Role of the CFO

Overcoming the confidence gap

Women don’t have to “check all the boxes” to excel as CFOs.
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4 min read

This is part of our occasional series on women and the CFO role. You can read more of our series here, here, and here.

In the first half of 2022, more than a third of new CFO hires at major corporations were women. Jack McCullough, president of the CFO Leadership Council, predicts that women CFOs will achieve parity with men within the next ten years.

But women in finance express fewer CFO ambitions than their male peers, according to an Emburse study that found that men in finance careers are nearly three times more likely than women to aspire to CFO roles.

Adriana Carpenter, CFO of Emburse, spoke with CFO Brew about how she overcame self-doubt, and shared some confidence-boosting advice for women facing key career decisions.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What are some reasons women might be reluctant to apply for prominent roles such as CFO?

Women are going to aspire to the roles they think they can really achieve. We tend to want to have the complete checklist of everything the role entails. And when it’s a perceived reach, we tend to not aspire to it. It’s this barrier we put in front of ourselves. So I do think it is important to always be pushing women to go after something.

I mentored two women who both were at the assistant controller level, and were sort of at an impasse in their career. They were ready for the next thing. I said, “You should go to a $100 million, $200 million company and be the controller, be the chief accounting officer over there.” And both women were saying, “But I don’t have X.” One didn’t have direct tax experience; one of them didn’t have direct revenue experience. I was like, “Who cares? Any time an issue comes along, what do you do? You say, ‘I’m going to go research this and figure it out.’ That’s exactly what you’re going to do when you go into this next role.” And sure enough, both women went into these roles, and they are both crushing it.

You faced something similar in your career when you were up for a CFO role.

I didn’t get my first CFO job until I was 50 years old, because I kept saying, “It’s not that I can’t do it. But do I really want to? It seems like, with my kids and all my stuff going on in my life, it might be too hard, too daunting, too fill-in-the-blank.”

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We have to make women realize that what you’re handling today, it’s no different when you move up to the next role. For the first six months, it might be a little insane, because you are learning. With any change, you learn. But then you’re in the same position as you are in your current role. We have to make sure women can see that they can navigate it, and that it absolutely is doable. And there are so many ways to attack it so that you can do both whatever you have going on in your personal life, and you can do it at work. You can be successful at both.

Earlier in your career, you also took family and work into account when making important career decisions. Can you walk us through your decision to leave PwC, after being an auditor there for more than 11 years, to become a controller at TeleTech?

For every major decision point in my career, there was a mentor there that I was actively working with. One of the most impactful decisions I made was to leave PwC. I had to make the decision, “Do I want to stay and become a partner? Or do I want to leave and go into industry?’’

I leaned heavily on my mentor at that time to talk through the reasons I would leave or stay. And he said, “Every job decision you’re making is contrary to everything you’re telling me you want in your personal life.” And I had to step back and think, “Wow, he's totally right.” And so, ultimately, I decided to leave.

A year after I left I was married; a year after that I had my first child; the year after that I had my second. He was right: It was not the right position for me to also balance what I wanted to do personally. It doesn’t mean I was less successful. It’s just that I had to realize there are other paths to success.

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.