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Women in Finance: 'Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable'

May 2024

Spencer Stuart’s Financial Officer Practice created its Women in Finance network to help build and cultivate a community for women in finance leadership roles, with a mission to elevate female representation in executive roles and on boards.

Our most recent event showcased exceptional advice and the impressive professional trajectory of four panelists who have all led public and private-equity backed companies as CFOs, but also broadened their corporate impact through roles as COO and president, P&L leadership, and experience as board directors for public and private companies:

  • Anne Bramman, chief financial and growth officer at Circana; board director for McCormick & Company
  • Céline Dufétel, president and COO at
  • Leah Stearns, CFO at Copart; audit committee chair at EdgeConneX
  • Amanda Whalen, CFO at Klaviyo

In this article, we look at some of the key takeaways and highlights from our hourlong discussion and what they mean for women in the finance function.

I'm happiest when I'm in a role where I am learning something new every day.”

Our panelists talked about the early-career experiences that shaped their careers by taking them out of their comfort zones — an elevated position in an area they had never worked in, or a role where they had to get comfortable asking lots of questions. The gains they made were in acquiring not just technical skills, but also the leadership traits that would guide them in the years to come as they grow in their positions.

All of our respondents said they embraced the opportunity to learn. One compared her perspective to watching her children grow. “It’s like watching a child learn how to walk, fall, get up, fall, get up. They’re constantly discovering as they get a little older. Why? Why are things the way they are? If you stumble, you pick yourself up and you go.”

The first thing you have to figure out is what really makes this business tick.”

Related to the importance of having a learning mindset, our panelists shared stories about how they had dived deep into the workings of their companies: what customers want and expect, how products work, and where future growth is coming from. CFOs today are offering strategic business advice, enabled by a strong analytical orientation and data. Our panelists view their role as something of a key adviser creating an enabling culture, connecting themselves and their finance teams to the business, and impacting where a business is heading.

One executive shared a story of spending her first weeks as a CFO talking with salespeople, product leaders and other CFOs in her industry to better understand the inner workings of the business. The key questions: What does leadership expect of you as CFO? How is success defined? How do your employees perceive the business and how it can differentiate itself?

Every panelist had a story about a mentor — or many — who had played pivotal role in their development, whether career advice, help navigating a complex environment, or just simple encouragement at a difficult time. And each had a story about a milestone moment like a promotion or, in one case, ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange when they reached out to a mentor to thank them for the help they had offered along the way.

Something that’s really important for me when I’m experiencing doubts is to have someone — a mentor, a friend, a family member, someone who you can talk to — and have that person help put you back on track.”

With that in mind, each gave examples of how that support continues to encourage them to pay it forward in mentoring others in their network today. One shared the story of a past leader who constantly wrote notes of encouragement to his team, not in addition to the job but because it was part of his role as leader. Another added, “I'm constantly thinking about the skill sets on my team and how we could leverage them in different ways.”

At the close of our discussion, we asked our panelists to share one thing they wish they knew earlier in their careers. The answers focused on giving yourself grace: not dwelling on actual or perceived mistakes, but taking ownership and quickly learning and growing from your experiences.

I think women can be really tough on ourselves. I sometimes find myself in the pattern of dwelling on my mistakes. So I try to give myself the grace to acknowledge, learn, and move on.”

There was also agreement that taking risks and stretching yourself can be uncomfortable, but are critical for becoming a better leader. “Go learn a different industry, go learn a different function, go spend a year in sales if you're in finance,” one panelist said. “The value of that in that immediate moment may not seem perhaps as valuable as the next job in finance in a more linear way, but it's going to pay off exponentially down the line.”

Lastly, the panelists discussed the power of affirmation: “You belong in every room you sit.”