Follow the Leaders

Many CFOs owe part of their success to mentors, and want to repay the favor.
Laura DeMarsOctober 1, 2006

When Russell Lavoie walked into the accounting office of Epsco Inc. as an MBA student in 1984, the 24-year-old had no idea that another recent hire, CFO Chuck Dockendorff, was about to give him a real education.

“He took me aside one day and said, ‘It’s great that you’re getting your MBA, but here’s what I think you should do,’” recalls Lavoie, now CFO of Computer Corporation of America. “He sent me back to school for my MS in accounting and then shipped me off to California to be controller of one of Epsco’s divisions.” Lavoie credits Dockendorff, who is now CFO of Tyco Healthcare Group, for his unique vision and influence, and his ability to see Lavoie’s promise. “It was a pretty big thing for him to do, to have faith in me to run a division. He saw potential and even encouraged me to leave Epsco in order to gain experience at other companies,” Lavoie adds. “He helped me get where I am today.”

Now 46, Lavoie says he wants to “pay it forward” and act as a mentor himself. “Having a mentor is an incredibly critical thing for a career,” he says. “I want to take the best nuggets [of information] and try to pass them on.”

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Lavoie is not alone. Many C-level executives, having benefited from a range of invaluable career guidance from more-experienced bosses, want to repay the favor by influencing up-and-comers. Theresa Moulton, CEO of executive-advisory firm Performance Change Initiatives Inc., says the impulse is natural. “It’s part of the giveback of being successful” and can come about in several different ways, she explains. Some CFOs, in the course of team-building or assessing candidates for internal promotions, may encounter a couple of individuals who are clearly looking for guidance on how to climb the ladder. Other times it’s more a matter of personal chemistry, when a senior executive happens to hit it off with someone she’s in a position to help. Still others pursue a more-formal route and seek out networks or opportunities to be involved with people just starting out. Some firms have formal mentoring programs that make involvement simple and maybe even mandatory.

In the Groove

Peter Knobloch, former CFO of Sabia Inc., a San Diego–based materials analysis and industrial controls company, is something of a master mentor. As a member of the International Mentoring Network Organization, he confers with various business professionals about their careers, finance issues, and general business issues. Knobloch has mentored 20 to 30 people over the course of 20 years. Currently, he’s taken three mentees under his wing and teaches accounting and economics two nights a week at the California School of International Management.

“In my opinion, at the C-level you’re both a leader and a teacher,” Knobloch says. “Part of the job is to edify, strengthen, and empower the people around you. When I’m helping [students and mentees] I’m reaffirming what I know as a CFO.”

Experts say the best mentors are those who have a natural rapport with those they guide. The best approach is to help the mentee set goals and map out a viable career plan. “A good mentor wants the person he advises to succeed, and makes sure that the individual approaches opportunities that the mentor knows she’s ready for,” says Moulton. “But the mentor doesn’t let that person sidestep the hierarchy and doesn’t do the work for her.”

Robert Schiffner, CFO of Campbell’s Soup, says mentoring is one of the most important parts of his job and one of the highlights of his day. He credits his own ascension to the C-suite to Jake Powell, the former CFO of Nabisco, where Schiffner worked for more than 25 years. In the mid-1990s, Powell tapped Schiffner to become the controller of one of Nabisco’s divisions, a move Schiffner believes was pivotal in his career development. Today, Schiffner says mentoring is an integral part of his everyday job as CFO. “I really enjoy interfacing with people — giving them advice on how to climb the ladder and answering questions they might have.”

That can, of course, pose certain challenges. Mentors must not only manage their time carefully, they must also manage both the expectations and the motivations of mentees. Executive coach Moulton says that mentors should be careful about whom they help, favoring those who clearly have a vision for their career and the ability to work for success versus those who may be seeking an easy way ahead. Knobloch acknowledges that serving as a mentor can sometimes give the appearance of favoritism, but says that the true go-getters want to work for their success and tend to ask for less help as they gain more experience.

Making a Network Work

While mentoring may come easily to some, it’s a skill that most people can learn. Moulton says that initiating a formal mentoring program or joining an outside network is a great way for CFOs to get the hang of what is, after all, a very soft skill. Many alumni associations and networking organizations offer training on how to be an effective mentor and will help match individuals. Pursuing the role of mentor in this way, versus helping out a staffer or two, has one distinct advantage, according to Moulton: “It can be refreshing to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t report to you. It’s more personal.”

Lavoie looks to his own group affiliations — as a member of Financial Executives International, the Treasurers Club of Boston, and the Bentley College Executive Club — for opportunities to network with and mentor aspiring executives. That kind of involvement, he says, provides not only a chance to pass along what he knows, but also to “discuss finance-related issues and bounce things off each other to generate new ideas.”

In fact, though he now spends a fair amount of time as a mentor, he still works both sides of the fence. “I’ll never stop being a mentee. I talk to Chuck often and we get together once in a while. Whether a mentor or a mentee, career success is a continuous learning experience.”

Laura DeMars is a reporter for CFO.

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