Follow the Leaders

Many CFOs owe part of their success to mentors, and want to repay the favor.

When Russell Lavoie walked into the accounting office of Epsco Inc. as an MBA student in 1984, the 24-year-old had no idea that another recent hire, CFO Chuck Dockendorff, was about to give him a real education.

“He took me aside one day and said, ‘It’s great that you’re getting your MBA, but here’s what I think you should do,’” recalls Lavoie, now CFO of Computer Corporation of America. “He sent me back to school for my MS in accounting and then shipped me off to California to be controller of one of Epsco’s divisions.” Lavoie credits Dockendorff, who is now CFO of Tyco Healthcare Group, for his unique vision and influence, and his ability to see Lavoie’s promise. “It was a pretty big thing for him to do, to have faith in me to run a division. He saw potential and even encouraged me to leave Epsco in order to gain experience at other companies,” Lavoie adds. “He helped me get where I am today.”

Now 46, Lavoie says he wants to “pay it forward” and act as a mentor himself. “Having a mentor is an incredibly critical thing for a career,” he says. “I want to take the best nuggets [of information] and try to pass them on.”

Lavoie is not alone. Many C-level executives, having benefited from a range of invaluable career guidance from more-experienced bosses, want to repay the favor by influencing up-and-comers. Theresa Moulton, CEO of executive-advisory firm Performance Change Initiatives Inc., says the impulse is natural. “It’s part of the giveback of being successful” and can come about in several different ways, she explains. Some CFOs, in the course of team-building or assessing candidates for internal promotions, may encounter a couple of individuals who are clearly looking for guidance on how to climb the ladder. Other times it’s more a matter of personal chemistry, when a senior executive happens to hit it off with someone she’s in a position to help. Still others pursue a more-formal route and seek out networks or opportunities to be involved with people just starting out. Some firms have formal mentoring programs that make involvement simple and maybe even mandatory.

In the Groove

Peter Knobloch, former CFO of Sabia Inc., a San Diego–based materials analysis and industrial controls company, is something of a master mentor. As a member of the International Mentoring Network Organization, he confers with various business professionals about their careers, finance issues, and general business issues. Knobloch has mentored 20 to 30 people over the course of 20 years. Currently, he’s taken three mentees under his wing and teaches accounting and economics two nights a week at the California School of International Management.

“In my opinion, at the C-level you’re both a leader and a teacher,” Knobloch says. “Part of the job is to edify, strengthen, and empower the people around you. When I’m helping [students and mentees] I’m reaffirming what I know as a CFO.”

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