SourceHOV CFO Katy Murray on job hopping, women leaders and managing an 1,800-mile commute.
By Nancy Flagg
Katy Murray had been Chief Accounting Officer at i2 Technologies for just over a year when the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) position opened up. She assumed that the company leaders would search for a more experienced external candidate, but Bob Crandall, Chair of the Audit Committee and legendary former President of American Airlines, approached Murray about assuming the role.
He told her that this was the biggest opportunity she would ever have and that it would change her career forever, and that she could do the job. The CEO and Board agreed, but it was Murray herself who needed more convincing. Although she did not feel ready, she trusted Crandall’s opinion, took over the position and proved his instincts to be true.
Murray admitted to being overwhelmed at first. “I never thought I would be in that role and all of a sudden I’m there,” she said. “I wake up and I’m really doing the job.” But she quickly found that she liked the role and had a talent for it.
Despite her success, Murray wondered how the fact that she was already in the company and known by its leaders played into her promotion. She wanted to prove to herself that she really did possess the skills needed and could be a successful CFO elsewhere. She went on to do just that, becoming CFO at EXL Services, Taleo Corp. and SourceHOV.
Forefront magazine talked to Murray about her perspectives on career transitioning and on women in top corporate roles.
Forefront: You commuted from Dallas to California for three years while you were CFO at Taleo. That is quite a commitment. What was your mindset at the time? What made you decide to move on from this role?
Murray: Taleo was headquartered in California, right outside out of San Francisco. I moved there in September 2006. I loved the company, the culture, the people and the management team. I still stay in touch with all of them. We worked really well together and respected each other. I credit that to the CEO, Mike Gregoire.
My family was in Louisiana and Texas, and I found myself going back to the area for personal reasons. There came a point where I had to make a decision of job versus personal balance. I talked to my boss Mike, the audit committee and the board. I told them that I did not want to leave but I had to make this decision, and they agreed with me that I could commute. So, I moved back to Dallas in the beginning of 2008 and I commuted for three years.
My mindset at the time was that I had made a commitment to them. I am loyal, and when I make a decision to do something, I’m going to stick with it. They gave me the opportunity to put some balance where I needed it, and I made a commitment that I was going to be effective and be focused. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to commute for that kind of time—fly out on Monday mornings and come back to Dallas on Thursday night or Friday—but the team was supportive of it.
I had always told Mike that if it ever came to the point where I felt like I’m not as effective in my job as I should be, I’d go talk to him. In the summer of 2010, I had reached that point. We were starting a planning process for 2011, and I knew that if I put the plan together, then I was making the commitment to be there for another year. That’s how I viewed it. I think any CFO will tell you that if you own that plan, you need to deliver on it. It felt like the right thing to do was to step back.
Forefront: Finance is typically a male-dominated field, and 90 percent of public company CFOs are male. How have you navigated this dynamic?
Murray: In my world, software and technology, the majority of management teams, boards and audit committees are men. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt that being a female hindered anything that I ever wanted to accomplish. I don’t know if that is just because of my nature—I’m assertive, and I do have a strong personality.
I do think that in this role, presence and how you handle yourself have an impact. It’s the whole package, and I think women may be held to a higher standard on that sometimes. I don’t think I have ever felt at a disadvantage. If anything, being a woman who is successful, intelligent and able to articulate in front of audiences is actually is an asset. You find yourself in situations where you may get more opportunities. That’s how I’ve seen it.
Here’s the other thing. I chose the path of a career. I didn’t have some of the other things that would demand time and attention. Many women do find themselves at a decision point with family or career. I know of several people who are very successful at both. It’s tough. The expectations are much higher, but I firmly believe that whatever standard anybody is held to should be across the board for men and women. Even if you have other things that are pulling you, you need to figure out how to balance it and you should still have to meet the same standards as anybody else.
Forefront: It seems that long tenure at companies is no longer the norm. People want to grow their experiences by switching companies, and companies are looking for fresh perspectives. It can be challenging for people to move on to new opportunities while staying on good terms with the company they left. How have you gone about this, and what tips do you have for others?
Murray: The most important thing is to always communicate. Just be honest and upfront. In my career, I’ve always tried to exit situations as professionally as I could so that I could go back and feel like I did it the right way. The way to do it is to treat people the way that you want to be treated. The world today is not the same stay-with-the-company-for-30-years. A lot of that has to do with the fact that companies get sold, get acquired, go out of business or are downsized, and sometimes people can be caught in the middle of that.
People leave jobs. In general, when you find yourself not being effective or feel like you need to move on, just be open and honest and give it your all until your last day. When I left wherever I was, I knew I was going to make the transition as successful as I could for them. I planned to stay two to three months, not just give two weeks’ notice. You have to give people the courtesy and the time it needs, especially at this level of a job. You don’t just walk out.
When I hire people, I know that the way the person treats the company that they’re leaving is exactly how they’re going to treat you. If I’m thinking of hiring someone and they say, “I can walk out tomorrow,” I think, ‘How horrible. That’s exactly what you’re going to do to me too.’ I believe that kind of reputation follows you. I tell people to do things the right way. Feel good about it. People will respect you for giving them the courtesy of being honest and telling them what you need to do.
Forefront: Only 10 percent of corporate board members are women. Why do you think the percentage is so low?
Murray: I think a lot of boards or audit committees are looking for someone who has been at the C-level, like CEO, COO or CFO, and I think it speaks back to the fact that there are fewer women in those executive roles. It’s just the downstream effect of that. The general nature of having families and having to make decisions around them affects the number of women in those roles. I think there would be more women who would be in executive roles if they were able to balance what they needed to do. But, I think you’re seeing more women. The thing that is impressive and important is that the women who are in board and audit committee roles are very effective, and you hear them and you hear their name.
My bet is that the software technology industry probably has a higher percentage of women in executive-level roles just because technology is so much more progressive. It’s always on the up and coming. I think it probably has a little bit more flexibility for executives. When you look at people like Meg Whitman (HP), Ginny Rometty (IBM) and Marissa Mayer (Yahoo) who are leaders in everything that they do, they’re all in software and technology.
Forefront: You’re not currently on any corporate boards, but have an interest in serving them. What do you hope to bring to the table? What advice do you have for other women with the skill set, experience and desire to serve on corporate boards?
Murray: I’m extremely interested in doing board roles. I think it’s a way of staying current, active and engaged in business. It’s kind of a natural evolution. I’ve been very fortunate in the companies that I’ve worked with to have experience with IPOs (initial public offerings), raising money and acquisitions. I love learning about companies and being able to help people—if there’s something that people can learn from my experiences, that’d be fantastic. I feel I’m at a point in my career where I’d be very open to it.
My advice for women is, don’t get deterred. Just be focused. You can have it all. You have to be willing, and there are obviously sacrifices that you have to make. But for women who want to pursue an executive-level role, whether CFO or Chief Marketing Officer or CEO, don’t feel like you can’t. Surround yourself with people who are supportive. Hire strong people who are smarter and more talented than you in areas because they’re going to be the ones that are going to help you succeed. You’ll learn from them, and they’ll learn from you.
Stay focused, and when someone opens the door to an opportunity for you, like they did for me, take it. Be confident that they see something that maybe you don’t. People aren’t going to put themselves in risky situations or jeopardize the company, so you have to trust them. And you have to take the opportunity.
The other thing, for people in general, is that you have to put in your time. I think so many people coming out of school who are starting their career feel like they should be on an accelerated path. But some of these positions and roles take time. Give yourself the time to learn, to work with people and to get the skill. That’s the sure way of having a long-term career and being successful. You can’t substitute experience.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
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