We were recently honored to have Robin Washington as a guest speaker in our Path to Becoming a CFO series. It’s always valuable — and exciting for us — to hear insights from high-profile, well-established CFOs who have also made their way onto the boards of directors of important companies and organizations. Interviewed by Thejo Kote, the founder and CEO of spend management company Airbase, Robin had a great deal to contribute to the discussion on what it means to be a CFO and how best to become one, all while sharing relatable personal anecdotes.
Robin Washington is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Alphabet, Honeywell International, and Salesforce, where she serves as chair of the audit committee. She is also a member of the Graziadio Board at Pepperdine University, the Ross Business School Advisory Board, and the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland Board of Directors.
She has also served as Executive Vice President and CFO at Gilead Sciences, CFO at Hyperion Solutions, Senior Vice President and Corporate Controller of PeopleSoft, and has held positions at both the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Deloitte & Touche.
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Breadth over depth — preparing for CFO.
Robin began by reflecting on her early career and what might be extrapolated from it as advice for aspiring CFOs. Her responses underscored two main points: the long-term nature of any plan aimed at becoming a CFO and the value of a broad knowledge base.
You should think about the roles you take leading up to CFO as giving you the opportunities, the breadth, needed to perform well.
This advice aligns with the sentiments of many business leaders who have shared their opinions in this series. Not only must a CFO be equipped and adaptable enough to handle whatever is thrown at her, she must also understand every part of her business well enough to accurately analyze, make predictions, and steer the company.
Speaking to acquiring this wide expertise, Robin suggests being “open to different possibilities. Be willing to take on the difficult projects. Go in and spend time with people who are where you want to be.” A flexible approach begets a flexible skillset. Her final point here about seeking out others is notable in that it does not paint mentors as requisite.
What it means to be a leader.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of Robin’s experience as a CFO and board member is wrapped up in leadership capabilities and styles. While not always an intuitive skill, Robin managed to develop an effective approach to leadership that served her well.
Your job as a leader is not always to dive in and fix the issues. You have to make sure your team is capable.
Robin stresses the importance of mindfully building and using your team. Leadership requires many things, and one of those is knowing when to get out of the way. This can take practice.
Building a robust team is also critical, according to Robin. “As a leader,” she said, “the best thing you can do is hire people who are smarter than you.” This heightens what your company can do, certainly, but it also ensures that your team can operate without your direct input.
How the meaning of CFO is changing.
Speaking on how the CFO role has evolved over the course of her career, Robin underscored the many and varied jobs that CFOs must now juggle, with many of the most important ones being focused on data. She said, “Modern CFOs take on broader operational roles than their predecessors: project management, systems implementation, M&A, data analytics, IT.” The most significant practical advice in this is to have the willingness and ability to learn as new expectations fall on the shoulders of CFOs.
Robin pointed out that, while what is demanded of CFOs has increased in degree and scope, growing expectations are not restricted to them. Rather, this change reflects the business world at large. She said, “The complexity of running organizations and the speed of decision making have increased tremendously from a decade ago.” Despite this, Robin remained optimistic throughout her interview that the leaders of tomorrow would be able to meet the newest challenges. At Airbase, we agree.
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