Welcome to our first ”5 Questions With…,” an CFO RoundTable articles series that will profile individual CFO RoundTable members as they share their thoughts on their careers and professional development. 

Ellen Richstone, Board Director, CEO, Fortune 500 CFOCurrently Richstone serves in various capacities on several boards, including OpEx Engine (Board Advisor),The National Association of Corporate Board Directors (New England; Board Director and Chair of Program Committee), Darwin Scientific (Board Director), The Corporate Directors Group (Charter Member), and ERI (Board Director, Audit Committee Chair, Nominating Committee Chair). Richstone has also been named to the Top 100 Board Diversity Candidates for Public Companies by Agenda (the parent company of The Financial Times), as well as to CFO Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board.

Most recently, Richstone received the first annual Distinguished Director Award from the Corporate Directors Group, from which she also holds a Masters Professional Directors Certification.  Richstone has also served as an Adjunct Professor for Tufts University, where she lectured on Leadership in their Entrepreneurial Program.

 

Your career path shows an interesting evolution, from CFO to CEO to Board Director. Describe this path for us, including your advice along the way for other CFOs interested in this progression.

This path has been a natural evolution for me. When I made the move from a CFO to a CEO role, I was at the stage of my career where I felt I could take a risk. While the company type and size was a departure from what I had worked in previously, I enjoyed the people and I knew the work itself would be hard, interesting and fun.

One thing about this transition that did surprise me was that being the CEO of a smaller services company meant the majority of my work was spent in sales and business development.  Of course, any senior member of an organization serves as a representative of their company in one way or another. However, in this instance, my focus shifted, and being the CEO meant that I was in charge of fueling my company’s growth.

It was a huge change for me. As a CFO, you know how hard it is to do sales, but you don’t realize exactly how hard it is in the services industry until you’re sitting on the other side of the table. These are people’s incomes on the line, and we were trying to grow the company. Thankfully, we were successful, and grew the company three-fold in two years, but, with that growth also came exponential growth in our headcount. I learned some valuable sales lessons along the way, including you’re only as good as your last order, and you must always be hunting for your next opportunity (Continual replenishment of the Sales Pipeline is key).

During this time, my career was also naturally evolving toward board seats. I’ve sat on boards for over 20 years, including: American Power Conversion (NASDAQ: APCC), Blue Shift Technologies, Employment Resources, and others. I enjoy it quite a bit, especially the years where I had a nice combination of being both a CFO and a Board Member, as it made me a better professional overall. From the CFO perspective, I made sure to take the time to think specifically of what the board wanted, and from a board perspective, it made me think of the right level of questions to ask, without having to be management.

Overall, it allowed me to adopt a holistic and effective approach to both my company and the boards that I sit on.

That’s an interesting perspective. Would you encourage other CFOs to consider serving on boards as part of their career path?

Absolutely I would. If they find an opportunity that makes sense for them, I would encourage them to take it, as it would help them become a stronger CFO along the way. I also recommend that CFOs spend time with the Chairs of their Audit Committees, as there is quite a bit of perspective and education that these board members can offer to help them make a greater impact in their companies.

For those CFOs who are interested in serving on a board as part of their career path, how would you recommend that they get started?

My first piece of advice would be to attend board group events, as it’s helpful to hear issues as the board thinks of them. For example, The National Association of Corporate Directors allows and encourages CFOs to attend its monthly events, as the programs and discussions help broaden the CFOs view of what really happens in the boardroom.

Secondly, I would encourage them to get active in their communities to get firsthand experience of serving on a board. This could include school committees, public services or even not-for-profits. The path to serving on corporate boards is a natural progression from there.

Let’s take a turn in the conversation for a second. You are having such a fascinating career. What do you enjoy the most about your profession?

Speaking from my experience as a CFO, I’ve found that it’s a wonderful skill set that you can use across industries. Many industries say that you need experience in their particular field, but the truth is that you’re not tied to any one industry. I’ve been lucky enough to be in several industries, including telecom, clean tech, semiconductors, consumer products and so on. It’s also a position that prepares you well for many different roles within an organization, especially if you’re a broad-based CFO. There just aren’t too many positions out there today that you can have that kind of flexibility with.

And what’s that one thing that you could do without?

You know, every profession has parts of it that just aren’t fun. For me, it’s the reporting side of things. You have to do it, it’s a fiduciary requirement, and most importantly, you have to do it well and accurately, but I don’t know anyone who actually enjoys it. It just comes with the turf, and you find ways to complete it efficiently and accurately, and then move along to do things that you enjoy.

The CFO/Board landscape changes all the time. How do you keep yourself educated on the latest developments that affect your profession?

There are a series of things that I do, which I break down into technical and organizational components.

For the technical side of things, I attend as many of the accounting update sessions that I can, including those from Deloitte, KPMG and PWC. Deloitte offers a great Center for Corporate Governance, and I also enjoy KPMG’s Audit Committee Institute.

On the organizational side of things, I am a Board Director with the National Association of Corporate Directors, which hosts 10 events a year. It’s great learning, and we welcome board members across industry type, including not-for-profits and public companies.

Secondly, I am also a Charter member of  the Corporate Directors Group, whose membership includes 1,400 board members from public companies across the United States. This group provides a nice mix of webinars and in-person events.  In addition, I also belong to the Women’s Corporate Directors Group, which also hosts four to five sessions a year.

Finally, I am also a member of Board Leaders, which is a New England-based group. It’s an amazing organization that meets five times a year on any given topic.

Thank you for those resources. I’d love to end this by asking you to describe your ‘Aha!’ moment, or a crowning achievement to your career thus far.

Honestly, I don’t think you can ever be there, or call one moment your ‘pinnacle’ moment. It’s just not in the profession for me, and there’s no one place that I can ever say that I’ve hit my apex. If you don’t learn to change and grow constantly, you might as well go off and play golf. Everyone can always improve and do their job better and continuous learning is a piece of this.

 

Our thanks to Ellen for her time and thoughts, and stay tuned for more “5 Questions With…” interviews!

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