted to be a CFO?
At the age of 27, by default I found myself standing in front of the board of directors of the Colgate-Palmolive Co. presenting a divestiture strategy for one of our businesses. It was also the last time I sweated before a presentation, and I knew that a CFO career path could be very rewarding.

When did you start to actively pursue that path?
When I started college, my mother told me that I needed to get a job to support myself, and since I loved math she strongly suggested that I become an accountant. She also says that this was the last time I listened to her.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective CFOs

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective CFOs

Download our whitepaper to discover the technical and behavioral skills needed to lead your business forward.

Looking back, what was the most important career decision you made?
My first husband passed away in 1999 after a 14-year battle with brain cancer. I knew that I had to support my family and that I shouldn’t make any drastic decisions during that next year, including moving or changing jobs. Novartis was going to give me an opportunity to change careers and move out of finance and run the sales-force field operations. I felt that I couldn’t represent 3,000 field reps without having lived in their shoes, so we agreed that I would become a sales rep for six months. This would have given me an opportunity to be out of the office and work independently and give me that “drastic” change within the comfort of my own Novartis support network. I knew that I would not like being out in the field since the first six months are the most difficult and I would not like the rejection that many of the reps encounter!

Weeks before my assignment was to happen, Novartis reorganized the pharmaceuticals division, and they decided to start up an oncology business unit. David Epstein was to be the global head, and they asked me if I would be interested in running finance. My immediate reaction was disappointment. But by the next day I realized that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I was going to work for a fabulous, up-and-coming leader and be part of a team whose mission was to make cancer a treatable disease. I stayed in that job for eight years and the business grew to $10 billion and we saved thousands of lives.

Of the many skills you need to be a good CFO, which one do you think is most critical?
Getting the balance right on taking risk and doing what is best for the business and shareholders. [CFOs need] to be objective and have a great understanding of the business and the implications of the decisions that they make. We also need to take a longer view and follow the right strategy, even when stakeholders may be more interested in the nearer-term results.

Who or what has been your best source of advice?
There isn’t one answer. I rarely ask for [advice] — this is probably more a weakness than a strength. I am often a voyeur, and carefully watch those around me. I learn more from the mistakes that others make than by seeking out great leaders to advise me.

I also tell other women in the organization to find a best friend at work who doesn’t work in the same area. They understand what it is like to live in the organization and can be a safe outlet. You can be good advisers to each other.

What is your best advice for aspiring CFOs?
Make sure that you have the credentials. Although it’s not mandatory, a CPA and work experience in external audit, internal audit, business analysis, treasury, investor relations, M&A or licensing, P&L responsibility [are all important]. Learn your business, since you should be the primary adviser to your CEO.

What should aspiring CFOs avoid at all costs?
Not learning and growing every day. If you are smart and intuitive enough, you should also know when it is time to move on to another organization.

Also, avoid sacrificing your personal life for your career. If you have a full and happy life, you will be much more focused at work and more successful in your professional career.

How do you feel about the pipeline of women who are CFO candidates, both at your company and within your broader network? Do you think it’s harder for women to become CFOs than it is for men?
There are never enough women in the pipeline. When the percentage of women entering the field approximates the number [of] CFO roles, then the pipeline is working. Most of the women I started with either dropped out of corporate life, went into business for themselves, changed careers, or work part-time. The sacrifices were huge and the payback was hard to envision. Things have changed quite a bit, especially since those who have been successful are now mentoring and supporting those who follow us. Also, the men who are making the decisions now have daughters who are demanding the same opportunities. However, we are not there yet, and until the proven track record increases, it will still be more difficult.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We spend a lot of time talking about getting women into the corner office as CEO or CFO. Now that there are some women there, they are struggling with getting themselves to the next pinnacle — a seat at the boardroom table. Boards need to take a risk, too, and dig deeper into the talent pool for fresh ideas. Many women who have already had their dream job are planning for the next phase of their career, and many of them want to give back and have that seat at the table.