Executive Charisma: Can It Be Learned?

Ask for adjectives describing a finance chief, and ''charismatic'' doesn't normally leap to mind.

Indeed, those who do see charisma as a valuable commodity believe it could help turn today’s finance leader into a chief executive. “What separates the cream from the rest of the crop is the ability to sell a vision, and to get people working for you,” says Natalie Laackman, Chicago-based senior finance officer and vice president of the ConAgra Foods Deli division of ConAgra Foods Inc. She cites the ability to relate personally to staffers as another aspect of charisma—a characteristic she associates with Jack Greenberg, the recently retired McDonald’s Corp. chairman and CEO who once served as the company’s CFO. Laackman worked closely with Greenberg at McDonald’s before arriving at ConAgra in April. “He’ll focus on the person who’s talking to him, not just on the business agenda, and that has really endeared him to people and caused them to be very loyal,” says Laackman. “He treats you like you’re the most important person in the room.”

Any list of charisma-blessed executives in the CFO arena is likely to include names of some who have moved on to lead companies or take positions of responsibility outside finance, like Hilton Hotels CEO Stephen Bollenbach; former Dell Computer CFO Tom Meredith, now an angel investor and philanthropist; Continental Airlines president and COO Larry Kellner; and PepsiCo president and CFO Indra K. Nooyi.

“The CFO will always be the numbers guy or gal,” says Craig Watson, CEO of Opti-Pay Technologies LLC, an electronic-payment management company, and former CFO at Pepsi Central Co., which ran PepsiCo’s Midwest beverage unit. “But I think it’s up to CFOs to break the mold and demonstrate that they are first and foremost effective businesspeople.” Watson, who has worked with Benton to improve his own style, believes her suggestions are especially helpful in promoting interdisciplinary contacts.

“The CFO really needs to cultivate the respect and support of the line managers,” he says. “To do that, you have to have the capability to interact with people.”

While Watson agrees that some executives can become too involved in creating a dynamic persona, he doesn’t think there’s much danger for finance officers. “What helps save a CFO from being hung up on his or her charisma,” he says, “is that at the end of the day, the numbers have to make sense.”

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