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Vena Nation Week: In Conversation with Jack McCullough

April 29, 2020 |

A featured keynote speaker at virtual learning and conference experience Vena Nation week, Jack McCullough has built a career around empowering CFOs, helping them to evolve from senior accountants to see success as strategic partners to the business and architects of agile planning for today and tomorrow.

In advance of Vena Nation week, we sat down with Jack to find out how he came to be the voice of “rockstar” CFOs and founder of the CFO Leadership Council. Here’s what he had to share:

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career journey so far. How did you go from serial startup CFO and advisor to founding the CFO Leadership Council?  

I became a CFO at a pretty young age and I wanted to develop a peer network to learn from more experienced finance leaders. I founded the MIT Sloan CFO Summit to do just that. And the success of that conference inspired me to start the CFO Leadership Council.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in your career specifically for today’s finance leaders?

First, I’d say always behave ethically. The only asset a CFO has is his or her reputation, which is a function of their own personal integrity. 

I’d also say you should learn as much about your business as you can. There are a million great accountants—far fewer who blend financial expertise with strategic leadership. 

You must have seen a lot in your time as a CFO for 26 different companies. Having worked at a lot of venture-backed startups, what are some of the challenges that finance leaders in high-growth environments can expect?  

I was always raising money, to the point that it almost became my full-time job. That’s an exaggeration (in the big picture), but it seemed very true sometimes. In these cases, if you have a great second-in-command, that enables you to take on a lot of external work as a fundraising CFO. 

One piece of advice I’d share on this note: Hire somebody with the potential to do your job. Then train them to do it well. 

What does agile planning look like at an organization and what role does finance play in that process? How can finance effectively align with the rest of the business?  

I probably over-simplify at times, but to me it’s about making great decisions at a rapid pace. In terms of aligning with the rest of the business, this is critical now more than ever. 

With the exception of the president, the CFO is the most cross-functional job in the company. Working with sales, marketing, product development and other groups is something elite CFOs do as a matter of course.

Why did you start the CFO Leadership Council?  

Really, for personal reasons. At the time, I was with a rapidly growing startup and as exciting as it was, it was overwhelming. I wanted to learn how to do my job right from other great CFOs. That, plus seeing the community develop at the MIT Sloan CFO Summit, inspired me to start the group. 

I quickly realized there was a real need for a CFO-centric community. But to be honest, I had no vision beyond it being an informal peer network at the time. How it became a global community of diverse financial leaders continues to shock me.

Why is a sense of community between finance leaders so important? What about in uncertain times like these?  

We have a tool called CFO Connect, which is a members-only community where CFOs can ask each other questions in a secure environment. It’s probably the most popular member benefit of the Council. 

The CFO role has evolved so dramatically in the last 20 years, and there really is nobody who can advise you on how to adapt to those changes except a peer. Especially over the last couple months of uncertainty, we’ve seen our members really having each other’s backs. The world is changing right in front of us and the CFO is the one leading her company through those changes. That is really difficult to do on your own.

Without giving away too much from your new book, Secrets of Rockstar CFOs, what are some of the traits that “rockstar” finance leaders exemplify?  

I’d say the most important is to provide ethical leadership and the one folks find most surprising is to find a work-life balance. 

What is the most important thing for finance leaders to keep in mind as they help their companies to navigate the road ahead? What should they be prioritizing?  

This is the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression and there are many unknowns ahead of us. But history tells us the companies that adapt quickly and create new business models will not only survive, but excel through trying times. Think about what your company needs to look like post COVID-19 and start to build towards that vision. 

You’ve got this.

What do you think finance leaders will learn from this period of uncertainty to apply to tomorrow?  

Lots of lessons. Take care of your team. Trust them to do your jobs. Be bold. Be aggressive. And react quickly.

This is Darwinism at its purest: Only the strongest will survive.

How do you see the role of the CFO continuing to evolve?  

It will continue to be more strategic and will require an ever-widening range of skill sets focused on strategy, leadership, operations and communications. Driving this point home is the fact that, in the last year alone, we’ve seen CFOs become CEOs in highly visible companies.

Tara Comote was promoted to President and CFO at Shake Shack. Corrie Barry was promoted to CEO at Best Buy, which is a Fortune 100 company. Sarah Friar left Square to become CEO of NextDoor, which is perhaps the hottest startup in the world. 

This is the challenge of a lifetime to be sure, but they’re all flourishing in their roles. 

You heard it here first: 2021 will be the first year that first-time CEOs are more likely to come from finance than from any other function. 

Hear more from Jack in his Vena Nation week keynote presentation – Secrets of Rockstar CFOs – Register for free today. 

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