Aradhana Sarin may not have seen it all on the way to becoming CFO of global pharma powerhouse AstraZeneca, but she’s certainly seen plenty. She’s got as random-walk a resume as anyone in business, from growing up in remote Tanzania to medical school in India to Stanford business school, a two-decade stint on Wall Street, then CFO at biopharma Alexion, which led to her current work.
What’d she learn along the way? A lot, as you’d guess, and she shared lessons from all the chapters of her career at our CFO Leadership Council’s annual meeting in Boston on Wednesday. It’s prepared her well for the current moment in the financial function, a crush of challenges from the uncertain economy and rising capital costs to tight labor markets, reluctant customers and endless, accelerating technological transformations.
What, in her experience really matters? What are the core ideas she leans on again and again based on what she’s experienced? A few things, none of them complex, none of them groundbreaking—but all of them essential. For any CFO looking to navigate the job today, it’s a useful checklist and reminder of what matters most in the job:
‘You have to look at the glass as half full.’
This doesn’t mean being a Pollyanna, a dangerous proposition for any CFO. But it does mean, as she learned in her early days at Alexion, where the strategy was up for grabs, the culture was “a place where people don’t speak up or take risks” and the future was very uncertain, that there was opportunity in the chaos—if she could shift her mindset and see it.
“Two weeks in, I look at the long-range plan, I’m like, oh my God, what did I do?” she told conference attendees. “I go talk to the CEO, and I said, ‘I had a really great career. I’m not sure why I came here.’ And he said, ‘You know, this is your opportunity to actually drive the direction and change the culture and drive it in in the way that you want.’ That was really, really helpful advice.”
‘The whole company is your team.’
For many of us, our department is our team. Sarin was no different. And that, she’s come to realize, was a big limiter on her ability to get things done, especially as she rose within organizations.
“Once you start thinking of whether it’s somebody in R&D or somebody in commercial, or somebody in HR as [part of] your entire team, it completely changes the dynamic,” she said. “Then I was not shy about going and tapping people regardless of where they sat in the organization and challenging them and bringing them along. That really led to the transformation at Alexion. We grew the business from three and a half billion to six and a half billion in about four years.”
‘Influence not authority.’
“And I say that because more and more the role of CFOs, it’s not just top down. It’s not like, ‘okay, this is what the CFO wants’ because there’s so many stakeholders, because there is so much change. It’s really being able to listen and understand and, and still have influence, not just sort of a top-down approach.”
‘Being able to make decisions with incomplete information.’
“That’s the risk you take,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to trust your gut and have the wherewithal—obviously with support—to stand behind your decisions even when there’s incomplete information.”
‘You won’t please everybody all the time.’
In this era of “stakeholder capitalism,” the range of constituencies that the CFO serves is exploding from the traditional board, shareholders and CEO to outside influencers, regulators and more. And you won’t make them all happy. “You have to be okay with that level being uncomfortable.
“But you also have to have the foresight to see around the corners and know, ‘this is coming,’ and how do you best prepare yourself and your teams, whatever’s within your control, to be prepared for it,” she said. “You won’t be 100 percent prepared, but if you’re 70 percent prepared, you have a better chance of surviving and managing and growing through the next change then if you’re not prepared at all.”
Fear works. Love works better.
It may seem saccharine. It’s not. It’s foundational, she said. “I had a boss on Wall Street, and actually I learned a lot of things from him on how not to be a leader,” she said. “He was somebody who was sort of larger than life and was highly feared. He had been on Wall Street 30, 40 years. What I learned was fear can be a big motivator, but love is a bigger motivator. People who you support will go and give 110 percent.”
‘Stay true to yourself.’
Sounds simple, of course. But with the pressure on for CFOs under the gun to make numbers and deliver “results,” this can prove tough. But, ultimately, this is perhaps the most essential thing of all. As an investment banker on Wall Street, Sarin found herself tested regularly to cave to clients’ desires, and learned to push back.
“Ultimately you have to sleep alone at night, and you have to know that you did the right thing, and not just did what a client asked you to do. And that’s hard.” But the penalties to yourself, she said, are far worse.