At the tail end of a lively morning business panel discussion Wednesday on topics around tactics for surviving an economic downturn, the moderator addressed the veritable elephant in the room.
All three finance chief panelists at the Crain’s Chicago Business CFO Breakfast were women: Deidra Merriwether, CFO of Lake Forest, Ill.-based industrial supplier W.W. Grainger; Katie Rooney, CFO of Lincolnshire, Ill.-based tech consulting company Alight Solutions and Natalie Laackman, CFO of the Elmhurst, Ill-based medical courier business Medspeed.
“I wish this was a non-factor but people do notice that this is a panel of female CFOs…I hope that in the future this will just be a normal thing,” said Professor Luigi Zingales, a finance professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, before asking the speakers about the challenges they’d faced as women in finance.
That this fact is still notable — even as some say the fifth wave of feminism is rolling in — was likely no surprise for the panelists. Merriwether said she’s been told she is one of about four black female CFOs at Fortune 500 companies. Meanwhile, Laackman recalled often being the sole woman in the room over the course of her decades-long career in finance. She cited a time when she worked for the Chicago-based Conagra Brands and was the lone female at a meeting of the consumer packaged goods company’s 100 top executives about two decades ago.
The number of female CFOs is rising but women still hold less than 2 out of every 10 finance chief seats, according to a survey of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies by executive search firm Crist|Kolder Associates. The count of female CFOs nearly doubled over the last 10 years to 108 this year from 63 in 2012, with women comprising 16% of the sitting CFOs.
Speaking to an audience of finance executives at the Chicago Club, the three female CFOs didn’t downplay the chutzpah and courage that they’ve tapped to climb the ladder to get to their positions.
“I’m afraid of nothing and I have to walk in every day with the courage that I can do this and that I’m also the role model for others in the organization,” Laackman said, adding that she’s also benefited from having good mentors and learning from others, whether they were peers, senior leaders or people in other industries.
The key advice she gives others is to stay focused and continue to do the right thing even under pressure. “We all get pressured but I never want to have regrets. That’s my north star,” she said.
Rooney noted that she has come from a background in investment banking and private equity and got a lot of advice early on about how she needed to act differently. She believes that women executives need to chart their own course and not succumb to the push from others to conform.
“I’ve had a lot of people I’ve worked with try to change me,” Rooney said, ticking off the advice she got. “‘You need to be tougher. You need to have a louder voice. You need to interact this way,’” she recalled them telling her.
Ultimately she rejected the notion that she needed to remake herself into something she is not. “Why I’ve been successful is I haven’t listened,” Rooney said. “Because I do think if you’re not true to who you are it’s really hard to have the confidence to feel like you can succeed and to do your best work.”
Sponsors are key
Merriwether, who joined Grainger about nine years ago from Sears, pointed to having a sponsor who supports your development as key. “You do have to have sponsorship. I didn’t get to this job just by my own skill set,” she said.
She credited her CEO with helping her develop her skills by giving her opportunities to take a number of different positions at the company. Still, she almost didn’t take the top finance job at Grainger when it was offered to her.
“It kind of startled me when he came to me and asked me to take this job but when I thought about all the things he had done to develop me across Grainger I had to pause and think about what this opportunity would be like,” she said. Finally, she took it. “So I’ve been on a journey to serve our business well, to serve him well as my sponsor and to serve our customers,” she said.
Merriwether has now been CFO for nearly two years, according to her LinkedIn account. She noted that she took the job without having a CPA degree, something many CFOs have. She advises women and others not to be held back just because they don’t “check all the boxes” that might be associated with a new job they are pursuing.
“You could say I don’t check the CPA box for this but guess what? I’ve got a great controller and she’s doing a wonderful job so I don’t need to know all that,” Merriwether said. “I just need to be smart enough to ask the right questions and have a good relationship with my audit partner so I can make sure that we’re on top of things.”
In addition, Merriwether believes the so-called impostor syndrome, where people don’t feel their success is deserved, is another mindset that can hold many people back. Most people share similar self doubt but women and African Americans may need to work a little harder to overcome that and be confident in their roles, she said.
“I would say being an ‘only one’ you have to have courage,” Merriwether said. “and you have to feel like you belong.”