CFO Snapshot: Fannie Mae’s Susan McFarland

The finance chief at the embattled home lender talks about taking risks on the way to the CFO seat.
Kate O'SullivanJuly 23, 2012

Name: Susan McFarland
Title: CFO
Company: Fannie Mae

To see a video of Susan McFarland discussing her approach to developing finance talent, click here.

When did you know you wanted to be a CFO? When did you start to actively pursue that path?
It’s certainly not something I would have anticipated when I started my career. These things are never one moment in time, but there were two or three key things that kind of built the momentum that it at least might be possible. The first was when I was relatively young. I was meeting with the woman in charge of development at Bank One, and she was asking the typical “What do you want to do when you want to grow up?” question. I articulated some aspirations. They were basically the step up and the step beyond that. I was in my late 20s. She said, “You’re going to do that well before you turn 40, maybe even before you turn 30, and you’re going to have a lot of years left in your career.” I hadn’t thought ahead to think I had decades left.

I set a goal that I wanted to be a line-of-business CFO, or a legal entity CFO. At that point, I was in a senor finance role within one of the banks, part of a very large corporation. Then I began to think about being a CFO on a much bigger scale, but still not at the corporate level. That then influenced me in some of the choices I made along the way.

Then the gentleman who hired me out of public accounting, who was the controller of the bank when I came in, became CFO of Union Planters [Bank]. All of a sudden, I had someone I knew who was a mentor to me who had become CFO of a bank. It [became a] possibility for me.

The CFO of Capital One had been a big supporter and mentor of mine, and there was sort of the constant bang of the drum of him telling me what I was capable of. He continued to expand my role, which gave me an opportunity to gain perspective, to learn more things, and get involved in more things.

I also had the opportunity to participate in two development programs. I attended an executive program at Stanford, and I also participated in a year-long program that involved over 20 women from all over the world, mainly from the U.S. but some from outside. They brought us together for a week in Chicago, where they brought a variety of people in for sessions mainly on soft skills. And part of it is what you get from interacting with this group of women. You’re not in the program until you’re fairly experienced. There are remote activities, then a week at Harvard, then a week at Cambridge. That spans a year, then you’re encouraged to give back to things that support women, and asked to take on some things in the second year to help support the advancement of women. I ended up working with some people to support a girls’ school in Uganda.

It was the first time I was in a program with just women, and of a similar level. There are a lot of things that are hard to talk about, or hard to articulate in a way people will understand. One woman told a story about an uncomfortable situation that now would be considered sexual harassment. It was almost therapeutic. People were able to be much more open and direct because it was done with the right intent: no one was threatened by anyone at the table, you weren’t working together, you were not competing.

Is it harder for a woman to be a CFO than a man?
The statistics seem to show that. I buy into the logic that more women will take time out, so you wouldn’t expect a 50/50 split in senior positions. Yet when you look at the stats, the difference is much greater [than you expect]. I think there are two primary reasons it would be. It could hold true for any executive position, as you move up, it’s not just about what you know and how you do the technical aspects of your job, it’s how you influence and interact. I read a stat a few years ago that said that in order for [a subset of a group] to be relevant to the group as a whole you have to make up at least 17% of the group. I think time and time again, women don’t have enough of a group, so it makes it hard to be significant to the group.

I think it’s also a little bit about what’s expected of the CFO. You’ve got to be able to negotiate well both internally and externally, deal with external constituencies well, and then there’s the strategy aspect of the CFO role. People may not have seen enough women play all of those roles to think they’re a natural fit for the CFO role. Then I think women’s choices make a difference, not choosing to take on roles they haven’t seen. In consumer banking you see a lot of women, but in commercial banking, there are almost none.

I have two sons, 21 and 24. I think their approach to women in the workplace is going to be very different, [because women are] there from the get-go. I’m very hopeful that the younger generation will experience things differently.

What advice do you have for aspiring CFOs?
CFOs need to be broad. Take a variety of roles. The gentleman that hired me originally, he put me into a variety of roles. That was critical.

Take risks. That’s something, quite frankly, that men do better than women. You’ve got to be flexible and adaptable, and willing to put yourself out there. Because I’ve taken risks, it’s made me more determined to make sure the risks pay off. If you put yourself in risky situations, then you increase your determination, which leads to greater success.

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