Top finance execs often self-sabotage their success. A coach to top CFOs explains how to avoid it

Good morning. Kevin Kelleher filling in here for Sheryl today.

Edith Hamilton was having breakfast with a coaching client at the bottom of a hotel’s cavernous atrium. The client, recently promoted from controller to CFO at a healthcare services company, had been tasked with improving monthly revenue projections that somehow always fell short. Progress was plodding at best.

Whenever the CFO pressed for more visibility into sales projections, she heard bland assurances like, “We’re working on it.” Yet the shortfalls continued. The new CFO reasoned that the staff knew operations better than she did, leaving her to wonder: “Who am I to hold people accountable like this?”

“You are the second-most-powerful person at this firm,” Hamilton reminded her. “Who else is going to step up and drive this kind of accountability?” To underscore the point, Hamilton brought her client up to the top level of the atrium for an all-encompassing view of the bustling activity below. Then Hamilton asked her to draw an analogy of that view to her world at work.

“It was like she could suddenly see and feel in her body that she was big and tall and had access to a birds-eye view like few did, that others needed her to share what she saw to broaden their perspective,” Hamilton tells me, recalling that moment. “That alone was a huge shift.”

Courtesy of NEXT New Growth

In these uncertain times, CFOs and other corporate leaders are increasingly turning to Hamilton and her peers in the $14 billion executive-coaching industry. Last year, more than 70% of organizations offered some form of leadership coaching. After all, it’s easy for CFO’s to feel overwhelmed these days. Inflation and business automation present new challenges. CFO tenures are shorter, and turnover rates are higher.

Hamilton has worked as a CFO coach and mentor since founding NEXT New Growth in Los Angeles in 2016, following a career as a CFO and executive at companies and nonprofits. Clients seek out her coaching to improve their strategic and operational focus; manage their bandwidth to avoid burnout; sharpen their emotional intelligence and engage their teams; or create buy-in with stakeholders, CEOs and boards.

“Many are first-time CFOs, but they can also be experienced CFOs who realize they made some mistakes they’d rather not repeat,” Hamilton says.

Whether seasoned or not, the first 90 days a CFO spends at a new company are crucial in setting the tone. Hamilton urges new CFOs to take a break before stepping into a new role, not to rest but to study up on their new company and its industry: reading analyst reports and SEC filings, talking with people in the know, and preparing the right questions to ask once they’re in the door.

Building early relationships with reports, peers and superiors is also key. “CFOs often want to get right into the nitty gritty of their finance department right away, and that can be a mistake,” Hamilton says. They also need to build bridges with peers in revenue-generating departments like sales and operations. “That’s where finance will add value. You can’t fix anything in finance until you know what your customers need.”

With that intelligence, new CFOs can check in with their direct reports to get their input on how the finance team can best achieve the company’s goals. “This builds a rapid connection at the personal level where your colleagues see you as a listener and as someone who wants to have a true partnership.”

Connection building applies to the board as well, although this can involve a bit more finesse. Some CFOs who set up meetings with board members may alienate CEOs who see this as going over their head. Letting your CEO know you’re an ally who can be an extra pair of eyes and ears with the board works better as a precautionary first step.

Others may err in the other direction by being too timid, waiting in vain for board members to reach out to them. Hamilton worked with one CFO with such a mental block. “It sounds to me like you’re standing at a bus stop waiting for the board member to pull up in his limo and ask you to come in,” Hamilton told him.

The CFO nodded and said he related to that. “And how do you feel about being stuck in a bus stop waiting?” she said. The CFO, who protested he was not a passive person, saw a light go on in his head. Working with his CEO, he then established contacts with the board to set up initial conversations.

“You don’t want to be walking into your board meeting for the first time without having ever met these individuals,” Hamilton says. “You need to have had at least one conversation with every single one of them beforehand.”

It’s such “aha!” moments that Hamilton’s weekly one-on-one sessions aim to achieve. Often, the metaphors will be tweaked to resonate with the client (waiting at a bus stop became steering a favorite car), and she’ll often rehearse the words and body language needed to execute a desired goal.

Such exercises are also helpful in addressing the self-sabotaging behaviors that CFOs, like everyone else, are subject to. Hamilton points out that some of the more common ways CFOs hurt themselves are tied to the strengths we think of them as having: being rational, vigilant in oversight, attentive to detail, and in control. Going too far with these traits, however, can mean being so rational that emotional intelligence falls away, so over-vigilant your naysaying stifles creativity, or so controlling your team loses its trust in you.

Another client Hamilton worked with, a consultant who transitioned to a CFO role at a services firm, would undermine his potential by being hyper-vigilant. His fluid communication style would vanish when speaking before a group as he stifled and over-edited himself out of a fear of saying the wrong thing.

Hamilton’s coaching showed him that safety and security couldn’t be found by controlling external circumstances, but only inside himself. Again, a metaphor with personal resonance helped: The client loved surfing, a sport that favors instinct over hyper-analytical thinking. When surfers fall off their boards they hop right back on, the CFO realized, so it must be okay to do the same before his colleagues.

The metaphor took root. The CFO began conducting Zoom meetings while standing, to keep the surfing metaphor constantly in his mind. “He started feeling he could respond in the moment—it didn’t need to be perfect,” Hamilton says. “He was able to become much more assertive with his C-level peers, especially in sales.”

The other area Hamilton works with clients on is career advancement. “Less than 5% of the people I coach say their ambition is to become CEO,” she says. “It involves a very different skill set. To be a good CEO is primarily to be a salesperson—selling ideas to the board, to customers, to employees.”

That can present CFOs with the conundrum of where to aspire to land next. For division CFOs, it might be advancing to corporate CFO. From there, they can advance to larger companies, with a position at a large public company being the pinnacle.

Strengthening your chances for a more ambitious and higher-profile position often means expanding your skills in areas like M&A or raising money through credit lines, private placements or the legwork needed to stage an IPO. This can mean working more closely with investment banks and investors in fundraising. It also helps to be named to board seats—starting out with nonprofits or smaller companies if necessary.

“These are absolutely paths that you want to try to get involved in,” Hamilton says. “Because that is career progression. That’s what enhances your appeal for the next role you want to take on.”

Kevin Kelleher
Twitter: @kpkelleher

Big deal

Early results from Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans 2022, which launched June 22 this year and remains open, finds U.S. employers expect health benefit costs per employee to rise 5.6% on average in 2023. The projected increase reflects changes that companies plan to make to hold down costs. Respondents indicated that if they made no changes, the cost for their largest medical plan would rise by an average of 7%, according to Mercer. Regarding strategies over the next three to five years, enhancing benefits to improve attraction and retention came out on top. About 84% of large employers (those with 500 or more employees) cited the strategy as important or very important. And 74% of large respondents said that improving access to behavioral health care will be a priority over the next few years.

Going deeper

Here are a few good weekend reads:

“Bitcoin could hit $35,000 by year’s end as inflation cools, analyst predicts” by Anne Sraders

More than 60% of the world’s biggest companies are concentrated in just 3 countries. Here’s a map of the Fortune Global 500” by Matthew Heimer and Nicolas Rapp

Black coffee, limited screen time, and early morning rowing: Here’s how the CEO of language app Babbel stays sane” by Fortune Editors

Serena Williams will retire from tennis with a $260 million net worth and GOAT status. Next up: Her $111 million venture capital fund with nearly 60 investments” by Jane Thier


Some notable moves from this past week:

Stephanie Plaines was named as CFO at JCPenney, effective immediately. Brian Cashman has served as JCPenney’s interim CFO since March 2021. Under the leadership of Marc Rosen, JCPenney continues to expand and enhance its executive suite as part of the retailer’s transformation strategy, according to the company. Plaines will lead all financial activities across the enterprise including financial strategy, real estate, capital deployment, credit services, sourcing and procurement, treasury, and accounting. She most recently served as CFO at Jones Lang LaSalle, a global commercial real estate services company. She brings experience as a senior executive at companies including Starbucks, Walmart and Ahold Delhaize.

Karen Alexander was appointed CFO at Bakkt Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: BKKT) a digital asset platform. Alexander assumed the role of interim CFO on May 23, and previously served as chief accounting officer (CAO) of Bakkt. Alexander began serving as CAO in connection with the closing of its business combination with VPC Impact Acquisition Holdings in October 2021, after serving in the same position with Bakkt Holdings, LLC (the company’s predecessor) since June 2021. Prior to joining the company, she worked at GE Capital in finance and accounting roles of increasing responsibility.

Victoria Dolan is retiring as CFO at Revlon, Inc. (NYSE: REV). Dolan will remain with Revlon until September 30 to facilitate a transition of her responsibilities. Matt Kvarda, managing director at Alvarez & Marsal, will join as interim CFO, effective Oct. 1. In his nearly 30 years of experience, Kvarda has served in interim leadership roles at numerous companies including as interim CFO at TEAM, Inc. and interim CFO at Jacuzzi Brands. He was a senior director at KPMG LLP and also previously held leadership positions at Arthur Andersen & Co. and Bank of America.

Scott Roe, CFO, will take on the additional responsibility as chief operating officer (COO) at Tapestry, Inc. (NYSE: TPR), a New York-based house of modern luxury accessories and lifestyle brands, effective immediately. The current COO Tom Glaser has decided to retire. He will remain with the company until October 1. Roe has been CFO since June 2021. He will continue to lead the finance organization while expanding his scope to include oversight of operations across Tapestry’s multi-brand platform.

Michael S. Smith, vice chairman and CFO at Voya Financial, Inc. (NYSE: VOYA), a health, wealth and investment company, announced that Smith has decided to depart the company to pursue expanded leadership roles outside of Voya. Smith will continue to serve as Voya’s CFO through Nov. 15. overseeing the close and reporting of the company’s third quarter, which ends Sept. 30 The company will conduct an internal and external search to identify Smith’s successor.

Jim Hope is retiring from his position of EVP and CFO at Performance Food Group Company (PFG) (NYSE: PFGC) during the final quarter of 2022. Hope has had a more than 30-year career in the industry. As CFO, he has led PFG’s corporate finance department, overseeing accounting, tax, treasury, internal audit, investor relations and financial planning. Prior to PFG, Hope held executive leadership roles with Sysco Corporation for 26 years, serving as EVP of business transformation, SVP of sales and operating company president.

Mike Madden was named CFO at Kirkland’s, Inc. (Nasdaq: KIRK), a specialty retailer of home décor and furnishings, effective Sept. 1. Madden brings to Kirkland’s Home over 15 years of executive level experience in both the retail and real estate industries. Most recently, he served as CFO at Priam Properties, a private real estate investment firm. Before that, Madden spent over 18 years serving Kirkland’s Home in various senior leadership and executive roles. Prior to his first stint at Kirkland’s Home, he was the assistant controller at Trammell Crow Company, which is an independently operated subsidiary of CBRE.


“If you look at everything that’s happening with the supply chain, everything that’s happening with inclusion, it is reinforcing these notions that grocers do need a technology partner to execute on that digital transformation so that technology can make the supply chain more reliable so that technology can make grocery delivery more accessible because mostly delivery shouldn’t be a luxury—it should be accessible to all.”

Fidji Simo, CEO of Instacart, discussed battling food insecurity among other topics with co-host Ellen McGirt on this week’s episode of Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast. 

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