Microsoft’s Chris Liddell

CFO Chris Liddell talks about Microsoft's future in the face of uncertainty, and how his unusual education and professional background have been assets that help him understand how the software giant works.

What kinds of ideas did people offer?

They ranged from the mainstream to the radical. For example, one offered a very systematic way of rotating people through a series of posts at headquarters over six to nine months and then sending them back to their home offices, and that was a great way to improve people’s skills without disrupting their lives, so we’re doing that. At the other end, one paper proposed that we finance a bridge across Lake Washington as a way to ease traffic congestion, using our balance sheet as a way to finance a public/private toll bridge. We’re not likely to do that, but it was an example of being more creative from a finance perspective.

Somehow that idea seems like it would appeal to you, given your academic background. Can you think of another CFO who has an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in philosophy?

I have to be honest, I can’t! But it’s been very useful for me, a combination of the mainstream analytical skills you need as an engineer and the more creative problem-solving that philosophy encourages. It has been incredibly useful to me, certainly at a company like Microsoft, which is innovative and diverse and where very few things happen in a linear fashion.

You served as CFO of International Paper and before that as CEO of a New Zealand forest-products company. Having been a CEO, was it difficult to take on CFO roles?

No, I think of it the other way around. Many of the skills I acquired as a CEO make me a better CFO. I’ve always thought of CFOs as falling into three camps: finance people who guard the books, operational CFOs who drive efficiency, and strategic CFOs who help shape the agenda of the company. I have an interest in all three approaches, but I really see my role as the third.

But the transition to Microsoft must have been difficult. Was it?

Some elements of the job are actually similar: Microsoft and International Paper employ about the same number of people, operate in about the same number of countries around the world, and face many of the same compliance issues. That said, I love a challenge, and I knew that a change of industry would require me to read a lot on evenings and weekends, talk to lots of internal and external people, including two of our board members who are CFOs, and get a grip on everything from specific accounting issues like revenue recognition to broader strategic concerns.

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