While the skillset and work experience of many CFOs overlaps, the slight differences or involvement in things outside of corporate finance can make the difference between average and great leaders. When it comes to Karl Pichler, CFO and executive vice president of Sourceability Global, finance-adjacent experience has given him the ability to climb the ladder to CFO twice in his career.
Being an accounting and finance professor at both Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and the University of Bern in Bern, Switzerland, has given him the opportunity to develop leadership skills as a professor while keeping up-to-date on the latest and most relevant information about corporate finance.
As a professor, his reviews by students are flawless. He’s been complimented on his knowledge, authenticity, and practicality, traits that, when brought to a finance leadership position, can also yield excellent results.
At the beginning of the year, Pichler left Trinity University for his current role at Sourceability, a global electronic components distributor. He gave CFO his takes on the current finance and accounting education system, his approach to leadership, and what it’s like stepping back into a CFO role after some time outside the corporate world.
CFO and executive vice president of Sourceability Global
- First CFO position: 2011
- Notable previous companies:
- Stern Stewart & Co
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ADAM ZAKI: You recently took a new CFO role. What are the personal challenges you've had or the adjustments you needed to make, and how have you handled them?
PICHLER: I am equally challenged and excited by the distributed nature of Sourceability. For most of my career, I have worked in an office daily with many meetings and personal interactions. Of course, I had teams abroad and worked on the phone and with videoconferencing systems, but a large part was handled near my peers and teams. Currently, my boss is in Florida, most of my team is in Singapore, and we don’t have headquarters. It is the reality of today’s work, and it won’t change back to how it was before, but it is challenging to develop deep relationships that drive strong cultural and business alignment.
To successfully run and lead a distributed organization, one has to firmly buy into an approach of strong empowerment. People need to be given a lot of context on what they are trying to achieve. They must be given direction and resources to apply themselves and contribute toward a common goal. Leadership is about giving direction and context, removing obstacles, and providing air cover when needed. It’s much less about control and productivity management.
In your new role, how did you approach developing relationships between fellow executives and yourself and with yourself and your finance teams?
PICHLER: It is always challenging to come into an organization at a high level and not suffer from “organ rejection.” It’s a bit easier on the functional side since the subject matter is much narrower and better understood by the team. I see myself as a complement to the finance team, helping it to build for scalability and U.S. compliance, which gives me a clear, identifiable role.
On the business leadership side, it is a bit harder. Since all business decisions have financial implications, the CFO is involved in everything, but we also need to recognize our peers’ leadership authority and their respective expertise and experience. I don’t have a strong industry background, so I approach that second role in a much more delicate manner, trying to identify a small number of really important issues that we need to keep in mind when running the business.
What parts of your life, either personally or professionally, have allowed you to develop the characteristics needed to be a successful leader? How, if at all, do you maintain your leadership skills?
PICHLER: I spent 12 years at Rackspace, where I learned a lot from my peers and where we also had a very deliberate and strong focus on leadership culture and development. That was my basic training. We rapidly grew the company, requiring me and my peers to rebuild and upskill the organization constantly. That itself required strong leadership and communication skills to gain and keep the organization's trust.
My higher-ed stint exposed me to the next generation of professionals and how they think about the world and their careers. It’s a different generation with their own concerns and desires. And finally, parenting, the master challenge in leadership, supporting and leading our children on their journey, is a privilege and an everyday challenge.
What are your thoughts about the future of labor in corporate finance, the quality of Gen-Z talent, and why many people — especially finance teams — claim they just can't find suitable, young talent?
PICHLER: I think COVID-19 significantly affected our young people academically and professionally. The quality of the education suffered, to say the least, and, to date, many of my former students still work from home, which makes it much harder to learn from peers, superiors, and mentors. It will take a couple of more years to get through this and properly integrate our younger generations into the workforce. It also appears that a more significant proportion of young professionals today want variety and balance than a focused, hard-charged career — they are looking for purpose and companies with an inspiring mission.
I've been told things like MBAs and other higher education certifications are losing value in the job market. Where do you believe the value of education lies in the future, particularly in finance?
PICHLER: The credentials are less important than the skills and experiences one gains. A well-rounded professional has strong foundational knowledge and technical skills but demonstrates the ability to apply judgment and think critically and nuanced about a topic. Very few business and finance issues can be solved purely analytically; most require a high degree of situational awareness and judgment. Educational institutions are traditionally stronger on the foundational and skills-development side, but they evolve too and push more into applied, experiential learning situations.
In addition to traditional schooling, there is unlimited access to educational resources of high quality. One can learn anything without spending significant amounts of money. That pressures the schools to evolve their mandate and service offerings to stay competitive, which is all positive. Programs that mostly focus on traditional lecturing and conveying information are not attractive nor valuable to the students, and they will decline in relevance over time.