CFO Snapshot: Aon’s Christa Davies

The insurance company finance chief advises aspiring CFOs to think about who they work with rather than where they work.
Kate O'SullivanJuly 23, 2012

Name: Christa Davies
Title: CFO
Company: Aon

When did you know you wanted to be a CFO? When did you start to pursue that path?
When I was young, I was always intrigued by math and physics because I saw them as tools in logically solving problems. I majored in mechanical engineering with a specialization in aerospace engineering, after being taught by a professor on loan from NASA. I truly felt that this was my career path, until the defense environment changed substantially. After studying at Harvard, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to work for Ninemsn, an interactive-media company in Australia, which is where I became involved in the financials of Microsoft’s business. When MSN’s chief financial officer left the company, I was asked to succeed him. Fortunately, everything progressed forward from there.

Looking back, what was the most important career decision you made?
I think the most important career decision I made was when I was running strategy for Microsoft in London. The job was not exactly what I was looking for at that point in my career, but the team I worked with was truly amazing, and it made me realize that the people I work with are more important than the role itself.

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What was the hardest part of getting the CFO title?
It was convincing myself and others that I wasn’t a fraud because I did not have an accounting degree.

Who or what has been your best source of advice?
The best advice I ever got was that I should focus less on the company I work for and more on whom I work for and with. This will create more opportunities for you to develop and grow, and in turn have more fun and impact. Perhaps the best source of advice for me continues to be one of my mentors, Kevin Johnson, with whom I worked at Microsoft. Kevin was a strong supporter and gave me tremendous opportunities and broad exposure to different facets of the business by allowing me to work on significant strategic projects. I think it is fair to say that he took huge risks on me.

Of the many skills you need to be a good CFO, which one do you think is the most critical?
Having good business judgment is the most critical skill, as it encompasses the financial, strategic, people, and competitive aspects of the role.

How do you feel about the pipeline of women who are CFO candidates, both at your company and within your broader network? Do you think it’s harder for women to become CFOs than it is for men?
The pipeline at Aon is getting stronger because we are successfully attracting some of the best talent and identifying career paths for them to aspire toward. Being a CFO is a great career opportunity for women, because it suits our strong mathematical, operational, and people skills.

What is your best advice for aspiring CFOs?
If you aspire to be a CFO, get a diverse range of experiences, including international and operational roles in the business. It will give you a deeper understanding of how challenging the role can be. For me, running a sales team was a very important learning experience. It gave me a good understanding of how to manage different groups of people with different motivations, and acquiring a stronger understanding of the sales process was a good discipline for me to learn.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
If I could offer any advice to the next generation of women who aspire for leadership positions, it would be to develop your personal brand. I truly believe that in order to be successful, you need to identify what you are good at and what you need to improve upon, and then find a role that amplifies your strengths and allows you to grow as a person.