Lasting Advice

CFOs' biggest influences? Most say their parents.
Alix StuartAugust 1, 2003

The chief influence on Clayton Daley’s career was his dad. During evening walks as a teenager, Daley Jr. got an earful about the tribulations of the business world. His father’s frustration with the snack-food distributor he worked for — namely, its willingness to hire and fire so frequently that he once reported to three different bosses in three years — has had a lasting impact, says the younger Daley.

“One of the reasons I’m with Procter & Gamble is that my father worked for a company that did not promote from within, so he advised me to find one that did,” says the 51-year-old CFO. His father even steered him specifically to the $40 billion consumer-goods maker, where he has risen through the ranks since 1974.

When asked by CFO to name the key influence on their professional lives, few finance chiefs could point to only one person. Daley added the CFO who preceded him at P&G, Erik Nelson, to his list, for his courage in defending conservative accounting treatments. Others mentioned multiple mentors from different stages of their careers. “Even this is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” says General Mills CFO Jim Lawrence of his six-person list, which included former Fidelity investment guru Peter Lynch, his boss at a summer job.

Yet in this random sample, parents clearly top the list. Like Daley, Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates Inc. CFO Bob Halliday says his father, who did not graduate from college, was the one who set him on course toward his current position. “When I was graduating from high school in 1972, my father saw all these aerospace engineers getting laid off and said, ‘Don’t be an engineer.’ So instead I went to Wharton,” Halliday recalls.

Many other people, including Wal-Mart CFO Thomas Schoewe and ESPN CFO Christine Driessen, point to lessons about hard work and perseverance their parents taught by example. “My father did whatever he had to do to get the sale,” says Schoewe, “and if that meant he didn’t get home until 10, 11, or 12 o’clock at night, well, that’s what he did.”

Next to parents, most CFOs also list among key influencers at least one former or current boss, most often one who stretched them beyond their personal limits. “In general, executives say they have learned the most when they’ve been thrown in over their heads,” says Allan Cohen, a professor of management at Babson College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “They’ll often point to a person who gave them that opportunity, or who helped them through it.”

Northwest Airlines chairman (and former CFO at Disney as well as Marriott) Gary L. Wilson is on Lawrence’s list, for example, for apprenticing him when he took the CFO job at the airline in 1996 with no prior finance experience. “I was appointed with the [understanding that Wilson] was getting raw material — good material, but definitely raw,” says Lawrence. As nonexecutive chairman, Wilson went over all the finance reports with a fine-tooth comb, and then called Lawrence once, if not twice, a day, “which was actually very helpful,” Lawrence says.

Conversely, Bob Leahy, CFO of Needham, Massachusetts-based telecommunications company Brooktrout Inc., credits his CEO, Eric Giler, with successfully pushing him into a broader role at the company shortly after he joined as finance chief in the late 1980s. “He wanted me to take responsibility for operations, like manufacturing and procurement. I wasn’t particularly keen on doing it at the time,” says Leahy, “but the fact is, it opened up a whole new world for me.” One of his prime tasks now, he says, is getting his own employees engaged in new projects, trying to emulate Giler’s style of letting everyone have his or her say before making a final decision.

Of course, as the tight relationships between CFOs and their bosses at companies like HealthSouth and WorldCom demonstrate, a boss can be a bad influence, too. “You can lose perspective when you’re very attached to one person,” says Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Rod Kramer, who teaches a course on power and influence.

In the long run, a negative influence can have a positive effect. University of Southern California professor Warren Bennis recently interviewed 43 U.S. leaders about their heroes for his book Geeks & Geezers: How Eras, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). After discussing their heroes, the interviewees often brought up people they didn’t want to emulate. “It was very clear that there were negative influences they learned even more from than their heroes,” says Bennis.

Christine Cox, CFO of Waltham, Massachusetts-based MetraTech Corp., agrees. “I’ve always thought there was more to learn from bad managers than from good,” she says. “It was from them I learned that it’s important to treat people with respect — and that a big part of intelligence is recognizing that you don’t know everything.” General Mills’s Lawrence recounts a former boss at Bain & Co. who was “incredible at prioritizing things” but failed to reconcile the fact that some of his low priorities were high priorities for others.

So how can CFOs be more effective influencers in their own organizations? The obvious solutions — spending more time with the people you want to influence and talking about the things that matter to you — make for a good start, say experts. When it comes to ethics, for example, “it’s important to talk with people about ethical dilemmas they might be facing, and to problem-solve with them,” even acknowledging your own internal struggles, Kramer says. Beyond that, the rewards and punishments you set up are likely to carry far more weight than any words. “When you talk about the importance of trustworthiness, do employees see that being valued, or do they see the people who are bending the rules getting promoted?” he asks. “It really comes down to what you do, not what you say.”