By: Mark Keller, Latin Business Chronicle Posted: Aug 8th, 2014

How is the role of the CFO evolving, and how does professional development play into that?
How do you keep your skills up to date? How do you get ahead in your career?
And what specifically should women do to advance to the top of the ladder?

These are some of the questions Latin Business Chronicle addressed with Cheryl McDowell, Vice President Finance & Operations, Latin America at technology company, Oracle. An active participant at Latin Trade’s CFO Miami series, and also a member of Latin Trade’s CFO Advisory Committee, McDowell is uniquely qualified to answer these questions. This is an excerpt from the full interview.

McDowell also spoke about her experience with Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, where she attended the Strategic Financial Leadership Program (SFLP). On November 6, Latin Business Chronicle (merging with Latin Business) will host a CFO Master Class in partnership with Tuck Executive Education called Executing Strategy Through Communication.  The session will run in Miami, FL with Tuck Professor Paul Argenti, who is Professor of Corporate Communication and Faculty Director for Leadership and Strategic Impact, as well as Brand and Reputation programs. This Master Class is designed to provide chief financial officers operating in Latin America with a vision into strategic corporate communication and concepts needed to navigate through a highly competitive globalized economy.

Q: How is the role of the CFO changing, and what are the implications of that change?

A: I think the role of the CFO historically has been one of gate-keeping, primarily around accounting: looking at budgets, looking at what occurred in the past.

Today, the CFO is being asked to play a more proactive role in planning and adding more value to the strategy of the company. You have to change the way you look at things: looking forward more, not backward. You have to look at both non-financial and financial information to make your decisions. Also, you and your team have to gain the trust of your business partner. You have to be seen to have the right skills to be able to work with your business partner.

This change requires a more analytical skillset and also that the CFO have strong communication skills. At Oracle in the past year we have invested heavily, and will continue to invest a lot to train our employees on these new skills. This includes not only communication and improved analytics, but how to talk and master new communication styles.

I know you attended one of Tuck’s Executive Programs, Strategic Financial Leadership. How important was the peer learning aspect of attending that program? Have you made valuable business or personal connections?

I found the Tuck program to be really fantastic. For me I find it was helpful in three key areas: how to look at the business differently, developing leadership, perfecting communication. I’ve been trying to apply some of this learning to my everyday work.

I took a lot away from the program. In terms of leadership – they look at leadership styles in a way that was new to me. This is very valuable – and different from your typical situational leadership or Meyers Briggs. I enjoyed all the discussions around leadership. Communication was extremely valuable not only from the day to day perspective but from a corporate leadership perspective.

Through the program I made contacts all over the globe, and that diversity also reinforces some of the teachings. You have not only global diversity, but also representatives from lots of different industries. There are many aspects of the program that compel you to learn from other people, or share information to help other people. The very program design  includes a lot of interaction that gives you a new perspective, or a new approach to things like leadership style or managing a business.

Specifically, Professor Argenti was one of the professors who taught in the SFLP program at Tuck – he will be presenting a Master Class on strategic communication for CFOs in November at our conference – how valuable was that topic for you?

Professor Argenti’s lessons were extremely valuable. Communication is one of the key areas where as the CFO becomes more strategic, this skill becomes invaluable. Argenti really taught us to look at things in different ways to therefore be able to communicate appropriately, either through case studies or through short movies and some roleplaying. He really touched on ways of improving your communication through planning and analysis.

Ethics and compliance are important as well. The Dartmouth program also made you think about your moral compass, which I thought  was a great take away as well. As a CFO you need a strong moral compass – and the way Professor Argenti got us to think it through really made it more personal. It affected me in such a way that I spoke to our compliance department, and looked for ways we can incorporate it into our training. Taking a compliance class can be mandatory, but when coupled with thinking about one’s own moral compass helps to drive home the point and make it more personal. 

As a prominent businesswoman, what advice do you have for women with aspirations to ascend to top leadership positions in Finance?

My advice would be: keep plugging away. Do what you do well, and make sure you have a strong network – get out there, meet people, don’t be shy! Networking to me is the best way to find out about things and have more people find out about you.

The other thing would be, if you can, find a mentor or a sponsor. A mentor might be able to help you to develop an area where you need help. A sponsor is someone who will sponsor and fight for you within the organization – who sees your value and pushes you to the next level.

Learn more about the Strategic Financial Leadership Program being offered at the Tuck School of Business May 10-15, 2015.

Interested in more thought leadership for CFOs?  Read Professor Bob Howell’s article from the Wall Street Journal.

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