This is the second installment in a series of blog posts based on Vena’s ongoing “Women in Finance” video series. Each post corresponds with a different interview with a woman in finance leadership.
Watch Episode 2 below.
Melissa Howatson didn’t always know she wanted to be a CFO.
While today Melissa is Vena’s Chief Financial Officer, there was a time when she thought she might take a completely different path.
In recognition of Women’s History Month, Melissa spoke to Wendy Braithwaite, Chief Financial Planning & Orchestration Officer at Microsoft Canada, for Vena’s second Women in Finance video, “Harnessing Your Finance Leadership Potential.” There, she explained how she shifted into finance very early on. “I actually did a co-op in teaching when I was in high school,” she says. “And then I did one in accounting and I was really torn. I didn’t know which way to go. I’m very happy the journey’s taken me down this path.”
After high school and university were over, Melissa’s path took her from senior accountant at KPMG on through increasingly bigger leadership roles. But her journey is just one journey. Every financial leader follows a different path to get them where they are. And if your dream is to be a CFO one day too, so will you—following the opportunities that come your way and chasing your own unique leadership goals.
Still, there are some key pieces of advice every young financial professional with leadership dreams can follow to keep on track for future CFO success.
- The path to CFO starts with a relevant education and certifications that will assist you on your journey—which might simply mean a bachelor’s in finance, but could also include additional education such as a master’s degree and/or CPA credentials.
- To put yourself on the leadership track, you need to ask for opportunities that will get you noticed—whether that means asking for a chance to lead projects, for feedback along the way or for additional opportunities to set yourself apart.
- Don’t wait to develop the skills you need for a CFO position. Take a look at what your favorite finance leaders bring to the table and start developing those skills early on—including both technical and soft skills. And find mentors that will point you in the right direction.
The Path to CFO and Five Tips To Get You There
You have to start somewhere. And if becoming a CFO is your ultimate goal, that means putting together the right list of credentials to get you there. That starts with an appropriate education and any additional certifications you think will help. A bachelor’s degree related to finance or business might be enough, but you could also pursue a master’s degree and/or CPA qualifications as well.
After that, it’s all about gaining the requisite experience you need and working your way up the leadership track. Ultimately, it’s a combination of education, experience and best practices that will set you apart.
Along the way, there are a few tips you can follow to stay on track with your leadership goals. In her interview, Melissa offered these five:
1. Ask for Feedback
Asking for feedback serves multiple purposes. Not only does it help you learn from your colleagues, mentors and leadership team—giving you a better frame of reference to fix any mistakes or to make improvements you might not have noticed yourself—but it shows you have a willingness to learn as well. And that’s an important trait to have if you’re hoping to tackle a CFO position one day.
But asking for feedback “can be scary sometimes,” Melissa says.
So how do you find the courage to ask for the feedback you know will make you better—while also staying open to possible criticism too? One way is to be specific. Asking specific questions in specific situations can help guide the feedback and keep any criticisms situational rather than soul-crushing. “It's lower stakes feedback,” Melissa says. “[Such as] ‘What could I have done better?’ or ‘Tell me where I went wrong?’”
By asking those types of questions regularly of the people you admire, you can start applying that feedback to your job and ongoing projects—and put yourself in a stronger position for promotions and future career growth.
2. Lead From the Side
Even if you aren’t yet in a leadership position, you can still gain leadership experience. Just try “leading from the side,” Melissa says.
“It can be ‘There's a project and can I be on this and take on a bit more of a leadership role?’” she explains. “It doesn't always have to be formal leadership.”
Those experiences can set you apart and show your managers that you have what it takes to expand your role and take on new responsibilities. They can also help you hone your leadership style and build soft skills such as communication, listening and empathy. Plus, you can start to figure out where you excel and what you still need to work on (in fact, it may be a good time to ask for feedback!).
That’s the kind of work that gets noticed—putting you on the leadership track.
3. Seek Out New Opportunities
The common thread between the last two suggestions? They both started with asking. Because you can’t always wait for opportunities to come to you. Sometimes you have to ask for them.
“If you asked me earlier [in my career] about things I would do differently, that's something that I would've done differently,” Melissa says. “I think I waited for leadership to happen to me. In hindsight, I would have been more proactive. So I think that if somebody aspires to be a leader or thinks maybe they will but doesn't know, ask for those opportunities to have those experiences.”
Asking can come in different forms: applying for promotions and new jobs you think will help you get ahead, for example, or asking your leadership team for the chance to get involved in new projects that will expand your skill set. Whatever the case, the idea is to round out your abilities and make yourself a better leader overall.
Which brings us to our next two suggestions.
4. Build the Skills That Matter
The best leaders have a range of skills they can draw on—including both the technical skills required in their industry as well as non-technical, soft skills such as decision making, communication and collaboration.
While the skills that matter will vary depending on the path you choose to follow, identifying those skills early will help you develop and build on them throughout your career. To figure out what skills you need, look at the leaders around you and where they excel, and examine the skills that make your colleagues or managers stand out.
By adding more tools to your own toolbox, you’ll make yourself the obvious choice when the next leadership role opens up.
5. Get Help Along the Way
We talked about the importance of mentors in our last Women in Finance blog post, and Melissa reiterates the need for them as you build a career that will take you into leadership circles.
“Mentorship has been so key to helping me get where I am and having those places where you can go and bounce ideas off or get feedback from others,” she says. “And so I'd encourage anybody who's looking to move into leadership to look for some strong mentors.”
To find the right mentor, go in with a specific goal in mind. For example, are you looking for industry-related help, seeking out gender-based advice or trying to find assistance getting over specific obstacles in your way? Knowing what you want and where you need assistance will help you choose the best mentorship fit from your professional network.
And if you’re a woman, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to find another woman to take on that role. “I've had some amazing male mentorship as well,” Melissa says.
If you're a finance professional with ambitions to make it to the highest ranks of financial leadership, it’s never too early to start your journey. By putting the right skills, learning and best practices into place—and working on your leadership abilities—you can get yourself onto the leadership track.
From there, it’s just about having the confidence to know you can make your goals come true.
Want to learn more? Watch Vena’s newest Women in Finance video, "Harnessing Your Finance Leadership Potential" with Vena CFO Melissa Howatson. The next interview, with Vena’s Vice President of Finance, Muneerah Kanji, is scheduled to be released March 22, 2023.