Are You the CFO Type?

For finance executives, a personality assessment can be very revealing about your preferences -- and about your opportunities for growth.

“I want to be a CFO, just like you.” Several years ago, when Kevin Evans was the finance chief of software maker Placeware, his controller approached him with that aspiration.

“You may not be just like me,” Evans recalls telling her. “Are you really willing to get out and promote the company?” Adds Evans — now CFO of the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute, after Placeware was sold to Microsoft in 2003 — “I think it’s particularly important that The Street get comfortable with a company’s CFO.”

Gut feelings alone didn’t guide Evans’ opinion. Over a period of several years, the finance chief, his controller, and several of his other direct reports had each taken a Myers-Briggs assessment, the oldest and still the most widely used personality assessment tool. Evans is ENTJ — an extroverted, intuitive, big-picture thinker (for a key to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, see “MBTI, by the Letters” at the end of this article). It also happens that Evans is the only extrovert on his finance team.

As for the controller, “being public was unnatural for her,” says Evans. She was willing to sharpen her public-speaking skills, so Evans created opportunities, such as giving presentations in front of the company. The controller did fine when she was talking numbers, “but when it came to talking from the gut, she wasn’t comfortable,” says Evans. “I don’t know if she ever will be.”

Building Self-Awareness

That doesn’t mean she’ll never be a CFO; many finance chiefs are on the shy, retiring side. Farr Associates, an executive-coaching firm based in High Point, North Carolina, has used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to assess 17 chief financial officers across a variety of industries. In the Farr sample, 7 of the 17 CFOs were detail-oriented, precise with numbers, more comfortable with results that are quantified, highly organized — and introverted. Another 4 fit that same description, except that they’re extroverted.

Unlike operations or marketing, says Pam Fox Rollin, founder of San Francisco coaching firm IdeaShape, finance departments tend to focus less on developing management skills in the lower ranks. That’s been true, she adds, despite the huge leap in ability needed to advance successfully from heading a small finance team to leading a department or group. Often, maintains Rollin, “someone’s supposed to magically know [how to lead] when they get to the controller or CFO level.”

To be clear: Decisions on hiring or promotion should never be based on the results of a personality inventory, say licensed MBTI administrators. In fact, such use is considered unethical by the Myers & Briggs Foundation. MBTI manages fundamental preferences, not how an individual manages those preferences, says Rollin, and “preference does not equal skill.” Nor does it test mental health, adds Jennifer Selby, of San Francisco-based Selby Group; “there are no right or wrong answers.”

Myers-Briggs assessments can, however, be a catalyst for self-awareness — helping to build individual leadership and management as well as entire finance teams. “It’s useful for helping each of us see our preferences more clearly so we can make choices about our behavior,” explains Rollin. For example, Evans’s former controller, who had a preference for introversion, could consciously practice communicating with her colleagues and speaking in public.

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