Why you should view your career path as a jigsaw puzzle

Move from the edges to the center, says FLEETCOR CFO Tom Panther.
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· 4 min read

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Tom Panther is CFO of FLEETCOR, a business payments software provider headquartered in Atlanta. A Fortune 1000 company, FLEETCOR employs more than 9,900 people and brought in $3.4 billion in revenue last year. Panther spoke with CFO Brew about career paths and the qualities needed to be a successful CFO.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s one piece of advice you give people you mentor?

Think about a career as a jigsaw puzzle. You start with the easy part. You fill out the edges. That’s kind of the early days of your career; you’re outlining your career. Then what do you do? Well, you look at the box and you say, “What are the pieces and parts that are a little bit easier based on the shading and the shapes?” And you start to fill in. And then over time, that picture becomes clearer.

Learning along the way helps that jigsaw puzzle become clearer. If something’s just a rote exercise and I didn’t really learn anything from it, then it was a wasted opportunity.

What would you tell someone who aspires to the CFO role?

At the end of the day, it’s not just identifying problems. It’s bringing solutions. And to be effective in bringing those solutions, you need both deep and broad knowledge as you move up the organization. It’s important to have an understanding across three domains: the technical side, the managerial side, and then the more conceptual, strategic, forward-looking side. They’re stairsteps that I think of as kind of a career continuum.

What’s an important soft skill to cultivate?

In a lot of ways, the CFO is a key spokesperson for the company. And with that comes the need to be able to tailor your message so that it resonates and is effective with the various audiences that you have. Some of those audiences are internal. And they can be large and broad or they can be very narrow and targeted. They can be business, they can be technical, or they can be external: analysts and investors or media. And so you’ve got to regulate and adjust your communication to be effective.

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How have you seen the CFO role change over the past few years?

One area that’s grown in importance is how integral IT is to all companies. I’m not a CIO by any stretch, but you’ve got to be able to at least understand how a CIO thinks, what their responsibilities are, how they’re organized, how they manage infrastructure versus app [developement] versus security, [telecommunications], all of those types of things. If you can’t be generally knowledgeable about the company’s technology, I think you’re shorting yourself in terms of the impact you can make as the CFO.

What’s something we wouldn't guess about you from your LinkedIn profile?

Six or seven years ago, I built a restaurant on a lake outside of Atlanta. It’s a spot that is very sentimental to my family because it’s where we spent lots of weekends while raising our three kids. I approached an operator who had a local barbecue restaurant and said, “Listen, if I build it, will you come?” And he and I had a similar vision of what it could offer the community.

I’m still associated with the restaurant indirectly, but I've since sold it. But it's great. You pull up on your boat and you see all the people playing cornhole and listening to live music and you’re able to turn to your adult children and say, “Look what we were able to do. Before, this was just a patch of dirt.”

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.