Are You the CFO Type?

For finance executives, a personality assessment can be very revealing about your preferences -- and about your opportunities for growth.
Lisa YoonApril 23, 2004

“I want to be a CFO, just like you.” Several years ago, when Kevin Evans was the finance chief of software maker Placeware, his controller approached him with that aspiration.

“You may not be just like me,” Evans recalls telling her. “Are you really willing to get out and promote the company?” Adds Evans — now CFO of the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute, after Placeware was sold to Microsoft in 2003 — “I think it’s particularly important that The Street get comfortable with a company’s CFO.”

Gut feelings alone didn’t guide Evans’ opinion. Over a period of several years, the finance chief, his controller, and several of his other direct reports had each taken a Myers-Briggs assessment, the oldest and still the most widely used personality assessment tool. Evans is ENTJ — an extroverted, intuitive, big-picture thinker (for a key to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, see “MBTI, by the Letters” at the end of this article). It also happens that Evans is the only extrovert on his finance team.

As for the controller, “being public was unnatural for her,” says Evans. She was willing to sharpen her public-speaking skills, so Evans created opportunities, such as giving presentations in front of the company. The controller did fine when she was talking numbers, “but when it came to talking from the gut, she wasn’t comfortable,” says Evans. “I don’t know if she ever will be.”

Building Self-Awareness

That doesn’t mean she’ll never be a CFO; many finance chiefs are on the shy, retiring side. Farr Associates, an executive-coaching firm based in High Point, North Carolina, has used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to assess 17 chief financial officers across a variety of industries. In the Farr sample, 7 of the 17 CFOs were detail-oriented, precise with numbers, more comfortable with results that are quantified, highly organized — and introverted. Another 4 fit that same description, except that they’re extroverted.

Unlike operations or marketing, says Pam Fox Rollin, founder of San Francisco coaching firm IdeaShape, finance departments tend to focus less on developing management skills in the lower ranks. That’s been true, she adds, despite the huge leap in ability needed to advance successfully from heading a small finance team to leading a department or group. Often, maintains Rollin, “someone’s supposed to magically know [how to lead] when they get to the controller or CFO level.”

To be clear: Decisions on hiring or promotion should never be based on the results of a personality inventory, say licensed MBTI administrators. In fact, such use is considered unethical by the Myers & Briggs Foundation. MBTI manages fundamental preferences, not how an individual manages those preferences, says Rollin, and “preference does not equal skill.” Nor does it test mental health, adds Jennifer Selby, of San Francisco-based Selby Group; “there are no right or wrong answers.”

Myers-Briggs assessments can, however, be a catalyst for self-awareness — helping to build individual leadership and management as well as entire finance teams. “It’s useful for helping each of us see our preferences more clearly so we can make choices about our behavior,” explains Rollin. For example, Evans’s former controller, who had a preference for introversion, could consciously practice communicating with her colleagues and speaking in public.

MBTI does have its critics. Wendell Williams, the founder and managing director of Acworth, Georgia-based organizational-development company, calls MBTI advocates a “cult following.” Many professional test developers, says Williams, don’t hold Myers-Briggs in high regard. One reason, he adds, is that it has low “test-retest reliability”; often users see different results each time they take the assessment. Another criticism is that the MBTI types are obvious or predictable; saying that many CFOs are introverted rather than extroverted is “not exactly rocket science,” points out Williams. “You don’t need Myers-Briggs to tell you that.”

Maybe not. However, says Jim Mooney, a consultant at Farr, “If you didn’t have the test, would you think about these commonsense things?” By fostering self-awareness, say advocates of MBTI, the test opens new possibilities for professional development. “Measured self-understanding gives an opportunity to do some things you couldn’t do if you weren’t aware,” says Mooney, “such as how you affect others.”

Leading from Strength

It’s important to recognize Myers-Briggs as a springboard for development, not an exercise or activity in itself. In 1996, managers of Pensacola, Florida-based Baptist Health Care determined to build a better workplace after a survey found that morale was low among the hospital operator’s 3,500 workers, which had led to 30 percent annual employee turnover and low patient satisfaction.

MBTI was a first step, says controller and vice president of finance Eleanor McGee. After taking the assessment, she returned to her finance staff and “apologized for not being a better leader,” she says. McGee’s type is ESFJ, with especially strong preferences in E (extroversion) and J (judging). Even though she’s an extrovert, “I wasn’t as good a communicator as I thought I was,” she says, “because I wasn’t a good listener.” McGee learned to become more aware of her staff’s individual needs; as a result, she’s able to give them more-carefully-considered guidance, and she’s become “a better developer of people.”

McGee’s strong preference for J, or judging, reflects her desire for organization and control — specifically, a tendency to want regular updates from her staff. “My accounts-payable supervisor always gave me her reports at the last minute,” recalls McGee, “and it used to drive me crazy.” Now that she’s more aware of that preference, she’s learned to let go. “I’ve known [that supervisor] for years, and she always gets it in on time,” says McGee — “she just always does it at the very last minute.”

Learning to let go, at least a little, might be worthwhile for many finance executives; two-thirds of the CFOs in the Farr Associates sample had the J preference. While Evans was at Placeware, his CEO advised him to identify the things only he could do and to delegate the rest. But often, he recalls, he still found himself saying, “Screw it, I’ll do it myself.” After taking the MBTI assessment — and becoming more aware of his preference for judging — Evans reinforced his efforts to let go of the reins and delegate tasks.

McGee, too, has found that Myers-Briggs assessments strengthened her leadership by helping her to better understand the motivations of her team. Her right-hand person, the director of treasury and cash management, has N and J preferences — although well-organized, she likes to consider creative, new approaches. McGee found that saying, “That’s a very innovative solution” meant more to the director than a simple “Thank you” for a job well done.

In a survey the year after the MBTI assessments, employee satisfaction had improved throughout Baptist Health Care, particularly in the finance department. Last December, for the third consecutive year, Baptist Health Care was listed among Fortune magazine’s 100 best places to work. Employee turnover has been halved, to under 14 percent annually.

What’s more, a satisfied workforce has translated into better business. Baptist’s market share has grown from 26 percent in 1996 to 30 percent today, and Moody’s cited the company’s increased patient satisfaction as a factor in its improved bond rating.

Satisfaction can be a personal matter, too. During his time at Placeware, Evans, the CFO, had been grooming his top lieutenant, the director of finance, to be his successor. The Myers-Briggs exercise made clear that the director was ISTJ — an introvert with a penchant for getting deep into the numbers. “He was happy to do all the work,” explains Evans. “He realized he didn’t want my job. And that was a revelation because he wasn’t sure it was OK for him to not want my job.”

Ultimately, that self-awareness helped the finance director feel more confident that he’d made the right career choice — and, says the CFO, it cemented a sense of professional symbiosis between the two executives. Adds Evans, “There was a wonderful professional connection between us.”

Lisa Yoon is an assistant editor of

MBTI, by the Letters

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator — designed by Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers 60 years ago, based on Carl Jung’s theory of personality types — is the oldest and still the most widely used personality assessment tool. The MBTI is based on eight personality preferences, grouped in four pairs of dichotomies:

  • “Energizing” — that is, where a person orients his or her energy — may be expressed as extroversion (E) or introversion (I).
  • The preference in “perceiving” may be sensing (S) fact-based information, or it may rely on intuition (N), guided by gut feelings and big-picture possibilities.
  • When they are “deciding,” thinking (T) persons prefer logical, systematic decision making, while feeling (F) individuals make personal, values-oriented decisions.
  • As for “living” — that is, the lifestyle that persons adopt — a judging (J) person prefers organization; a perceiving (P) person prefers spontaneity and flexibility.

Each individual’s four preferences — one from each pair — are combined into a “type.” For example, of the 17 CFOs who worked with Farr Associates, 7 were characterized as ISTJ. They’re introverted, pragmatic, logical thinkers, given to perfecting established skills. They arrive at decisions after an objective appraisal of the facts, and they prefer organization to spontaneity. Another 4 extroverts in the Farr sample otherwise fit that description.