CFO Snapshot: TIAA-CREF’s Gina Wilson

Wilson says raising her hand for tough assignments led to great opportunities.
Kate O'SullivanJuly 24, 2012

Name: Gina Wilson
Title: CFO
Company: TIAA-CREF

When did you know you wanted to be a CFO? When did you start to actively pursue that path?
After two stints as controller — at Transamerica Life Cos. and MetLife — I wanted broader vistas and more exposure to business operations, and ultimately responded to an inquiry to play a hybrid role between the controller and CFO at Cendant. My goal at that point wasn’t so much to be a CFO as it was to continue to grow as a manager and professional. That role at Cendant gave me ample opportunity to expand my skill set, since Cendant was an active acquirer of other companies.

Looking back, what was the most important career decision you made?
I weighed leaving Deloitte for some time, balancing what I loved about being a partner in an international professional-services firm and what I found unsatisfying, ultimately choosing to leave after almost 20 years without having another job in hand. I had great support from both colleagues and clients in looking at a wide range of opportunities: if you don’t ask for help and advice, you won’t get it.

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What was the hardest part about getting the CFO title?
While I was successful in expanding within the controller role, I wasn’t getting much support in expanding beyond it. I also suffered from a lack of “ready now” successor candidates, which was my own fault as much as anyone’s. It ultimately took a side trip out of financial services to help me broaden my skills and experiences.

How did you branch out of the controller function and get a new job at a new company?
A lot of my expansion professionally and personally as a manager has been because of my willingness to take on really difficult challenges that other people didn’t want to take on. A couple of times in my career I was asked to take on jobs I didn’t have prior experience doing, and I said OK. I like helping transition through challenging situations. One of the first challenges I had as a controller was that we had all sorts of tech issues to deal with because Y2K was approaching. I didn’t have that experience, but I was very fortunate to learn from an outside consultant.

Who or what has been the best source of advice for you?
The most powerful advice I’ve gotten along the way has always been about my weaknesses, not my strengths. The leverage comes from taking feedback seriously, rather than rationalizing away the criticism.

Of the many skills you need to be a good CFO, which one do you think is most critical?
Most finance professionals have a strong set of technical and analytical skills; I think of them as table stakes, which are even more powerful when paired with equally strong people management and social interconnectedness. Find time to maintain your network of contacts within and outside your organization. I also believe that a keen interest in technology and its impact on the business is a big plus for CFOs looking to help their companies prosper.

How do you feel about the pipeline of women who are CFO candidates, both at your company and within your broader network?
We have a diverse mix of women professionals at TIAA, across our management team and among our board members, including MBAs, lawyers, CPAs, actuaries, and PhDs. Diversity and inclusion are ingrained in the values of TIAA-CREF and reflect who we are and what we do. We seek to connect with an increasingly diverse and dynamic marketplace, and in order to do that we seek to attract, develop, and retain an equally diverse mix of employees.

My goal is to advance the career progression of the people whom I mentor within and outside the company. While I cannot help everyone, I also try to find the time to help women who are in transition or actively looking to advance themselves.

What is your best advice for aspiring CFOs?
I think it’s a given that people will be good at what they studied or learned. The differentiator is how good a manager they are. Understanding the burdens of people around you makes you better. It’s not about getting better and deeper in your particular skill set; it’s about broadening and diversifying over time. If you don’t intentionally work at it, you could say, “If I just get better at modeling or understanding IFRS, it will get me ahead,” and that will not necessarily be the case.

I think maintaining an open and helpful posture with recruiters over time can lead to opportunities that might not otherwise surface. Don’t wait to introduce yourself to recruiters when you find yourself looking for a new role.

What is your dream job?
This role is a very special one in a rewarding career progression. I’ve been an active volunteer with social-service agencies for about 25 years, probably inspired by both of my parents, who worked in the nonprofit sector. So my role at TIAA-CREF is a terrific place to pair up that personal interest with my financial expertise, in service of our clients in the nonprofit world. Our 3.7 million participants make a huge difference in our society, in education, medical, research, and cultural fields, and I’m proud to be part of the team that supports their financial well-being, to and through retirement.