Stepping into a new high-level role for the first time, even one that you've prepared for, goes beyond the classroom and training. The skills that power leadership, culture development, decision-making, and relationship building are developed through developing agility and adaptability in different types of situations and industries.
For Joy Mbanugo, CFO of cloud-based IT service provider ServiceRocket, work experience has been everything. Coming up into corporate finance through EY, BlackRock, and Google, these high-profile companies have taught Mbanugo much of what she knows about how to be a good leader.
Through these experiences, she gained insight and experience in decision-making processes, execution, and how culture shapes everything. Her role at ServiceRocket as a first-time CFO is the culmination of everything.
- First CFO position: 2023
- Notable previous companies:
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ADAM ZAKI: You were at EY for over 10 years and Google for over five. What about these companies made you stick around as long as you did?
JOY MBANUGO: When I was at EY, I had some really big challenges. I was an auditor while going to law school at the same time. I had some stressful times over there. But, I worked with really good partners. I can’t say that enough, especially after the work experience I’ve gathered since then, I worked for some good people at EY who went above and beyond for me. EY let me stay on as an intern while I was in law school and even shipped me off to Washington D.C. after I went through a rough relationship breakup in Cleveland and needed a new scene.
The benefits of working at Google for me were all the experience I was able to get. I worked in treasury, SAP implementation, controllership, and FP&A of cloud [products].
Now that you’re about 10 months into your first CFO role, what part of the job did you not expect?
MBANUGO: As finance people, we can be very much into the weeds and focus all on the numbers, making our numbers look good and forgetting about the people. I think the most surprising thing is working directly under a CEO who drives a culture of caring about people authentically. When I was at EY, I had that. So as CFO here, I need to keep that in the front of my mind and not just care about numbers. When I’m thinking about expenses and managing money, I can’t cut things that help our people and culture thrive.
Another surprising thing to me is how operational the CFO role can be. It’s not just finance and strategy, but the implementation thereof. I get involved in day-to-day operations, which I’m happy and grateful to do.
What nuggets did you pick up while working for companies with established culture and leadership about implementing culture and being a good business leader?
MBANUGO: It drives you crazy at first when you get to Google and everything is decided by committee. In places like BlackRock, you have to make quick decisions — the consequences be damned. So I think Google taught me the value and thoughtfulness of a decision-making process. I’ve added that to my toolkit.
BlackRock taught me to like making decisions, and that you have to be willing to decide to stick your neck out and grow. As per culture, I don’t even know if the culture at EY is the same, I hope it is because the people-first aspects of it when I was there taught me a lot about how to conduct my role today.
As a state school graduate who has worked for prominent companies, you must’ve encountered people with prestigious degrees who had their professional lives planned out or set up for them. What lessons did you draw from working alongside them when shaping your leadership work ethic?
MBANUGO: This is something I didn't realize too much until I got to D.C. I had friends who went to Georgetown and NYU for law school, Harvard for undergrad, all these prestigious places. I think the one thing that kept me competitive and motivated to compete with these people was the intellectual curiosity I had. I don’t sit here today and say “Oh, I’m a CFO so I’ve made it now”, no. This is a stepping stone.
People who went to Harvard and Stanford and these big schools are sometimes perceived to be intellectually lazy and don’t use their connections because they believe in some way they’ve already made it. There’s nothing wrong with D.C., and I love my hometown of Ohio, but now that I live in the Bay Area and still live off that intellectual hunger, it has helped me stay competitive against those types of people.
What advice would you give a younger person who is looking to develop a career in finance and wants to put in the work like you did?
MBANUGO: For me, I had no choice. My Dad, Mom, and Grandma told me I was going to law school. That was it. But, I would advise people to make sure they have a really strong community to support them, because things will get difficult both personally and professionally during your journey.
I will also add that being a CFO is pretty cool, and no one talks about that. When I was at EY, not that it was done intentionally, but no one ever told me there was anything beyond making partner. No one ever said to me, “Hey, you could go be a CFO, you don’t have to make partner here.”
So I think a good community, alongside goals and putting yourself out there to achieve those goals, is very important.