Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
January 12, 2023

Women in finance: Seizing the opportunity

Spencer Stuart’s Financial Officer Practice has been delighted to continue its programmatic convening series with the amazing community of women finance function leaders. In our work helping organizations develop and find great leaders, we’ve seen the impact the right leaders can have on their organizations. Even as the gender diversity gap in the CFO role remains wide, with women making up only 15 percent of Fortune 500 CFOs, progress has been made and we are continuing to see more women advance into the CFO role and beyond across the C-suite, in the boardroom and in operating roles.

For our most recent meeting of this accomplished group of women finance leaders, we were particularly excited to bring two amazing and impressive panelists to share their insights on finance leadership in today’s C-suite: Rachel Ruggeri, CFO of Starbucks, and Carrie Wheeler, the CEO and past CFO of the real estate technology company Opendoor, who previously was head of retail and consumer investing at TPG Capital.

Below we share some of the key takeaways from our conversation.

Take advantage of your opportunities… with some caveats

Both panelists shared how they said “yes” to opportunities that had arisen during their careers, and they discussed the principles that guided them. Rather than following a precise plan, both Ruggeri and Wheeler emphasized that they leaned into opportunities to step up for their organizations when needed.

“I was very focused on ensuring that I did a really good job in every role that I had,” Ruggeri said. “My career has been about my effort and my attitude, and I always think about what impact I have made along the way, not only in the deliverables but also the people that I've helped develop along the way, and the community that I've supported.”

Both panelists said they focused on intentional inputs, including effort, doing the work, creating impact, building relationships with their leaders and teams, and letting that guide them to the next opportunity.

Wheeler said this approach — much of it developed during her two decades in the private equity industry — had been helpful as she served as Opendoor’s CFO for two years before being promoted to CEO in December 2022.

“Usually the best decisions hinge on two or three things that really matter, and you really focus on those things,” Wheeler said. “Those skills are very transferrable to the CFO. You’re taking in a lot of information, distilling it down to the few things that matter, communicating that in a way that everyone understands, and making decisions.”

Find your advocates

The panelists emphasized the impact that many other people had in advancing their career journeys. For both, it was hardly a single mentor, but rather many people who offered advice and advocacy over the years. Constant learning and listening are also important, and using everyday feedback can accelerate personal growth.

“You have to be willing to forge your own path,” Wheeler said. “There were very few, if any, women when I was at TPG, so there was no one who was going to do it the way I was going to do it. At the same time, you don't get there alone. Those people who are in your corner and willing to give you straight talk are really important.”

Ruggeri noted that her own advocacy as a leader at the company is a key element of leadership.

“If you are impacting those around you, if you're developing those that you are leading, if you're providing inspiration, that’s also a way to advocate for yourself,” Ruggeri said. “I see a lot of people who get very focused on leading up, but they're not leading across and around. They’re not really driving the health or effectiveness of the organization.”

Take care of yourself

Resiliency as a leader starts with taking care of yourself. The conversation touched on the metaphor of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first when on an airplane before putting it on your children. Even in uncertain environments like this one, it’s critical that you take care of yourself and take steps to find joy in work.

“I think wellbeing is really important,” Ruggeri said. “We practice it, and we as leaders try to role model it. We look for ways in our organization to give our people that focus on wellbeing—doing things that maybe aren't our usual practices to make it clear that everyone needs to take care of themselves first.”

As leaders, their focus is increasingly on communicating and inspiring, and on keeping their organizations and teams in tune with the purpose behind their work. Wheeler said that she focused on “honesty, communication and levity” as a leader.

“Celebrate those big moments,” she said. “Have a laugh when you can, and remind yourself of the ‘why.’”