Temp to Top: Leanne Cunningham’s Ascent to CFO

“Once I figured out it was a place I wanted to stay, I showed up every day trying to earn my spot,” said the Brown-Forman finance chief.
Vincent RyanApril 28, 2022

When Leanne Cunningham, CFO of Brown-Forman, asked if this story could highlight the company as much as her own career path, I wasn’t surprised. She believes firmly her success is intertwined with the environment and values of the 152-year-old company that makes Jack Daniels, Old Forester, and Herradura tequila. It’s “truly a combination of a person and the place, and I was in a place where I had opportunities,” said Cunningham. 

In a career path fewer and fewer people take, Cunningham started at Brown-Forman in the temporary worker pool and never left. She moved into her first finance role, fixed asset accounting, two years later. In 27 years at the company, she has filled executive positions in and out of finance. Last July, she was tapped to be CFO.

While Cunningham had opportunities, by no means was her ascension to the CFO role pre-ordained. I asked her about the keys to her career development.

Leanne Cunningham

CFO, Brown-Forman

  • Named CFO: July 2021
  • Previous positions at Brown-Forman:
    • Shareholder relations officer
    • Global commercial finance and FP&A
    • General manager, Brown-Forman brands
    • Director of finance, global production

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Over the years at Brown-Forman, you moved in and out of finance. Is that correct?

I have done everything from corporate accounting and production to commercial finance. Then, I also got to move over and do corporate and business strategy. I also stepped out of finance 15-plus years into my career, leading production operations with 600 people in 13 different countries. And then, from that opportunity, I was brought back into finance and given new areas of responsibility — shareholder relations, commercial finance, and [FP&A].

Was moving you around part of a formal company program?

It’s more informal; it’s driven by the quality of your work, the relationships you build, and the leadership skills you exemplify. We try to develop talent. Brown-Forman is 152 years old, and our ambition is to be around for generations. … We’re trying to grow leaders. So, we believe in giving them a broader perspective of how the company works.

Is it still possible to climb the ladder at a corporation the way you have? Was there something in your personality or attitude that enabled you to do this? 

You have to share the company’s values because it has to be a place you want to stay. Brown-Forman’s values are integrity, respect, trust, and teamwork. Very quickly in my time here, I could feel the values of this company and how those values aligned with mine. Once I figured out it was a place I wanted to stay, I showed up every day trying to earn my spot. Not one day did I ever take my spot on the team for granted.

What else does rising through the ranks require?

You have to have the patience and flexibility to move at the company’s pace. Sometimes the company may move a little more slowly or more quickly than your expectations. You have to be able to move with the company when it’s ready.

In addition, it requires knowing not only your career strategy but also knowing yourself, your strengths. I’m a continuous learner. I always tried to put myself in positions that would [challenge] me. But I also wanted to put myself in positions that played to my strengths. … I was never chasing a title or chasing pay. I was genuinely trying to build a foundation that would last.

Throughout, it was about building enduring relationships. I still have to foster those relationships. We no longer have lunch hours, but I use lunch to build those relationships. I just call a person and say, “Hey, let’s catch up.” 

Is Brown-Forman’s culture an advantage in this highly competitive jobs market?

We are a family-controlled company, and there are elements of the family’s values built into our core values. We have been on our diversity and inclusion journey for decades. And from that, the company has evolved into a place where many people can come and feel valued and belong.

For example, we have been thoughtful about the development of women’s careers. Women in professional and leader-level positions are 48% of our employee population. And women hold 39% of our senior leadership positions. So that’s one dimension of diversity. 

We want to be a place where people can feel like they belong and share their perspectives as we problem-solve and think about how to grow the company. And those perspectives are included in our solutions.