At the end of the day, a CFO is only as good as the people around him. Those are the words of wisdom Dennis Powell, the retiring CFO of Cisco Systems Inc., has to offer — not just to his successor, Frank Calderoni, but to finance chiefs everywhere.
The best finance teams should “think strategically, work cross-functionally, and actually embrace change,” says Powell, who spent 11 years at the San Jose, California-based computer networking giant, 5 of them as CFO. To lead successfully, he adds, “CFOs need to really evaluate what role finance is playing and remember that at the highest level it’s far beyond having a strong system of accounting.”
In addition to stumping for his team internally, Powell made his mark advocating for Cisco externally. He was a critic of the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s proposal to expense stock options and took a strong stance against pooling-of-interests accounting before Congress. But ask him about his proudest accomplishment and Powell points to Cisco’s “virtual close” system, which allows companies to close their books in one day. “It’s something that companies [still] aspire to today.”
Powell, who is retiring at 60, says keeping pace with industry changes and maintaining his core values fueled his career. “A corporation has to build a culture of integrity through the organization, and finance has a much broader role than the rest in [building that] integrity,” he says.
As for his next phase, Powell plans to keep busy with his three board memberships — at Applied Materials, VMware, and Intuit. In addition, he hopes to see the world beyond the airports and hotels that are the bane of many global finance chiefs. It’s time to “slow down and have some fun,” he says.