Secrets of Their Success

How the top women in finance staked their claims to the C-suite.

Things were going very well for Christa Davies. She’d been recently promoted to a plum divisional-CFO post at Microsoft, charged with everything from integrating the company’s largest-ever acquisition to helping it battle Google in the fast-growing search and online advertising markets. And she had just given birth to a baby girl. Now was not the time to make a major life change.

And then the phone rang — while she was on maternity leave, no less. Would she be interested in moving to Chicago, to become corporate CFO of $10 billion Aon Corp.?

For the 36-year-old Davies, the offer presented a chance to take a deep dive into risk management and human capital — “two incredibly fast-growing businesses” at Aon, which owns both an insurance-brokerage practice and a human-resources consulting firm. She said yes, and joined Aon this past November, plunging into a major operational restructuring and launching a stock buyback to help shore up the company’s stock price. “It wasn’t that I thought it was the right time for a change; this seemed like a unique opportunity,” she says.

Davies’s story flies in the face of the notion that companies sideline women for fear they will suddenly trade corporate life for domestic bliss. Over the past year, she and 9 other women moved into the top finance spots at America’s largest companies. In all but one case they replaced men, tackling such tough assignments as keeping Lehman Brothers afloat amid the subprime crisis and spearheading a major acquisition at ITT. (Not that the CFO suite has become more welcoming to women: 10 also departed, most replaced by men, keeping the composition of Fortune 500 female CFOs constant at 38, or 7.6 percent. See “No Net Gain” at the end of this article.)

In many respects the women who ascended to large-company CFO posts got there the same way that men do: half were promoted internally and half were outside hires, a split that was constant across the entire Fortune 1,000 in 2007, according to executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. Some were CFOs of smaller companies, while others were divisional CFOs or CEOs, posts that often serve as launching pads for men who become large-company CFOs. And the women who joined the elite ranks of global CFOs almost always combine deep business experience with impeccable finance skills. Aon chose Davies out of “hundreds and hundreds of candidates,” says CEO Gregory Case, in large part because of her experience with complex global operations, and because she looked to be “a great business athlete, someone who not only could perform as CFO, but who also could be a key member of the team.”

Behind those similar backgrounds and qualifications, however, loom some key differences. For one, the odds are against women — literally. Slates of CFO candidates, for example, typically include a female choice, but are still predominantly male. Getting to that level requires difficult choices that often work against cultural norms. There could be “many, many more” female CFOs at big companies, says Charles Eldridge, partner and managing director of the financial-officers practice of Korn Ferry International, if not for the fact that a woman’s career opportunities are often very difficult to reconcile with a spouse’s job demands and children’s needs. And then there are certain intangible factors, including hazily defined qualities like leadership ability and “executive presence,” which have historically been associated with men.

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