by Roy Harris

CFOs Sharing Their Hearts Out

Nov 21, 20113 mins
IT Leadership

Bursts of refreshing and surprising candor let MIT Sloan CFO Summit attendees see the human side of the job.

With a morning keynote by Oracle’s chairman and former longtime finance chief, Jeff Henley, the MIT Sloan CFO Summit last week couldn’t have set a much higher bar for the rest of the one-day conference. The talk was titled “Enabling True Business Transformation: The CFO’s Role.”

But the program absolutely cleared that bar, with no fewer than 15 CFOs on a range of panels taking on topics like the role of finance as change agent, emerging technologies in finance, and innovative risk-reduction approaches. For the most part, they addressed their issues with refreshing candor. For good measure, lunch came with a entre of Nobel laureate Robert Merton, MIT’s own, offering an eye-opening prescription for making corporate retirement plans work in the future. The day ended with General Motors CFO Dan Ammann discussing how what’s good for the restructured GM may again be good for the country — and what it feels like to be the CFO carrying that message.

With so many finance chiefs raising their hands to discuss not only serious company and industry issues, but how they felt about them, we at CFOworld made lots of connections and took lots of notes.

There were many management techniques to discuss. But I found the human side of the CFO’s job — and executives being willing to share it — just about as compelling.

On one panel, there was Cubist Pharmaceuticals’ David McGirr discussing the personal pain — at a prior tech company — of having to lay off a crowd of people when it turned out the firm, a sort of Skype forerunner, was ahead of its time.

On another, there was Time Warner’s John Martin using the peculiar language of its film-making unit to discuss the chaos he sees in today’s world economy. “Europe is like a bad movie,” he said, “that you don’t know how it’s going to end.” Then he smiled with an ironic thought about how the business traditionally bucks recessionary trends, and why: “People go to movies to escape their crappy life.”

So there we have it: an explanation for why box office results are up.

Few personal CFO yarns could compare with Henley’s own, though: his so-called “billion dollar story.” That was the moment, early in Henley’s 13-year CFO career at Oracle, when CEO Larry Ellison dropped the news in a conference call — without having told the CFO first — that Oracle believed it could cut enough costs to save $1 billion in the next year, and drive margins up 10 points. It was Ellison’s “gut feel,” Henley said. But, of course, it was the CFO, as always, who was left to explain it all to the investment community that day.

Next year will be MIT Sloan’s 10th for this conference — a true winner in the world of corporate finance conferences.