5 Key CFO Takeaways From MIT Sloan CFO, Ascent Events

Productivity, health and well-being, and managing uncertainty were top of mind for CFOs during recent conferences.
5 Key CFO Takeaways From MIT Sloan CFO, Ascent Events
Photo: Sean Pavone

The year 2022 is drawing to a close, and CFO had one final opportunity to spend some time with finance executives across all different company sizes and industries. At the Ascent Conference and MIT Sloan CFO Summit, during the final week of November, the topics of conversation revolved technology and corporate people skills. Widespread uncertainty in the economy, different ideas around technology integration, drastic shifts in work culture, and adherence to energy and social governance standards — all while maintaining positive leadership in a position of power —  dominated conversations and speaking panels.

There is a general consensus that executives, especially CFOs, are juggling more now than in the recent past.


 CFOs dancing at the MIT Sloan Summit in Newton, Mass.

Note: The comradery of the CFO space was inspiring. There was passion around participation in question and answer sessions, the desire to network, and an overall desire to get better; regardless of what phase people were in their careers. As CFOs even took no hesitation to break out their best dance moves in the event’s keynote, it was evident that financial executives seemed comfortable and excited to do be around each other. 

Productivity is Still a Major Concern

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Productivity paranoia is a major factor when it comes to how executives are interacting with their teams. Ideas surrounding data analytics to track employee engagement with work devices, team projects to keep employees engaged, or evaluating engagement and contribution in meetings particular instances made headway at both events. While the feeling is mutual with employees on the opacity of productivity in a remote environment, a general consensus on how to gauge productivity in today’s work environment remains unclear. 

In a leadership panel, Anat Ashkenazi, CFO and vice president of Eli Lily, offered a take on productivity measurement for employees at the MIT Sloan Summit. “When trying to gauge productivity, it’s about the moments that matter,” she said during a panel discussing leadership lessons.

Different Work Experience Yields Positive Results 

Spindrift Beverage company CFO Scott Chandler shared his experiences with attendees of the MIT Sloan event on his unique background. A graduate of engineering from the U.S. Naval academy, Chandler spoke on how stories like his are becoming more common. With a unique set of professional backgrounds, whether it be military, science, engineering, or technology, financial executives are stepping into the position with vastly different perspectives than newcomers in the past. 

Janelle Gorman, CFO of investment firm York IE, spoke to attendees about how work experience directly translates to leadership styles. A welcoming work environment can create the best level of productivity. An avid volunteer outside of her corporate finance duties, Gorman’s friendly approach to her team appears to be the foundation of their comradery. 

Use humor, but only if you’re funny. — Janelle Gorman, CFO, York IE

According to her, the work environment is one of the most important things she helps facilitate at her company. When asked about the tools used in communication, Gorman spoke about humor. “Use humor, but only if you’re funny,” Gorman said.

Managing Uncertainty 

Despite the idea that the economic environment is in flux, CFOs know that compliance obligations do not. Companies who are expecting to overcome difficult hurdles in the next 12 to 18 months are going to rely heavily on their executive teams to drive them through these potential challenges. Economic-induced changes in corporate environments seem to have a ton of potential for the FP&A-based, team-player financial executive to grow and succeed. 

Multiple CFOs brought up the idea of using skepticism as a remedy for uncertainty. Financial executives in attendance embraced the idea of the CFO being the “company skeptic.” The most successful CFOs have the ability to develop well-rounded, informed, and intriguing questions about impactful company decisions. 

The uncertainty around ESG is still prevalent. Despite recent findings saying nearly all leaders were preparing for ESG’s impact, the topic brought about some of the most lightly attended speaking sessions. Despite an informative and detailed panel by Maura Hodge, impact ESG audit leader at KPMG, it’s unclear if a large amount of CFOs are concerned right now.

Travel is Back

Whether it’s rekindling old relationships, hungry newcomers looking to network, or inspired salespeople looking to gauge clients and add to their lead lists, attendance numbers at both events  approached capacity at their peaks. On top of that, most people at both the Ascent — a conference held in New York focused on the software-as-a-service market — and MIT events seemed engaged and happy to be there.

With people flying in from all over the world to attend these events, many shared takes in conversation with CFO on how traveling is a shakeup from remote work, a chance to check out a new city, or a reason to rekindle with friends away from home. It’s clear that as long as the event can provide some type of professional benefit, allocation towards attending these events is a no-brainer for teams looking to promote employee engagement and satisfaction.

The combination of in-person learning, networking opportunities, team-building engagement, and interpersonal communication makes it clear why the events industry is continuing to expand as the economic forecasts dwindle. Various industries sent representatives to the Ascent conference, in which none reported feeling out of place. CFO spoke to professionals in technology, real estate, coding, small business lending, marketing, advertising, and more.  

The Greatest Form of Wealth is Health  

As the CFO Summit included keynote calisthenics from On Target Living founder and CEO Chris Johnson, healthy living for executives and their teams was a major focal point in both New York and Boston. In a work environment mixed up with long hours, remote or office-bound day-to-days, and consistent traveling, both mental and physical health can easily be put aside for the sake of getting the job done. 

As healthcare costs rise, Johnson stressed to attendees in his keynote that executives must be “medically literate” and understand that their careers or the careers of their employees cannot come before their health.

Incorporating “the little things” like microbreaks, said Johnson, can make all the difference for an executive struggling with health. By embracing these ideas themselves, executives can understand how important employee health and well-being are to longevity and employee retention.