The Art of Mentoring

Five female CFOs tell how mentors helped them succeed—and how they are returning the favor.
Marielle SegarraMay 8, 2013

Jennifer Hill was a managing director at Goldman Sachs in 2006 when she got the opportunity to take a job as CFO of Tisbury Capital Management, a hedge fund in London. During the decision-making process, Hill called up a former mentor. His advice has stuck with her ever since. “He said, ‘You always want your résumé to tell a story. What’s the next thing you want your résumé to say about you?’” she recalls.

Five years later, when Hill considered accepting her current position as CFO for Global Banking and Markets at Bank of America, “I asked myself the same question,” she says. “I will never forget his words on that.” Her mentor, she says, “helped me shape what my story looked like over time.”

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Today, Hill is helping other young women shape the stories of their professional lives. In March, for example, she returned to her alma mater, Hamilton College in upstate New York, to talk to female students about careers in business. But she doesn’t limit her assistance to women. “I feel a responsibility to mentor anybody who wants to be successful in their career,” she says.

That feeling is shared by many women in the top finance role. According to a study by Catalyst, a research organization working to advance women in business, 65% of women who received support in their careers are helping develop younger staffers, compared with 56% of men who received support.

Mentoring is “really important” to increasing the number of women CFOs, says Lorraine Hack, partner at executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles. “It’s an added perspective from someone who maybe has been there and done it.” But a good mentor doesn’t have to be female, she adds. “It could be men mentoring women, helping them navigate through some things that are seemingly more female-centric, whether it is balancing work with family or trying to break through for a promotion if someone feels stuck.”

CFO recently spoke with female finance chiefs like Jennifer Hill to find out why and how they mentor—what advice they give, what they look for in a mentee, what they gained from their own guides, and how women in corporate finance can approach mentorship strategically. Their stories follow.

Authentic Relationships
{Diane Morefield}
“Every step of the way in my career, at every single company, I’ve had mentors,” says Diane Morefield, executive vice president and CFO of Strategic Hotels & Resorts, a publicly traded real estate investment trust based in Chicago. Ironically, when she graduated from college, networking and mentoring “were two concepts that I never had really heard about,” she says. But building a network and seeking out mentors came naturally to Morefield, who describes herself as “a raging extrovert.”

“You have to be proactive,” says Morefield, who has been mentored by both men and women and has mentored junior employees throughout her career. “You have to take the initiative to reach out [and ask], ‘Maybe we could have lunch once or twice a year, just one-on-one,’” she says. At the same time, “you don’t want to be a pest or impose, because by definition, mentors are people who are executives and senior in their career stage who are very, very busy,” she says.

Aspiring CFOs should look for professionals either outside their company or not in their direct reporting line who can give them objective, independent advice on career matters, work issues, and even office politics, says Morefield. Chemistry is crucial. “The best mentor relationships are authentic relationships,” she says. “They’re not because someone is simply trying to get ahead and they’re only ‘using’ [a mentor]. A lot has to do with chemistry—you’re similar types of people, or you have a similar sense of humor, whatever.”  Such connections are often rooted in gender, but they do not have to be: “I personally think it’s important to have both men and women mentors,” she says.

Today, Morefield is open to mentoring both women and men in early stages of their careers, as long as she “knows them in some way,” whether they work for her company or one of her previous companies. Of course, she has to be selective. “If I met with everybody who reached out to me, I would never be able to get my job done,” she says.

Does she feel a responsibility to mentor women in particular? “Absolutely,” she says. “We can all read the stats—the percent [of women] that have C-level jobs, the percent that are partners at law firms and accounting firms. There are a lot fewer of us, and I want to help support younger women who really want to advance their careers and balance their lives, particularly if they have children. I know how difficult that is,” she says, noting that she has three children herself.

But Morefield adds that she “would never limit mentoring to just younger women. I can name a lot of young men that have worked for me over the years that I’ve tried to help and advance.”

People with a Passion
{Karen McLoughlin}
For Karen McLoughlin, CFO of Cognizant Technology Solutions, mentorship has long been a two-way street. “I’ve always had the mind-set that if I want to move on and be promoted and do the next thing in my career, I need to ensure that I have the right team in place to do what I’m doing today,” she explains. “And so I think by definition, that creates an environment where you’re constantly looking to mentor people.”

Such an environment can benefit junior employees who may want to be mentored but are reluctant to make the first approach. Recently, says McLoughlin, she noticed a female director-level member of her team who she thinks has a lot of potential. “Given my title in the organization, that person might be afraid to reach out to me on her own, and so sometimes I have to take the first step and say it’s OK that we can continue this dialogue and have this relationship,” she says.

Looking back on her own career, McLoughlin says she had “at least 10 to 12 people that I had a strong mentoring relationship with.” Such relationships were formal and informal, involving mentors inside or outside her company “who I thought I could learn something from,” be it technical skills or “thought skills, how they conducted themselves, or thought about their business.”

Like Hill, McLoughlin received a sage piece of advice from one mentor “that has stuck with me for probably about 20 years now.” She quotes: “‘Give your people enough rope to try new things, but not enough to hang themselves.’” A mentor, she says, can “say something very simple but profound that really makes you think about how you conduct yourself.”

At Cognizant, mentoring for McLoughlin isn’t about women per se, but about “people who I think have good, long-term opportunities to be successful.” In particular, she looks for mentees who have “a passion—somebody who can really contribute within the company.” But “it is a lot of fun if I can find young women” to mentor, she says.

Learning to Take Charge
{Sherry Buck}
When junior employees give a presentation at Libbey, the glass tableware maker, CFO Sherry Buck often gives them constructive feedback. “I will reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, you did this really well,’” says Buck, a former finance chief at Whirlpool. “Or, ‘This is something that might help improve your confidence.’ When I reach out, sometimes that makes people more comfortable to have ongoing conversations and ask for a mentor relationship.”

Buck herself has had “quite a few” mentors during her career, formal and informal, male and female, most of them colleagues. “I try to surround myself with what I call my personal board of directors,” she says. She looks for a diverse group of mentors with different personalities who work across all the business units. “Being a finance leader, to be very effective, I need to understand all the pieces of the business,” she says. Buck also looks for advisers with different leadership styles, “people who may be more aggressive or have different approaches than I would have.”

Not that she’s a shrinking violet. “One thing I learned early on is not to be shy,” says Buck. Like the other finance chiefs profiled here, Buck mentors employees without regard to gender. “I will mentor people whether they’re male or female,” she says. “Having said that, I do try to make a conscious effort to reach out to female colleagues and give them feedback and coaching to help them get to their fullest potential.”

The most important piece of feedback she gives? “Advocate for yourself,” says Buck. “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.” In her experience, she says, men are usually “much more aggressive about what they want and what they’re driving toward.” For some of the women that she has mentored, “I’m coaching for them to take charge of what they want.”

A Community of Peers
{Robyn Denholm}
As with many women in finance, most of Robyn Denholm’s mentors have been male. “I came up through the ranks at a time when there were very few women leaders,” says Denholm, executive vice president and CFO of Juniper Networks, a networking equipment maker. And like the other finance chiefs interviewed here, it doesn’t matter to her whether a mentor or mentee is male or female. “It’s really about the experiences that person has had—what you can learn from them, how comfortable you are with that person,” she says. [It’s the same with] the people that I’ve mentored individually.” Mentoring is more important than gender, says Denholm, and “mentoring the next generation of CFOs [is] the primary responsibility.”

That said, “I do get asked to mentor a lot of women these days, and I think role models are important,” says Denholm. “I must admit, having grown up without a lot of role models in my career, I understand the importance of that.” She adds, “I get as much out of the relationships as I put into the relationships. Over the years, I’ve mentored many different individuals. I think I’m a better person because of it.”

Denholm also participates in Vital Voices Global Partnership, a month-long internship program for aspiring female leaders. For two to three weeks each year, Juniper welcomes one of these women to its offices in Sunnyvale, Calif. The mentee attends meetings, shadows executives like Denholm and meets other women in the program throughout Silicon Valley. The company took on its fourth mentee, a software engineer and start-up founder from Uruguay, last month.

Junior staffers can learn from their peers as well as their senior colleagues, notes Denholm. She is one of four female executives on the company’s leadership committee, and whenever they visit a company location, they convene informal gatherings for women employees at different levels of seniority. At the company’s global sales conference in Las Vegas last January, the executives held a breakfast for all the women in attendance. Such forums enable senior and junior staffers to mingle and talk about career journeys, work/life balance and how they can get involved in other business units.

Fostering a community of peers is one of the most important things a mentor can do, says Denholm. “Get people together and they can solve anything, whether they’re male or female.”

CFOs Need Mentors, Too
{Jennifer Hill}
At Bank of America, Jennifer Hill believes it’s important for mentees to choose their mentors. “You need to know what you need from the relationship, otherwise it’s not going to work,” she says. Throughout her career, Hill has looked for mentors who have qualities she lacks.

“I look for somebody who has that something that I’d like to have, whether it’s a personality trait, a way of dealing with a situation or the capacity to build a team that can go through difficult situations,” says Hill. “Some people are great motivational speakers. Some people can rally the troops. Some people are very good at managing complex detail. There’s something that somebody has to offer, and only you know that when you’re looking for a mentor.”

Aspiring CFOs can also find ways to build more-organic relationships with executives they admire, says Hill. “Sometimes it’s volunteering for things,” she says. “Some of the closest connections I’ve made are people who offered to help with something.” For instance, after a writer for the Financial Times gave a book discussion to a large group of women at the company, one junior attendee organized a book club for a smaller group of employees, including Hill. “I was struck by her initiative,” she says.

Once the junior employee created that connection, she asked if Hill had a few minutes for some career questions. “She created a natural opportunity to have a further discussion about her career,” Hill says. “Sometimes seeking out opportunities to get to know somebody a little bit better on a slightly more personal level, which is often outside of people’s comfort zone, is the way you will connect with somebody.”

When looking for mentors, would-be mentees should approach people who already know them, advises Hill. “I do a lot of work with my undergrad college [Hamilton], and when people send a blind e-mail following a talk or something, that doesn’t forge a connection necessarily. I think a small network of very close friends who you trust and who can be honest with you is far more effective.”

Such networks can be useful throughout a person’s career. Even CFOs can use mentors, points out Hill, who still keeps in touch with hers. “When you’re at a senior level, you don’t get a lot of praise. You don’t come in and get a hug every day,” she says. “Sometimes you need somebody to reinforce the things that you know you’re good at and remind you why you’re in the chair.”

Marielle Segarra is associate editor at CFO.