Fresh Start

A break from CFO duties can be rejuvenating, but don't stay away too long.

They are the once-and-future CFOs, finance executives who may have thought they’d left the position behind but find themselves back in the saddle — and loving it. Some gave up their CFO posts to assume senior (nonfinance) jobs, others to run their own businesses, and others to take time off, only to jump at the chance to tackle new professional challenges. Mike Lehman happily abandoned an early retirement from Sun Microsystems to help the company out of its current difficulties (see “On the Record“), saying that his time away left him refreshed and reinvigorated. Others who have departed and then returned to the CFO world agree.

“It made me a better finance executive,” says Dan Hedeen, who left a 15-year finance career to become a Minuteman Press franchisee in 2002. Hedeen’s 2-year foray into owning his own business proved to be much shorter than expected, but he says it offered valuable lessons. For one thing, the experience made Hedeen — now CFO of Harry’s Fresh Foods, a Portland, Oregon-based prepared-foods maker — intimately aware of the value of sales and marketing. “I was out there building relationships and seeing how getting paid is based on winning and losing,” he says. “I was also very involved in all facets of operations. I’d seen these functions from the finance post, but in doing them all myself I came to understand how the CEO lives every day.”

The journey also offered Hedeen, 43, fresh insight into his own personality. “I had always wanted to try [to run my own business],” he says, “and in fact I did build it from nothing to something, but I nearly wrecked my family in the process. I learned that while I get jazzed about having fiduciary responsibility on behalf of shareholders,” he says, “having my own money at stake was too big a leap.”

Such byproducts of a finance break are invaluable, say those who have taken them. But there’s a fine line between taking a sabbatical and severing ties. Executive recruiters warn that too much time out of the workforce can hurt your options if you want to get back into finance. “About 15 percent of recent CFO hires came into their positions having taken some time off,” says Craig Smith, managing partner at global executive search firm Christian & Timbers. “But very few have taken more than six to nine months off.” The trick is to make sure you’re gone long enough to be reinvigorated, but not so long that you become obsolete.

Listening, Learning & Loyalty

Some CFOs get a break as a matter of course because their companies build in time away from finance as part of the executive experience. During his eight-year tenure at Delta Air Lines, Jeffrey T. “J.T.” Fisher made a foray into a nonfinance role, serving as president and general manager of the company’s Delta Connection unit before signing on in January as CFO of St. Louis–based Charter Communication. “It’s great to sit on the other side of the table,” he says, “and be asked by finance about metrics, performance measures, and the financial implications of various moves. When you come back to finance, you’re refreshed and can apply new perspectives.”

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