From Great Books to QuickBooks

CFOs must have accounting and finance training to succeed, but undergraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences are what propelled these...
David McCannAugust 30, 2013

University liberal-arts degree programs, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, are under fire for allegedly not training students for the jobs that will drive their careers and the economy in the future. To the vast majority of CFOs who have undergraduate degrees in accounting, finance and business, that may seem logical.

But most finance chiefs who chose to focus in college on humanities or social sciences are passionate defenders of the value that educational experience has contributed to their careers. Specifically, they say, it taught them how to bring a multidimensional approach to problem solving, to understand the drivers of people’s behavior, to communicate effectively and to adapt to new and evolving business environments.

CFOs may want to take that into account when evaluating candidates for their team. To be sure, concern has been rising for years over a perceived shortage of young talent well-schooled in business, finance and accounting and ready to make an impact in a corporate job. And indeed, all of the CFOs interviewed for this article say they regularly hire candidates with the more traditional backgrounds and don’t see liberal arts as a “better” breeding ground for future finance executives. Still, they believe equally strongly that a post-graduate degree in business, finance or accounting is sufficient training for entry-level jobs and that their undergraduate experience has contributed much toward making them well-rounded executives.

“Whenever I’m interviewing for a job, they ask how a psychology major became an accountant,” says Marie Epstein, head of finance at Plastiq, a startup credit-card-payment processor. “I say, ‘Isn’t it obvious? Accounting is not just nuts and bolts, numbers and spreadsheets. There’s a tremendous human dimension to everything that goes on in business.’ I’m glad I wasn’t just in debits and credits as an undergrad.”

Variously situated CFOs who have liberal-arts degrees speak out on their formative years, how they wound up in finance, and the role that their undergraduate education plays for them today.

Brian Tierney
CFO, American Electric Power
College: Boston College
Undergraduate Major: History
Throughout his life, says Brian Tierney, he’s been driven by a desire to make the world a better place. At first he intended to do that as an attorney, for which he thought history would provide a good background, because it focuses on reading, analysis and writing. After college he served a year in the Peace Corps, and then found that he couldn’t swing law school financially. But he also saw a chance to change people’s lives through a career in business. A two-year stint as a sales management trainee at General Foods wasn’t the right fit, so he set about earning an MBA at the University of Chicago.

How does running a $15 billion utility company help Tierney achieve his lifelong goal? “Electricity makes people’s lives better every single day,” he says. “I’m in a role where I’m allocating capital where it’s needed in the energy space, which is one of the key drivers to an improved standard of living.”

The way of thinking instilled by an education in the humanities “has served me very well” in that pursuit, says Tierney, “particularly the higher up I go in directing and managing issues outside of finance.” In his 15 years at AEP Tierney has been responsible for such areas as energy trading, operations, engineering, distribution services, customer services and procurement.

“The interdisciplinary approach you learn as a humanities major makes you comfortable in areas where you don’t have an expert’s depth of knowledge,” says Tierney. “You can figure out what questions to ask and how to challenge people who are deeply involved in the discipline.”

A foundation in the humanities also comes in handy when a CFO has to communicate with the CEO, the board, and investors and analysts. The job of a CFO, Tierney notes, is not to just present the numbers; any accountant can do that. The real job is telling a clear story about why the numbers are what they are, and to put that in the context of the company’s strategy and future plans. “My history background provides me a strong basis for that context and component of my job,” he says.

Roger Millay
CFO, Towers Watson
College: University of Virginia
Undergraduate Major: English literature
At the time Roger Millay declared his college major, he was “pretty confused” about his career direction. He had thought about aiming toward law school, but didn’t have a clear focus. He’d taken some humanities classes and enjoyed them, and his girlfriend was an English major, so English seemed as good a direction as anything else.

The first seeds of change for Millay, who was a work-study student, were sewn when he got a job in the dean of students’ office running a student loan program. Students in a temporary cash crunch could apply for a one-month, $50 loan. Millay disbursed and collected the money and kept the books. After that, he started taking some business classes and found he was actually better at business than at English literature.

Upon graduation, he was interested enough in business to enroll in a one-year, master’s-in-accounting program at Georgetown University, which led to his first post-college job at auditor Arthur Young. He quickly got on the fast track, and after four years he and one other auditor were promoted to manager. It was the first time Arthur Young’s Stamford, Conn. office had offered accelerated promotions to manager, he says. “Early on in public accounting, my writing and communication skills clearly differentiated me from those who had done a four-year business undergrad,” Millay says.

But at the time, as other liberal-arts-majors-turned-CFO have experienced, Millay was behind the curve in core accounting. He was able to catch up in fairly short order; it took him about two years, he says.

The same kinds of skills propelled Millay in his next job at General Electric, where he worked for 12 years. His presentation abilities, he says, put him on the road to his first CFO role, which was at a business unit within GE Capital.

Today, at Towers Watson, a $3.5 billion consulting firm, a diverse liberal-arts education is part of what allows Millay to maintain the broad perspective on business issues that is vital for a corporate leader. “Some finance professionals have difficulty making the transition to being on a leadership team alongside people from various functions. Educational focus can play a part in allowing a CFO to branch out beyond narrow finance expertise and be a leader.”

Eileen Kamerick
CFO, Press Ganey
College: Boston College
Undergraduate Major: English
Eileen Kamerick, who has been finance chief at the large recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles and investment bank Houlihan Lokey, among others, recently took the finance reins at a firm in another completely different industry. Her new employer, Press Ganey, offers data-driven tools designed to let hospitals and medical practices better understand the patient experience.

Press Ganey’s niche is a part of the health-care industry that’s fast-growing and evolving. Executives in the field “have to be able to think of new ways in which to communicate with people and how to grasp new ideas and attack them,” says Kamerick. “I think a classic liberal arts education creates that ability to think broadly and organize your thoughts.”

Kamerick’s history of disparate finance posts mimics her educational background. After graduating from Boston College with an English degree, she went to law school at the University of Chicago. After that she settled into what looked to be a career climbing the ranks at mega–law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, where she worked on hostile corporate takeovers.

As it turned out, her education wasn’t over. The general counsel at a Skadden, Arps client, Amoco, talked her into coming on board there to work on international transactions. “His pitch to me was that the nature of law firms is that attorneys are required to specialize, and they run the risk of being an inch wide and a mile deep,” she says. “Working in-house, an attorney can do lots of things. Amoco was growing, and he said it was the kind of company where a person with ambition and drive could do anything.”

After Kamerick started the new job, she found that “the game of business, the intrigue, all the ways in which you can work with people to drive value and create profit, captivated me in a way I had never been captivated by law.” So she went back to the University of Chicago for an MBA.

Kamerick had plenty of reasons to doubt her decision, especially because she took an enormous pay cut in moving to Amoco and then saw her former colleagues at Skadden making partner, one by one. Years later, she has no such qualms. “In retrospect it was absolutely the right thing for me,” she says. “I see my varied background as an enormous advantage, with the world changing so much and the need to learn new things.” That’s a large part of what has enabled her to move, fairly seamlessly, from industry to industry.

Besides, she notes, “Today, any technical [accounting or finance] skill you learn will be obsolete within five years. That’s true even for CFOs. There are changes from month to month in regulation, accounting rules and the capital markets.”

Kamerick credits much of her success in finance to an ability, enhanced as an English major, to “communicate clearly in a way that doesn’t descend into some of the mystery mastery that both finance people and lawyers are sometimes accused of.”

Tania Secor
CFO, Gerson Lehrman Group
College: Columbia University
Undergraduate Major: Art history
Believe it or not, majoring in art history was part of a conscious plan for Tania Secor to become an investment banker and a CFO.

Like Roger Millay, she was not grounded in a career path early in her college years. In fact, she didn’t declare a major until her junior year. That came after a summer internship at Salomon Brothers. “I knew that if I were going to get a real job, I would need to have a real job on my résumé,” she says of the internship. “But I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in school, except spend a semester in Paris.”

She confided her uncertainties to her mentor at Salomon, where early on she found investment banking to be interesting. “Tania, look,” Secor recalls the mentor telling her, “as an undergrad, the smartest thing you could do is to study something you enjoy. That doesn’t mean don’t focus on your career. You can come back and work for us again next summer.”

Secor, whose mother was an artist and who grew up loving art history, calls that the best advice she ever got. “I took classes at museums, traveling all over New York City for course work, and I got my semester in Paris. I improved my analytical and memorization skills. And then, because I had that summer internship, when I graduated I landed a lot of interviews at investment banks.” She took a job with JPMorgan.

That’s when the chief downside to the plan materialized. “I was sitting there next to people who had been business undergrads at Wharton. I had to work a lot harder than they did. The company trained me well, but it was a tradeoff,” Secor says.

Still, she wouldn’t trade her undergraduate years. She likes to tell a story about an experience she had while seeking work two years ago, after which she landed her current job at Gerson Lehrman Group, a $300 million provider of research resources. She went one day for a meeting with a recruiter at Russell Reynolds, one of the finance field’s biggest headhunter firms. Upon entering the reception area, she noticed that the firm was blessed with “an amazing art collection.” When the recruiter came out to greet her, she pointed to a nearby painting and said “Steve, isn’t that a Chagall?” He replied, “Yes, how did you know?” Well, it was easy, given Secor’s art-history degree.

As chance would have it, the recruiter had also majored in art history. So the two embarked on a leisurely tour of the office, trading notes on the artwork that graced the walls. “You never know when being a well-rounded person will work to your advantage,” says Secor.

David Horn
Partner, Tatum, a Randstad company
College: Dickinson College
Undergraduate Major: Psychology
David Horn’s employer, Tatum, provides interim CFO services, a niche he has been engaged in for the past 15 years. In that line of work, he says, he calls on his undergraduate degree in psychology “pretty much continuously.”

For a contract executive, he notes, “time frames get compressed considerably, so an essential part of the job is getting accepted by the organization quickly. Every business is a living, breathing thing with its own sociology and important people with needs and fears. If you’re sensitive to that, you maneuver your way to being accepted and then being effective.”

In fact, many Tatum contract CFOs have been liberal-arts graduates, Horn says. “My observation has been that it’s probably based on people wanting variety. There is a curiosity that resonates in someone with a broader educational background.”

He didn’t have a clear reason for choosing psychology as his major. “I just loved learning, and I looked at the catalog and wanted to be in every single department,” he says. “I had no idea what my career aspirations were at that point.”

But Horn did know he had a strong interest in business. Along with his psychology major, he took enough economics courses to fall just one short of earning a second major in that subject. He’s someone who fully appreciates Goethe’s 1796 assertion that “double-entry bookkeeping is one of the most beautiful discoveries of the human spirit.”

“People get this nutty idea that accounting is about math, and it’s not,” Horn says. “It’s more like zoology—it’s a classification system, where you’re taking a lot of information and structuring it in ways people can use.”

Eric Segal
Managing Director, CFO Consulting Partners
College: Carnegie Mellon
Undergraduate Major: Liberal arts
Eric Segal’s degree isn’t technically in “liberal arts.” At Carnegie Mellon University, liberal-arts students were responsible for creating a “self-defined major.” A student’s major couldn’t be named after any academic department or departments—it couldn’t be “English,” or “English and History,” or History and Theater.” So Segal put together a plan that included English, history, theater, computer sciences and psychology courses and called it, creatively, “The Creative Process.” And that’s what his diploma shows he has a degree in.

Segal’s goal coming into college was to prepare for a career in theater administration, and post-graduation he went into that field at an off-Broadway company in New York. After a short time his role became box-office treasurer, which was on the management track, but he realized he needed more hard-core business skills. He landed a scholarship at Pace University’s business school for liberal-arts majors who were under-employed in their field. Making $150 a week, Segal qualified.

He says his undergraduate education trained him in a way of thinking that has helped him remain cool during crises. For example, he ran into a situation at American Express where he became CFO of a new broker-dealer business. He was hired for the independent-thinking skills mentioned above, but as he started the job he saw there was no financial reporting and accounting infrastructure specific to the unit. The problem was, he didn’t have a great deal of accounting wherewithal.

Unfazed, he hired a controller, and they mapped out the process together. “I could lead that process, but I needed help with the doing,” he says. “Once we mapped out the cash flow, accounting flow and information flow, the debits, credits and controls could be handled by the controller. It was a formative experience for me, and it was greatly facilitated by my education.”

Segal’s undergraduate educational experience has continued to be invaluable to his career. “In my 18 years at American Express I was never really in the card business,” he says, “because I was always a person they involved in something new or different or that needed independent thought.”

Segal picked up some accounting along the way, but it never became a strong suit. Today, as a partner in a small interim-CFO business, he tells his clients: “If you want to bring me in to close the books in four business days, and I accept that assignment, we’ve both made a bad decision.”

This article first appeared in CFO’s Tablet Edition. You can download the tablet app through ITunes.

Listen Up, Accounting Majors

CFOs with liberal-arts degrees may have a deeper pool of candidates to choose from than do their peers, because they are happy to hire the person who is the best fit for a job, regardless of the person’s undergraduate field of study.

Chris Liddell, the former finance chief at Microsoft and General Motors, doesn’t care what someone’s educational background is. It’s all about what a specific person can bring to the table for a specific role. “If I’m looking for an analyst to provide management-accounting support, a red flag would be someone who doesn’t seem to like detail, spreadsheets and working through problems in a systematic fashion,” he says. “But for someone you want to do a research project around a new idea in a new country, the last thing you want is someone who spends their day rounding everything to the nearest fourth decimal point.”

Tania Secor, CFO at Gerson Lehrman Group, would not, for example, hire an accountant who majored in a liberal art and didn’t have at least a post-graduate degree in accounting or related work experience. That doesn’t go for other finance roles, though. “For that, I look for achievements in college,” she says. “Were they active? Did they play sports? Were they thoughtful about what they studied? I couldn’t care less if they were accounting or marketing or art history majors. In a senior leadership position you always want to come across as a well-rounded person.”

Press Ganey finance chief Eileen Kamerick says that, overall, she sees a liberal-arts education as neither positive nor negative for an aspiring CFO. “I see it as interesting,” she says. “I do ask people why they were liberal arts majors and how they think they benefit from that. But you can succeed from either starting point. Once you’re in business and have some experience, what you’ve done in your jobs is far more important than your academic background.” —DM

How You’re Taught Trumps What You’re Taught

For Chris Liddell, the former CFO of General Motors, Microsoft and International Paper, insights learned while earning a master’s in philosophy 30 years ago at Oxford University have provided a lifetime of value.

He was looking for exactly what he got, which wasn’t so much about philosophy but rather Oxford’s mode of teaching. “Rather than give us a problem to solve, it was more about discussing a topic and a lot of reading around that,” Liddell says. “You had to bring in all different types of arguments, synthesize them and come up with a conclusion of your own.”

That, he says, is akin to what executives face in the real world. “At a senior level you spend as much time trying to formulate the approach as you do delivering a result. You think about the context of a problem, research it and get different opinions and approaches, then think about what your particular approach should be. It’s very unusual to have a nice discrete problem with a nice mathematical answer. Much more often you’re trying to provide some clarity through the mist of an issue.”

But to what degree is Liddell, whose undergraduate degree is in engineering, the kind of disciplined thinker who’s inherently able to get to such insights, and how much of that capability can be attributed to the educational experience? As to the latter, he says, “I think it’s got to have a role there somewhere. I’m not sure how to allocate points to it. Would I have been successful even if I hadn’t gone and done any [college] education? Probably. Was I more successful as a result of having had a great engineering and philosophy education? Almost certainly.” —DM