Kelly Battles, former CFO at Quora, on what she’s learned in her career in strategic finance.
When Kelly Battles joined Airbase Founder and CEO, Thejo Kote, at our popular Path to Becoming a CFO series, she was serving as CFO at knowledge-sharing website Quora. The conversation often turned to her own learning experiences over the course of her career.
Kelly’s career has covered a wide range of companies and responsibilities. Prior to working at Quora, she was the CFO at Bracket Computing and Host Analytics, Vice-President of Finance at IronPort, and Director of Strategy and Corporate Development at Hewlett Packard. She currently sits on several boards, including Genesys and DataStax, and is acting CFO at Alpha Medical.
Finding the right mentors.
Early in her finance career, Kelly found some experienced CFOs who offered to give her advice when needed. “The first time I had to do a commission plan or set quota schemes for the sales team, I would email them, or take them out to lunch individually, and just learn. And that was amazing because it was very specific. It saved me from having to recreate the wheel.”
“It’s important, especially early on, to ask for feedback, be open to it, and then learn who gives you good feedback. Build a relationship with them.”
Finding those kinds of mentors typically requires actively reaching out, because they won’t always come to you. She advised that when you approach a potential mentor, be direct in your request, and explain why you feel they are a good fit. Don’t feel limited by finding mentors that have the same career. Some of her best mentors were people outside of the finance world. “You need to figure out what you need help in, and then be very specific about who can help you. It doesn’t need to be somebody who looks and acts just like you.”
Charting a career path.
Kelly described the first half of her journey as “the figure out what I want to do stage,” and joked that her dad used to refer to her as a “generalist with an expensive education.” However, she explained that the lessons she acquired over that time proved invaluable, particularly regarding problem-solving and leadership.
“Some of the riskiest career moves I’ve made, those when I jumped in and figured it out later, ended up being the best career moves and the biggest learning opportunities.”
She pointed to IronPort as an outstanding learning experience because the company’s leaders served as excellent examples of leadership done right. In her opinion, leadership is difficult to learn in a textbook, and is best absorbed by example. Throughout her talk, Kelly emphasized that she feels lucky in the number of excellent leaders she’s worked with. Her advice is to make sure you do your due diligence when researching potential companies, particularly with regards to their corporate culture.
When asked what prospective CFOs should focus on learning, she emphasized “executive presence and communications skills.” Those become more important as finance professionals move up the ladder. “When you’re in a function like finance, when you start out, your bread and butter is in mastering details. When you get to be more senior, you need to be able to synthesize and draw out the main contextual points.”
Acting as a board member has also facilitated a lot of valuable learning experiences for Kelly. She explained that when you’re an executive at a company, you’re primarily learning about the way that company operates. If you’re a board member for other companies at the same time, you can double or triple the learning opportunities, and get broader context about what happens in the business world.
When Thejo asked what she’s learned from making mistakes, Kelly listed three common mistakes that she’s witnessed, or was guilty of herself, starting with the importance of knowing when to delegate. “It’s going into the comfort zone of ‘I can do this better myself’ — rookie error!” The second mistake she’s noticed is fearing vulnerability. The third one she said she’s struggled a lot with herself: Admitting you don’t have all the answers.
On a broader level, she feels one mistake that companies make is the tendency to underinvest in the finance infrastructure to benefit the rest of the company.
“There’s a balance between being the frugal steward, but also investing to make sure that finance isn’t a blocker to growth.”
She emphasized the importance of data and analytics in building the visibility of the finance function. “One of the ways to get around hard times is to use data and analytics to frame the problem and to diffuse emotions, politics, or other things that can get in the way. And finance has a key role in that as the keepers of a lot of the data.”
Listen to the complete Path to Become a CFO talk with Kelly Battles.
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