Our CFO Leadership Council Founder, Jack McCullough sat down with Mich Chandlee to recap our recent CFO Masterclass Keynote session, “Effective Leadership Under Urgency”.     

MIT Sloan Executive Education and the CFO Leadership Council recently hosted a fireside chat on Crisis Leadership featuring Mich Chandlee, the CFO of Fanatics.  Mich shared his five tenets of leadership with an audience of more than 500 CFOs, and they revealed valuable insights that can be utilized by any executive, regardless of title.

An online retailer of licensed sportswear, equipment, and merchandise, Fanatics has continued to do well during the pandemic.  If you’ve purchased licensed sports equipment online, there is a good chance you used the Fanatics platform.  One of the most accomplished CFOs in the country, Mich joined Fanatics in 2019, after a distinguished career at Nike, where he held five different CFO positions.

“Win tomorrow by winning today.  You need to have the vision and confidence to understand how today’s actions are setting you up to win tomorrow.  Determine what tomorrow can look like by making difficult decisions today.”
Mich Chandlee, CFO, Fanatics

Mich’s leadership philosophy was formed early in his career, when he realized the importance of connecting on a personal and individual level with every member of his team.  He believes the ability to understand an employee’s motivations and priorities allow a leader to perform her or his duties more effectively.  He noted that there is no shortage of financial expertise in the world but said that including the personal aspect in decision-making will almost always yield better overall results.

Mich’s Five Tenets For Leadership

  • Every Day is Game Day
  • Be Collaboratively Direct
  • One Day You’re the Dog, the Next Day You’re the Lamp Post
  • Be the Orchestra Conductor
  • Seek to Learn

Every Day is Game Day

Mich believes that each workday is an opportunity to grow and to improve, both as an individual and a company.  An 18-year veteran of Nike, Mich likens business with a team sport, where there’s a new sense of urgency every day.  Like an elite athlete, or coach, Mich knows the value of preparedness, having an intimate knowledge of his teammates, and being able to respond vigorously to each day’s challenges.  In his role as CFO, Mich is part of many teams, including finance and accounting and executive, and is also a partner to the CEO.  Using the team sports analogy, he explains that each day, you work with your teams, hold yourself and each other accountable, and strive for victory, whatever that means in the moment.  This is a cycle that should be repeated every single day. 

Be Collaboratively Direct

Mich’s decision-making philosophy is to hire talented and passionate team members, and to make decisions as a group.  As a CFO, he often has strong instincts about strategic direction, or “what hill to climb,” as he describes it.  But allowing others a voice in the direction not only results in better decisions, but also more dedication to that direction.  When they have “skin in the game,” team members are more likely to work together toward a successful outcome.  Mich explains that his authority with his team does not come from the title on his business card, but from his ability to galvanize a team to work towards a common goal.  Of course, in the current WFH environment, this is more challenging than ever before.

One Day You Are the Dog, the Next Day You Are the Lamppost

Although Mich did not use the phrase, he clearly is a practitioner of servant leadership.  He knows that part of his mission as an executive is to take care of the team that he leads.  At the same time, he clarifies that being a leader, even a servant leader, is not a popularity contest.  CFOs, perhaps more than any other executive, are forced to make very difficult decisions.  A CFO who is incredibly popular is likely doing his team a disservice by not making those hard decisions.  A leader who is always popular might simply be avoiding reality.

One reality of a successful leader’s life is that one day you can be on top of the world as far as your team is concerned, but the next you might be on the receiving end of harsh criticism from them.  It’s important to develop a thick skin for these moments, and to have candid conversations with your stakeholders.  Working collaboratively helps the team understand the painful choices a CFO faces and why certain decisions are made.

Be the Orchestra Conductor

Decision-making and leadership are extraordinarily complex and must consider diverse people with different perspectives, skills, and priorities.  However, at the end of the day, most decisions must be made based on their impact on the financial results they are expected to yield.  Mich thinks of the CFO as an Orchestra Conductor; someone who must perfectly synchronize all the various sections to create a beautiful symphony (or in his case, a healthy cash flow statement).  Like the members of an orchestra, your team members are perhaps superior to you in their own roles but are still in need of a leader who will bring them together to make the music.  The ability of the conductor to work harmoniously with each section and individual is what ensures the success of any company.

Seek to Learn:  Be Insatiably Curious

When Mich starts with a new team, he warns them that he will be asking a lot of questions.  He considers learning paramount to his job, and will ask questions even if he thinks he knows the answers.  Asking questions empowers others to form solutions to problems while allowing Mich to develop a greater understanding of his team, both on a personal and a business level.  It was acknowledged that asking questions just for the sake of asking questions can be  unproductive.  when done correctly, however, the process  usually leads to decisions being made and a better strategic path being followed.

Mich also fielded questions from the audience.  His responses were fascinating, and some of the highlights follow:

On avoiding analysis paralysis:

“If you don’t have the luxury of time, you have to be a force of nature and make quick decisions.   You need to know where to go and whom to ask… if you have curated relationships, you can ask the questions tactically and make decisions quickly.”

How leaders can help employees struggling with the current work environment:

“Personal lives and business lives are now merging.  One of my teammates observed he is no longer working from home; he is sleeping where he works.  The main thing is to make employees feel safe in their personal lives, which will enable them to perform at work.  In all of my one-on-ones, it starts and ends with “how are you?”  It’s important share empathy with your team, and to develop a more personal relationship so that they can share their fears and work through them.”

On dealing with employees who want answers to questions that are not yet answerable:

“There are times to avoid a fast decision.  The best way to keep employees at bay is clear, concise and honest communication that says “we don’t have an answer yet and we are taking our time because the stakes are relatively high, and if they are high for the company, they’re high for you as an employee, so we will continue to do lots of due diligence to achieve the right outcome.”

On building for the future while remaining solvent today:

“Win tomorrow by winning today.  You need to have the vision and confidence to understand how today’s actions are setting you up to win tomorrow.  Determine what tomorrow can look like by making difficult decisions today.”

On embracing innovation:

“Companies that are willing to run to the fire, to embrace ambiguity, and that have the confidence to explore new things and fail…, and be willing to live with some mistakes and learn quickly and respond and react are the ones that will achieve the most.”

Thanks again to Mich Chandlee for connecting with us & bringing tremendous value to our CFOLC community!  Full recordings of the entire CFO Masterclass Keynote series, along with many of CFO Leadership Council’s programs are available in our members-only online resource library.  To learn more, visit www.cfolc.com

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About The CFO Leadership Council

The CFO Leadership Council offers both live & online programs that feature expert panels and interactive sessions that drive meaningful conversation and leadership development among our membership. Our collection of leadership development resources similar to this article contain pragmatic insights and advice sourced directly from our members and industry experts.  Recordings of CFOLC webcasts are made available to our current CFOLC Premium & Virtual members. To learn about membership options, visit www.cfolc.com.

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