Executive Charisma: Can It Be Learned?

Ask for adjectives describing a finance chief, and ''charismatic'' doesn't normally leap to mind.
Kate O'SullivanNovember 1, 2003

When hiring, companies tend to value the candidate “who is appropriately serious and sober, and a big listener at the right time in the conversation,” says John Wilson, whose San Francisco-based recruiting firm, J.C. Wilson Associates, San specializes in finance executives. That’s true even more these days, perhaps, when “personal magic”—part of Webster’s definition of charisma—could get a CFO into trouble in the boardroom.

But in a world where finance-department executives have become strategic corporate players and must communicate their goals to executives in other departments, some management experts suggest that a little leadership magnetism and charm are qualities CFOs should nurture. And a few think that charisma can be taught, at least to some degree.

With the right approach, all executives can up their charisma quotients, says Debra A. Benton, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based executive career counselor. “Technical brilliance is necessary, but what will take you farther is an understanding of how to deal with people,” she says. “It might require learning to do more with your natural personality.”

The challenge is tougher in finance, where executives are often pegged as quiet types. “I don’t think their training encourages” charisma, she says. “And they can get away with not having it,” since solid finance ability is indeed the traditional bedrock of most positions in the field. Yet those finance officers who have both the technical skills and a compelling persona can stand out from their generally reserved peers—in a good way, according to Benton.

Her recent book, Executive Charisma: Six Steps to Mastering the Art of Leadership (McGraw-Hill), presents a game plan for developing one’s ability to command loyal troops. Benton quotes one executive who describes a bell curve in which executive charisma is found between temerity on one side and uncontrolled hubris on the other. “You want to be in the center and high on that scale,” says the executive. Benton names such qualities for the midpoint as confident (but not arrogant) and tough (but not bullying). Her six steps, while often pretty obvious (“stand tall, straight, and smile”), are supposed to map out a route to the peak of that curve.

Over at Harvard Business School, though, assistant professor Rakesh Khurana shudders at the idea that charisma is a key to business success. He traces the word back to its roots as a religious term meaning “the gift of grace” or “the ability to speak with God.” And therein lies its danger, says Khurana. “Charisma has always been attractive to people,” he says, “because it offers a simple answer: suspend disbelief and follow blindly, and everything will be all right.”

A Vision Salesman

Professor Khurana, author of last year’s Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs (Princeton University Press), proposes that loyalty to a charismatic leader may be among the explanations for why Enron employees followed the lead of former CFO Andrew Fastow. “What we’re looking for in a CFO is trust and rationality,” says Khurana. “The CFO is supposed to be a counterbalance to the charismatic CEO.”

Indeed, those who do see charisma as a valuable commodity believe it could help turn today’s finance leader into a chief executive. “What separates the cream from the rest of the crop is the ability to sell a vision, and to get people working for you,” says Natalie Laackman, Chicago-based senior finance officer and vice president of the ConAgra Foods Deli division of ConAgra Foods Inc. She cites the ability to relate personally to staffers as another aspect of charisma—a characteristic she associates with Jack Greenberg, the recently retired McDonald’s Corp. chairman and CEO who once served as the company’s CFO. Laackman worked closely with Greenberg at McDonald’s before arriving at ConAgra in April. “He’ll focus on the person who’s talking to him, not just on the business agenda, and that has really endeared him to people and caused them to be very loyal,” says Laackman. “He treats you like you’re the most important person in the room.”

Any list of charisma-blessed executives in the CFO arena is likely to include names of some who have moved on to lead companies or take positions of responsibility outside finance, like Hilton Hotels CEO Stephen Bollenbach; former Dell Computer CFO Tom Meredith, now an angel investor and philanthropist; Continental Airlines president and COO Larry Kellner; and PepsiCo president and CFO Indra K. Nooyi.

“The CFO will always be the numbers guy or gal,” says Craig Watson, CEO of Opti-Pay Technologies LLC, an electronic-payment management company, and former CFO at Pepsi Central Co., which ran PepsiCo’s Midwest beverage unit. “But I think it’s up to CFOs to break the mold and demonstrate that they are first and foremost effective businesspeople.” Watson, who has worked with Benton to improve his own style, believes her suggestions are especially helpful in promoting interdisciplinary contacts.

“The CFO really needs to cultivate the respect and support of the line managers,” he says. “To do that, you have to have the capability to interact with people.”

While Watson agrees that some executives can become too involved in creating a dynamic persona, he doesn’t think there’s much danger for finance officers. “What helps save a CFO from being hung up on his or her charisma,” he says, “is that at the end of the day, the numbers have to make sense.”