From Small Town To The C-Suite: Meet Deanna Strable, CFO of PFG

With a decades-long career at Principal Financial Group, CFO Deanna Strable shares why stepping out of your comfort zone is key to success.

When Deanna Strable was offered the CFO position at Principal Financial Group after decades with the company, she wasn’t sure her skillset was a match. But she embraced the challenge, and has helped lead the company for the past seven years.

Now, reflecting on her career journey, she credits the critical advancements in her career to that ability to step outside her comfort zone. She joined Jack McCullough in this episode of our Secrets of Rockstar CFOs podcast to share her insights, gleaned on her path from actuary to C-Suite executive of a Fortune 500 company.

Listen by clicking below. The Q&A, lightly edited and trimmed for clarity, follows.

Listen to the podcast here

Our guest is Deanna Strable. Deanna is the CFO of Principal Financial Group. Deanna, welcome to the show.

Thanks, Jack. It’s great to be here.

A lot of people know PFG. Before we begin, do you want to give the 10,000-foot view of the company you lead?

Principal Financial Group is a financial services company that’s headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa. The Midwest roots there. We have main three main businesses. We are a leader in retirement, primarily in the U.S., but also in select emerging markets in Latin America and Asia. We’re a global asset manager and we offer insurance products focused on offering those products to small to medium-sized businesses here in the U.S.. Think dental insurance, life insurance, and disability insurance, with a keen focus on small to medium-sized business customers.

I like to start by learning about our guest’s early careers. You had a classic Midwest upbringing. I believe you grew up in Iowa.

I grew up about a half-hour south of Des Moines, on a farm. I grew up in Iowa and I rotated to go to university in Chicago. I went to Northwestern in Chicago. I never thought I’d come back to Iowa. I’ve been here ever since I graduated.

That must have been an interesting transition growing up from a farm to the second-biggest city in the United States. What was that like?

Northwestern is in a Northern suburb. You feel like you’re in a smaller part, but had access to the city, which was great. I loved that opportunity and enjoyed my several years there.

You moved back to Iowa right after school.

I had interned at Principal but still was thinking that I would go somewhere else in the United States. I interviewed in places like Hartford, Connecticut. I’m an actuary by background. I was looking at more insurance-based companies. I looked at Minneapolis, and St. Louis, but I kept comparing all of those opportunities back to my experience here at Principal. I decided to start full-time here at Principal in Des Moines.

It’s a small sample, but I’ve noticed young people can’t wait to leave home, but when they hit their twenties, they say, “It’s such a great place to have a childhood.” They end up coming back. It’s anecdotal, but I see it over and over again

It is a family-friendly place. Personally, it also hit me that if I went somewhere else, all my vacations would be coming back home, and visiting my family. If I came to work here, I could take vacations and go to other places. There were some personal elements there.

When you were at Northwestern, you were a Math major.

I was a math and economics double major. I went in thinking I wanted to be an attorney or an actuary, but it was at a time when attorneys were struggling to find employment and actuaries were finding good job success. The practical part of me said that was the route to go.

I never took the actuarial exam, but I know that it’s brutal. Your first job was as an actuary out of college.

For those of you who don’t know about the actuarial career, you take a number of exams. It can take three to nine years to finish that, but you’re doing that while you’re working. When started at Principal, for the first several years, I was rotating to different parts of the company. I went abroad and worked in Brussels for several months, but I was still taking my exams at that time.

You lived in Belgium during that time. That’s a brutal lifestyle but worth it. Are you still a licensed actuary to this day?

I still keep up with my public, my professional development, and those types of elements. I’m still a licensed actuary.

You’ve been at Principal now for a few decades. Did you envision it that way? When you joined, did you think this was the first step of many? Were you thinking you wanted to put down some roots career-wise in the early part of your career?

If you talk me through my career, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what’s next. One of the reasons I did come to Principal is that they did have a culture that they moved people around to different parts of the organization. They also had a culture where they took people who had more technical jobs and gave them opportunities more in the business, which I did take advantage of. The fact that I’ve had 12 or 14 roles during my three decades has kept me here because it’s given me a lot of different experiences and continued to keep me challenged.

That’s the name of the game. Keep yourself challenged. It’s fair to say you made a wise decision. There have been a lot of changes since you joined. What were some of the big ones with the company that you’ve observed and played a role in?

The two biggest that I would mention are when we went public in 2001. I started here full-time in 1990. I had about a decade when we were not a public company, we were a mutual insurance company. We’ve had a few decades where we’ve been a public company. That would be the one I would point out. The second one was our entry into international operations and global operations. That happened closer to the start of my career here. When we look at our employment base, about half of our employees are outside of the U.S.. We have significant operations in Europe, Asia and Latin America. That would be the other one I’d point out.

I knew you had a good global presence. I didn’t quite realize that it was half your employees. That’s impressive. I wrote a book called Secrets of Rockstar CFOs, after which this show is named. During that, I interviewed about 20 CFOs. Every one of them cited the importance of a mentor or multiple mentors along the way. I’m curious. Did you have any mentors along the way? Sometimes, the mentors don’t even know they’re serving in that capacity. Did you have any that stuck out along the way that helped you along the journey?

I have one in particular. He became my leader when I left the actuarial realm on a smaller scale, but my first profit and loss accountability. He was my leader for a number of years. He became my peer. He’s now retired from the company. There are two things I would point out that it was valuable. One, he came much more through the distribution and operations role. The learnings beyond the pure technical role into the more business aspects and the leadership aspects were critical as I was moving into different roles.

The second important part that he served for me was, as I was being asked to take on different roles, my initial response tended to be, “No, I like what I’m doing. I don’t feel I’ve accomplished everything I need to accomplish.” He was a great sounding board, but more of someone who urged and pushed me to take chances. He helps me see the positives of those moves. He kept my eyes open and propelled me into some of those different roles, which was incredibly valuable.

It’s critical to have those types of relationships. I’m guessing, given your career path and all that you’ve accomplished, there must be a lot of people who find you to be a compelling mentor. Do you have any mentor-type relationships now?

At any given time, I am meeting informally with five individuals at Principal as well as one or two people outside of Principal. We do have a formal mentorship program here. One or two of those slots are through our formal mentorship program. The others are much more organic. They’ve asked for some advice and that’s led to additional time spent and I have learned tons. For those who are within Principal, it does give me some broader insight into other parts of the company and how people are thinking about our strategy and management team. I love to give back and mentorship to those individuals.

You’ve achieved a certain level of success. It’s time to return the favor that your mentor did for you. The most important relationship within most companies is between the CEO and the CFO. Dan Houston is your CEO. I’m curious what your relationship with Dan is.

Dan and I have a productive and strong relationship. If you go back, we were peers for a period of time. He had been at the company longer and at a little higher level, but he ran our retirement business and I ran our insurance businesses. Ultimately, he took on the president role, where all the businesses came up through him. He became my leader.

At that time, I wasn’t in the CFO role. I was running one of our four major businesses. Then ultimately he was the one that came and asked me to consider moving into the chief financial officer role. That did come to fruition in early 2017. He does an incredible job surrounding himself with complementary skillsets. He came up more through the sales organization. He has a strong background there.

He and I have a great relationship where I can complement his strengths and challenge his perspectives. We get to good solutions because of the ability to challenge. We went through COVID together. We went through an activist investor and a significant strategic review with our board of directors and that continued to even strengthen our relationship as well.

Do you have that type of mutual respect? It’s not that most companies don’t, but if you don’t, there are consequences throughout the business, even if you’re both individually good at your jobs. That dynamic is critical. I’m curious about PFG. What are some of the biggest, not only challenges, but some of the biggest opportunities facing the organization?

From an opportunities perspective, it’s a challenge. When you think of COVID, high interest rates and inflation, finding ways that we can differentiate and grow faster than our peers is a constant challenge. The one that faces us right now is when interest rates are at 5 percent and 6 percent. The majority of our business is offering equities, fixed income or those types of asset management solutions, and people are saying, “Why should I put my money into those types of vehicles when I can go to the local bank and get a one-year CD that’s offering 5.5 percent?”

We, as the rest of the asset management business, have had negative net cashflows over the last few years as customers look at those other opportunities as attractive. That’s been a challenge, but we’re focusing on how that becomes an opportunity going forward. AI is another potential opportunity as we look at how can we leverage that within the company to meet the needs of our customers, and find ways to be more productive, but do it in a responsible way relative to generative AI. Every company is thinking through the opportunities relative to that.

Gen AI, for CFOs, is a bit of a dilemma for you because CFOs aren’t the early adopters of any technology. There are some exceptions, but every CFO I talk to, I said, “This is a game changer. You need to embrace it.” On the other hand, you’re also responsible for data security, privacy, and the cyber environment. Balancing that for you on a personal level is tough.

I partner closely with our chief risk officer and chief information officer. It’s us three coming together to say, “How do we do this in a risk-smart, responsible way, but how do we leverage it in the places where we’re going to see the best opportunities for impact?” 2023 was a lot of experimentation. We’re using our more private data, not public data, which is the biggest way you can control some of that risk.

We are doing some experimentation within finance, but we are seeing places that have bigger outcomes and potential impacts outside of finance. The role of the CFO and the role of the finance team is how we can model what those impacts could be, both the cost of implementing as well as the potential benefit and helping in that prioritization process.

It’s good that no one is making these decisions in a vacuum, but it’s tough because there is recognition. If we don’t embrace this, a competition is going on. We’re giving an advantage we can never overcome. You need to be prudent about it, especially in a company like yours. You’ve got the most confidential of information available.

I want to chat about your perception of the future of financial leadership. When I started my career in the 1980s, if you were a good accountant with a little bit of business acumen, you could become a CFO. It was a different environment, but the role has become more strategic, leadership, communications and digital savvy. Where do you see the role going in the future?

It is going to continue to go down that path. I’m going to take you back when I was assessing whether I wanted to move into the CFO role. I was running one of our major businesses and had interaction with strategy, sales force, customers, IT strategy and product strategy. If I looked at our former CFOs, they were both great CFOs for the company, but they did come up through that financial route and had more technical expertise that they were bringing into the role.

My first response to Dan, when he approached me, was, “I don’t think this is a great fit for my skillset.” One of his responses is, “We want to turn this role into a strategic CFO, not a technical financial CFO.” You have to have financial skills. But during my time in this role, I had enterprise strategy reporting through me. Having that connection was important.

At the time, I don’t know if I knew what “strategic CFO” meant. I simplified it by saying what it means is you are impacting the numbers, not reporting the numbers. That does get you into a lot of strategic conversations. I have great people underneath me, whether it’s my controller or head of capital markets. They can own the technical pieces of it. The CFO is the business partner. In our business unit, the CFO’s role is to be that partner to the rest of the management team and bring the strategic, the financial, and the operational all together to help us make the best decisions for the future.

When I interviewed investors, board members and CEOs, I was like, “What is it that you’re looking for in an elite CFO?” They talk about the leadership, the strategic thinking, and the partnering. I’ve even heard the communication skills and empathy. It’s relatively rare that somebody says, “I’m looking for a great accountant in the role. What’s the secret to being a great CFO? Having a great controller or a chief accounting officer might be right, but it makes sense.

On that communication route, that is critical as a public company, as you’re talking to your investors, both your current investors and perspective. Internally, I spend a lot of time in our town halls with our employees. Those are employees who are from entry-level up to C-Suite. It becomes critical of how I make financials understandable to the masses. That communication aspect is important.

I wanted to ask if you are on the board of directors for a public company. Is it Elevance?

It’s Elevance Health.

I’d love to learn about that. I’m guessing you’re on the audit committee there.

I am on the audit committee. I joined a few years ago. I had been approached a number of times and explored some opportunities. What had gotten in the way was calendars. As a CFO of a public company, we’re closing our books on a quarterly basis and now this board that you’re being asked to go on is closing their books on a quarterly basis. The first check that came was that our calendars lined up well. Beyond that, the culture of the company is similar.

They’re an Indianapolis-based company. They’re much larger than Principal. That gives a different approach to the audit committee and the nom and gov. I spend quite a bit of my time interacting with the Principal board. The learnings I’ve seen both on things like how AI is being used in other companies, and how another company management team interacts with their board have been helpful in improving some of our interactions here at Principal.

In addition to being on a public company board, you volunteer quite a bit at United Way and Simpson College.

If I think back to my parents, they were always involved in the community and our church. They were always giving back. That core value stayed with me as I went through my career. United Way was one that Principal has always been a strong supporter of. I started with more involvement in our local United Way here in Central Iowa. That progressed to being asked to be on the board of directors of more of the national and worldwide United Way. From Simpson College’s perspective, it’s a local college here in Central Iowa. It’s close to where I grew up. I’ve been on that board for the last 15 years. It’s been great to stay connected to that avenue, and also give back some of my talents.

You’re a public company CFO, which is quite a thing unto itself, a public company audit committee member and on two boards. Work-life balance, is it possible?

I term it a “work-life mix,” how you put the two together and it still comes out and works in the end. I’m organized, which helps with this process. I also raised two children as I progressed. For some of that, the public board and the worldwide board, I didn’t entertain those two until after my kids had left and went to college. That took up some time when I was raising them and juggling their schedules. It’s how you make them work.

The reason I don’t like balance is I never feel you are in balance, because you take out sleeping time and you’re at work more than you are at home, but how do you make the two work together? At Principal diversity is important, and flexibility and balance are important as well. It’s more of, you got to get the work done versus where you get the work done or how you get the work done. I have morphed over time, as my kids grew, how I do my work, when I do my work. I have figured out how to make that work but still be productive in my role as a mother and a spouse, but also my role here from a professional perspective.

Both of your kids are in college.

I have one in law school and one in college, both outside of Iowa. They’re both busy.

There are no dinners out on Friday nights for the next few years if you’re helping your kids do that. I also am told that during COVID you started a workout cohort. It’s good for you because many people who are busy executives don’t find time to do it. You started a group to work out together. I’m curious what inspired you to do that and how it’s working out.

Taking some time to take care of yourself needs to be a priority. As you age, that becomes even more important. I grew up being active, but I had gotten away from it as my kids were growing up. I stepped back during early COVID when we were stuck at home, you weren’t doing anything. I knew enough about myself. One, I didn’t want to go to a gym and be with 40 other people. Two, I needed peer pressure. I couldn’t do it on my own.

I found a group of like-minded women. There were five of us that started. We’re now at four. We found a gym that’s more of a personal trainer perspective. We have a schedule three times a week, two evenings during the week, and Saturday morning, where we work out. It’s both social, but also making sure we’re spending time taking care of ourselves.

You’ve got to find out what works for you. People think I’m weird. I have a decent-sized office. I have a set of dumbbells, a yoga mat, and a pull-up bar. It takes away the “I’m too busy” excuse against working out, because I care. I can work out without leaving my office. I can find 20 minutes if I’m that busy, no matter how busy I am.

It’s good that you found a social group to make it. There’s peer pressure there too. You don’t want to miss the meetings. No matter what age I get, and I’m now 60-ish, peer pressure still gets to me in certain instances. I also know you’re passionate about advocating for women’s leadership. I’m curious how you got involved in that and what that entails.

We have a number of resource groups here at Principal, supporting our diversity and inclusion efforts. Twenty years ago, I was approached to start a women’s leadership resource group. If you look at our C-Suite today, we’re 40 percent to 50 percent female. Our board of directors has been around 40 percent female. We have a lot of elements that support that.

If we go back 20 years ago, there was a point where women were stalling out their advancement. I and one other of our female leadership team were asked to start our women’s leadership initiative. My involvement in it has not continued, but that resource group has continued to this day and is focused on providing development opportunities and networking opportunities—hoping to continue to advance women within leadership roles here at Principal.

It is something I’m passionate about. We’ve noticed that we have the same thing happening within our finance organization. We did kickoff an initiative to do something more focused on females within finance and making sure that we’re providing those opportunities. It’s something I’m passionate about. What I find is women tend to self-select out of opportunities. Providing safe places for discussion, whether that’s one-on-one in groups, or providing some encouragement is a big part of continuing to propel gender diversity within the workplace.

Our group is a CFO Leadership Council. We have about 2,200 members. It’s about a 60/40 ratio of men and women. However, if we were to only count professionals with less than several years of experience, it’s a slight majority female. It seems like more women are entering the profession and staying in the profession. A lot of those skills we talked about earlier, strategic thinking, leadership and communications, women excel in these areas. Financial leadership is going to be about gender equality,

I don’t know the exact stat, but Fortune 500 CFOs are still male-dominated from that perspective.

The last time I looked, it was 14 percent. I’m not counting numbers. I’m not saying it has to be 50/50 by any stretch of the imagination, but when it’s 14 percent in 2023, it’s not unfair to say, “We can do better than that. We’ll do better than that.” I want to ask for some advice you might have for the next generation of CFOs. On your own LinkedIn profile, I thought you gave some good advice, but what’s the advice you can share with the next-gen?

It comes back to what we talked about earlier, which is that broader strategic skillset that CFOs need to have. For early career people, one of the things I talk about is having curiosity. It’s having those critical thinking skills, but also curiosity. When you’re asked to do something, you’re not just doing it. You’re trying to connect the dots to the broader organization.

If you’re being asked to price a product, which again in the actuarial realm is common, how much do you understand the competition, sales process, target customer, and what their buying decisions are? That’s going to force you to understand the broader picture, but also influence how you think about how you successfully complete the pricing activity that’s in front of you. That curiosity and critical thinking skills are important.

The other one is allowing and putting yourself in the place to be outside your comfort zone. Public speaking was not something I loved earlier in my career. I physically got sick when I had to speak in front of large amounts of people, and now, I do it every day. Putting yourself out there in those not comfortable places. Moving to Europe early in my career, I didn’t have a passport. I didn’t even know where Belgium was. Moving outside the actuarial realm. Those are all examples of things that weren’t comfortable. If I look backward, it’s a critical aspect of my career.

You mentioned the customer. That’s the reason we’re in business. If you want to be any part of the C-Suite, and you don’t understand what the customer is looking for, you’re going to have some inherent struggles in your role. I always like to conclude these with some fun facts about the individual. Your team shared a few with me, but what are some fun facts about you or things that people would find surprising?

I’m an avid college sports fan. I grew up playing sports. My parents were college fans. I’ve continued that passion. Going back to that male-dominant orientation in some of the areas I interact, having that passion has been helpful. There are common communication and conversation items that you can have. You don’t have to be a golfer. There are other things that you can do.

I’m a huge Northwestern Wildcat and Iowa Hawkeye fan. Football, basketball, men and women. My son was a basketball player. It’s a good connection with my child. The other one is I do love to travel. I enjoy wine. I love to put those two together. My husband and I like to take trips to our different wine regions around the world. Hopefully, we’ll continue to do that going forward.

I heard you’re headbanger.

I don’t think it’s a headbanger. My favorite genre of music is alternative rock. Green Day is the best concert I’ve ever been to and I’ve seen them a couple of times in concert. I tend to like, not heavy metal, but I do like that alternative rock perspective.

I’m a headbanger to this day. My favorite band is AC/DC. They’re my favorite band in the ‘70s and ‘80s, while I would ever evolve. That’s how this show came to be named. When I wrote the book, I wanted it to be about CFOs, but something that reflected my personality. Rockstar CFOs seemed to be it. I have to ask you. You mentioned Iowa and Northwestern. Who do you root for when they play each other? You get divided.

I hate that game. Part of it is because my son is a huge Hawkeye fan. Usually when they play, there is one playing for something and one not playing for something. That makes it easy. I’ll root for the one playing for something. If they are both playing for something, I give a slight nod to my alma mater and route for Northwestern.

I went to Suffolk University, which perhaps you’re not familiar with. In my grad school, I went to MIT Sloan. It’s not athletic powerhouses there.

I saw my alma mater, Northwestern, win once in four years in football when I was there. They were not a powerhouse. I’ve enjoyed seeing them become more successful over the last few decades.

MIT is not, but they did something. I’ll go on a limb and say, “No school will ever do it again.” They made the Division Three Final Four in men’s basketball. All 12 of the players on the team were high school valedictorians. The coaches are like, “It’s tough to get them to study the playbook. They’re studying other things. What are you going to do?” Birdie told me, in your youth, you sold sweet corn.

Not tons of CFOs could put that on their bio. I don’t put it on my bio because one, I despised it, and two, I only did it once. We did live on a farm. My dad got a whim one year to grow a lot of sweet corn, more than we could use as a family or give to family members. We set up the pickup on a corner, opened up the back, and had tons of sweet corn. I was in high school. I was embarrassed that someone from my school was going to drive by and see me there but I did do it once and I can say, “I did that.”

Deanna, this has been a lot of fun and some great content for our readers. Thank you so much. I know you have a lot going on. Thanks for making the time. I want to give you the final word.

The critical piece is CFO is a business leader in the organization. The more you can approach it like that, while also making sure I understand my responsibilities and how it fits in outside of the company, family, and community, those are aspects that are critical as well as you think about your legacy and go through your career.