CFO Snapshot: Surviving the WorldCom Meltdown

Victoria Harker, the new finance chief of Gannett, says her early operational experience has been critical to her success as CFO.
Kate O'SullivanJuly 23, 2012

Name: Victoria Harker
Title: CFO
Company: Gannett

When did you know you wanted to be a CFO? When did you start to actively pursue that path?
I didn’t. I had been developed through a wide array of management-training rotations at MCI (IT, network engineering, and marketing operations, as well as finance) and truly enjoyed the learning process involved in each area. This exposure gave me the context to better understand the financial drivers of the business. As a result, I was seen as someone who could add value quickly, especially during a crisis, which is when I was asked to take on the acting CFO role of MCI/WorldCom. [Editor’s note: Harker led the finance team at MCI/WorldCom through the company’s $71 billion restatement.] It was to be the first of several similar CFO assignments.

Looking back, what was the most important career decision you made?
The decision not to go to law school (after getting a Bachelor’s of Arts in English with a minor in economics) was probably the most important career decision I made. I knew my personality strengths (and weaknesses) well enough to realize pretty early on that I would love the challenge of learning and helping to drive a business forward, and would quite likely be lousy at the more research-oriented aspect of being a lawyer.

What was the hardest part about getting the CFO title?
Agreeing to take it was the hardest part. I wasn’t sure I wanted to become a “corporate staffer,” having grown up in operating division roles, never mind in the middle of the largest bankruptcy and corporate fraud/restatement/remediation in history!

What has been your best day on the job?
The day we finally completed the MCI/WorldCom restructuring and were able to relist the company — after two-and-a-half years of blood, sweat, and tears!

What has been your worst day on the job?
The WorldCom meltdown was likely the worst day on the job. I knew only how little we knew then about the state of the company’s financials, and had a growing sense of the enormity of the task ahead to “right the ship”: a $71 billion restatement and 15 million lines of accounting code to be rewritten!

Who or what has been your best source of advice?
I always have “gone to school” on mentors, who have done parts of my job before: Bob Blakely, the former CFO at Tenneco and Lyondell; Denny Beresford, the University of Georgia accounting professor and first member and chair of the MCI audit committee; John McArthur, former dean of Harvard Business School; and Charles Rossotti, former commissioner of the IRS and current AES audit committee chair.

Of the many skills you need to be a good CFO, which one do you think is most critical?
I believe the most critical skill is reading and writing analytically. The number-crunching is important, of course, but it only helps lay out the framework of a decision to be made. To be a good CFO, you have to be able to analyze the data to help make a decision, then communicate “how” and “why” to get the organization moving.

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?
I feel better about the pipeline now than I did 10 years ago, when there were many fewer senior women in finance. Unfortunately, given the time required and lack of corporate flexibility, many women took themselves out of the finance career progression (or left in frustration). Today this has improved quite a bit, but we need to stay vigilant to it, especially in sectors like power, where there is little gender diversity (and few role models) in the senior ranks.

What is your best advice for aspiring CFOs? What should they avoid at all costs?
My best advice would be to stay flexible and plan for the long run; these careers are marathons, not sprints! It’s also beneficial to keep in mind that no business model supports growth solely out of cost-cutting and efficiency measures. It’s the CFO’s job to not only identify areas of reduction but also to analyze and help deploy funds to fuel forward momentum. It will never be risk-free, but nothing worth pursuing ever is.

What is your dream job?
I’d like to run a business someday, perhaps in the renewable or energy infrastructure space. The opportunities there are boundless; we just need the regulatory framework to help foster competitive entry!

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