CFOs from Johnson & Johnson, Delta, Squarespace, and other companies attended MIT Sloan’s CFO Summit in Newton, Massachusetts, on Tuesday. Many of the CFOs came to find practical solutions to pressing business challenges. In panels and discussions, attendees peppered speakers with questions on labor-management issues, investor relations, technology implementation, and M&A.
Below are four high-level takeaways from the summit.
1. Large Companies Are Still Recovering from the Pandemic
Johnson & Johnson’s CFO Joseph Wolk, who began the event with a fireside chat with MIT Sloan professor Simon Johnson, addressed a question about talent development. He highlighted the challenges his team overcame due to the initial pandemic shutdowns.
“[Good CFOs] have to make quick decisions and get the smart people in the room. When we went through the pandemic and were told our teams [would be] working from home, none of us would’ve signed up for that. But we got it done.”
GE’s former CFO Carolina Dybeck Happe referred to COVID-19 as a black swan event during her panel. Delta’s CFO Dan Janki emphasized his company's focus on sustaining growth while paying off debt incurred during the pandemic travel shutdowns and restrictions.
2. Talent Remedies Include Automation, In-Person Collaboration
CFOs, both as panelists and audience members, expressed their struggle to find effective solutions to the accounting shortage.
Current strategies, including identifying and nurturing talent, allowing remote work, and even recruiting finance team members out of college, haven’t fully addressed the problem. Many CFOs continue to explore automation as a supplementary solution, but that may amount to addressing only the symptoms of the insufficient supply of qualified talent.
Some companies, like HubSpot, are using in-person collaboration and culture development to tackle labor issues. CFO Kate Bueker spoke extensively about how the company's diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have fostered an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics.
Bueker also emphasized the company's commitment to a hybrid model while increasing the focus on in-person interactions. “We’ve had employees who, throughout the years, have moved around the world,” said Bueker. “We will remain with a hybrid model, but we will be doubling down on in-person connections next year.”
3. Curiosity Around M&A
During a panel on M&A, CFOs sought advice on pre-transaction activities in the current economic climate. Andrew Bonnes, a partner at WilmerHale, advised doubling down on legal preparation early in the process, regardless of whether you’re the buyer or seller. “Let attorneys in on the goals of your transaction early,” he recommended.
Bonnes also cautioned CFOs about antitrust regulation potentially derailing a deal in its late stages. “If there’s even a chance you think your deal could be an antitrust concern, you need an antitrust expert early on.”
4. A Lesson on Answering Tough Questions
During the Johnson & Johnson CFO’s session, an audience member inquired about recent settlements concerning cancer-causing talc and asbestos in baby powder products.
While Joseph Wolk maintained the company's stance, he offered advice for companies dealing with such issues. His recommendations included conducting thorough research, adopting a proactive approach, and simultaneously focusing on growing people and products alongside legal concerns. His response not only provided good general guidance but demonstrated how to answer a tough question in front of an audience with authenticity.
Some CFOs chose to keep their questions to themselves. In a casual conversation before a panel, a finance chief based in Boston, who commutes to Manhattan weekly via air, mentioned holding back a question during the previous panel’s Q&A session. “I really wanted to ask [the Delta CFO] why my flight is always late,” they said.