Job Hunting

How Would CFOs Fare on the Couch?

The results might not be pretty, but longtime Harvard Business School psychiatrist Barrie Greiff could offer some wisdom.
Roy HarrisNovember 5, 2010

Imagine a sort of Sigmund Freud for CFOs: a psychiatric sage who knows their inner weaknesses, as well as their strengths, and helps them cope with personal and professional challenges.

While no psychiatrists have such a specialty — yet — Dr. Barrie Sanford Greiff comes close. Through much of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Greiff was the resident psychiatrist at Harvard Business School and a faculty member pioneering one of the world’s first work-life-balance courses there. Over his long corporate consulting career, which continues in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he has worked with hundreds of companies large and small, public and private, and has developed a special fondness for dealing with the peculiar complexities and pressures associated with being a finance chief, he says.

“The upside of people who are CFOs is that they’re generally effective communicators, deliberate, prudent. They weigh alternatives, they’re stabilizing, objective, rational, analytical,” says Greiff. “But for every upside, when you turn up the intensity, you can find these descriptions, too: overcautious, overanalytical, very controlling, and lacking in a certain degree of flexibility.”

If anything is clear about the CFO’s life right now, he adds, it is that the intensity is increasing to extreme levels.

“The CFO has risen to a position of great influence, and it’s been intensified in recent years by all the activities going on with companies, particularly unethical activities” and the regulations addressing them, he says. “Then, Sarbanes-Oxley came in and intensified things even further because it required even more meticulous care of how material was presented.”

Easy answers about how the CFO’s conflicting personality characteristics — prudent but inflexible, and so on — play out in real-world cases are elusive. But in probing the contradictions, Greiff suggests, as many psychiatrists do, that exploring the questions themselves has great value.

He mentions the apparently complex case of David Kellerman, acting CFO of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., who committed suicide in the months after Freddie Mac was seized last year. Most of Greiff’s experience, though, has been with more ordinary-sounding conflicts.

In the case of a hospital-company CFO with unusually poor social skills, for example, Greiff counseled him after his boss — a physician familiar with the committee-based environment there — left and the CFO became acting CEO. “When this CFO got off the numbers track, he didn’t have the tools to deal with the politics and the dynamics of the organization,” he recalls. “That caused tremendous stress on him, and he dealt with that stress by isolating himself. I tried to get him to move out of the shell but he couldn’t do it, and eventually he was replaced.”

In this particular executive, Greiff found a man unwilling to admit that he didn’t know the environment, and refusing to seek assistance in the workplace. In addition, the CFO-cum-CEO worried obsessively about each conflict, and complicated the problem by not taking care of himself in his home life outside the hospital.

“A lot of people — and CFOs are among them — get caught up in the thick of thin things,” says Greiff. He loves to cite a quotation, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that he believes has special meaning for finance executives: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

On the positive side, one CFO patient learned to deal with an unfamiliar technology industry by developing his gregarious side. “He’s become responsive, especially to the IT and HR areas that report to him, and he’s now found his replacement as CFO,” says Greiff. “If he doesn’t know something, he says he doesn’t know. And the IT people have taught him, while he’s taught them. He doesn’t feel guilty if he doesn’t know something.”

Many of the problems Greiff encounters among CFOs, he says, can be dealt with by realizing that perfection is an illusion — something that may seem to fly in the face of the finance accounting mission, if not in such other traditional finance areas as risk management. Finance chiefs can help themselves greatly by asking for help or taking a course to fill a void in experience, he says. And it is healthy, he says, for CFOs to be tolerant of their own errors, and of those by others in the finance department.

“You have to create a kind of elasticity,” he says. “If people are working hard, they’re going to make mistakes. In fact, what’s needed is a learning environment in finance, in which people can ask questions about what they don’t know and then learn from their mistakes.”

Ever in search of an allusion to help a troubled client, Greiff moves from Einstein to songwriter Leonard Cohen, quoting a verse that admittedly might not play as well with the Securities and Exchange Commission: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”