Executive leadership is multifaceted and comprised of multiple traits. It is a combination of skills, ethics, and a communication style that inspires and motivates others.
As the CFO role continues to demand excellent communication, public speaking skills, and the ability to convince top talent to stick around, it’s important to understand how finance executives approach leadership development.
Create Learning Opportunities
With over a decade of experience as a CFO across various industries, Nakamura couples that experience with a career coaching high school basketball and baseball in the San Francisco suburbs. He asserts the leadership necessary to be a good coach has allowed him to develop and implement a style of leadership that has enriched his career as a CFO.
“I’ve always used a similar approach to my coaching style in sports as I do as a CFO,” Nakamura said. “I want my team to always work really hard, and I want them to be okay with making mistakes and remember that we are all human,” he said.
“On game day, or during crunch time at work, I want these types of moments to slow down for us while they’re happening by using that confidence instilled during practice or times where we’re learning something.”
According to Nakamura, a big part of his leadership approach is autonomy. “I don’t want to micromanage anybody,” he said. “You have to build trust throughout your team in order to get the best results. And, by putting people in uncomfortable situations in a controlled environment, you can really see their ability to adapt and provide them an awesome opportunity to learn.”
“I’ve always used a similar approach to my coaching style in sports as I do as a CFO. I want my team to always work really hard, and I want them to be okay with making mistakes and remember that we are all human.”
CFO, Orange Comet
Nakamura has been coaching his director of accounting systems through the ranks over the years. When looking to identify people worthy of this commitment, he says high IQ and work ethic are equally valuable. “When I started guiding him, there was a lot he didn’t know,” Nakamura said. “We sat down and I said ‘Let me teach you stuff to help you grow, let’s get you in there using these systems and when you make mistakes, I can correct you, teach you, and make you better.”
Although putting new finance professionals in situations to learn and grow is a great way to evaluate their potential success, Nakamura spoke about the dangers of putting too much performance pressure on promising but young employees.
“You’re not going to put your promising freshman point guard in the championship game just for the sake of it,” he said. “They must have a growth mindset, and the desire to get better, [and] you have to make sure that those smaller opportunities to grow are taken advantage of before you put somebody in a pivotal moment and tell them to figure it out.”
Healthy Work Ethic
Online ticket platform SeatGeek’s vice president of finance, Teddy Collins, also understands the union of sports and leadership. Collins, a Stanford graduate and previously the captain of the university’s golf team, has spent about eight years in his role at SeatGeek. Collins says it’s not about wanting to be the hardest worker on the team, but actually doing it.
“When I was a freshman [at Stanford], my coach asked me what I wanted to be remembered for?” said Collins. “I remember saying I want to be the hardest worker on the team, and I always did my best to make that my mindset,” he said. “And so far, it’s served me in my career very well.”
Collins stressed the importance of preparing for and embracing the opportunities that come available at any given moment.
“I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much here, and I’ve learned that based on how you approach those opportunities, you can have a lot of control over the direction of your career and where you want to go,” he said.
“For me right now, it’s just coming in and learning as much as I can about the accounting functions of the business, and taking every opportunity I have to grow. Coming up with new ways to improve things, while also learning at the same time, has been really rewarding for me,” Collins said.
Communicate and Adapt
The CFO role increasingly requires strong communication skills in a variety of mediums, and leadership experts believe executives have their work cut out for them to master this skillset. Jacqueline Baker, a leadership consultant and author of The Unexpected Leader, says executives who don’t have the ability to communicate effectively may struggle to grow and matriculate.
“When you’ve risen to the executive rank, people automatically assume that because you have a ‘C’ in front of your title, that you also are going to have the charisma, the public speaking skills, the ability to connect with people on a human level; and that is hugely not the case.”
“It's not enough to be smart at the thing,” said Baker. “I meet lots of incredibly smart and intelligent business leaders from all areas of the C-suite.”
“But many times, if you ask them to explain something, or to connect with an audience on the stage, they do not connect because they can communicate the widget or the jargon or the approach or the policy, but not in a way that connects with an audience.”
However, the job title does not automatically equate to a polished public persona. “When you've risen to the executive rank, people automatically assume that because you have a ‘C’ in front of your title, that you also are going to have the charisma, the public speaking skills, the ability to connect with people on a human level; and that is hugely not the case,” she said.
Baker stressed how difficult of a process it can be for CFOs to learn to be adaptable to a variety of decision-making scenarios. According to her, a leader’s character often brings with it a default style. However, with the changing workforce, different values of younger workers may call for new leadership approaches.
“Nowadays when younger people are entering the workforce with new ideas, leaders may need to consider changing their leadership style,” Baker said. “But they have to be aware of the personal discomfort that comes with making that type of change.”
“The seemingly simple process of, 'Okay if this approach and the way my team is responding to me, or the way that I'm responding to my team isn't working, let me change it' is incredibly challenging to actually put into practice,” she said.
“The challenge for leaders in these industries is to avoid acting like robots and to remember that you’re operating with humans who have feelings and come with their own needs, desires, ambitions, and aspirations,” Baker said.