With an open-door policy and a focus on nurturing cross-department relationships, CFO Susan Young is ushering MarVista Entertainment into a new paradigm where finance has a symbiotic relationship with other key corporate functions
By Jill Laybourn
“Your career is a portfolio of experiences. Figure out what you want to be when you grow up, and get the experience you need to do that job.” Susan Young, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for MarVista Entertainment Inc. not only received but heeded that advice.
Today her impressive portfolio of work includes positions with Kodak, Xerox, Stryker and now MarVista. These roles provided the building blocks for a strong foundation in finance, combined with some of the best training in leadership. Likewise, it fostered a love and appetite for change that makes her a triple threat.
Finding Her Way in Finance
Young always knew she wanted to go into finance. “I just thought I would do what my dad did,” she said. “When I graduated, I thought I would be like my dad and work for the same company for 30 years and retire.”
She learned quickly that the world had changed. And although she went through some growing pains early on, her work for companies like Xerox and Kodak has proved to be an instrumental part of that well-rounded career portfolio.
At Kodak, Young gained leadership and international experience as a regional CFO in Europe. She managed seven people in seven different countries, teaching her the real definition of diversity—“differences in culture and opinions and how people behave and what they want in life,” Young said. “Trying to get the best of each of those people required a completely different management style for each person.” She has since carried that knowledge to subsequent positions.
Crafting a Culture
At MarVista, her leadership style also includes fostering an open culture and encouraging teamwork. “It is a friendly atmosphere with an open-door policy,” Young said. “I don’t want people to be afraid to ask questions.”
While she desires an ongoing dialogue with her team, she also nurtures independence, noting: “I do teach my team the philosophy of working on it yourself a little bit so you can come to me with a proposal for a solution, and not just a problem.”
Young also has encouraged a developmental culture. “I try to build an empowered workforce,” she said. “My job is to make sure they are getting the development they need to get to the next level and to help them get to the finish line.”
Challenges & Rewards
As with anything in life, Young agrees that leadership comes with its challenges. “One of the biggest challenges in leadership is your team and building that team within and across departments,” she said. “Being in finance, you always rely on cross-departmental relationships. Being able to work with people and the ability to influence and still get things done efficiently is one of the hardest things.”
On the other hand, leadership definitely has its rewards. “What I like to do… there are two sides,” Young explained. “I really like developing my diamonds in the rough—that is one thing I really enjoy. The second thing is seeing things, the people and the company, grow.”
Stretching the CFO Role
Along with developing managerial skills, another key piece of Young’s portfolio has been her ability and desire to go beyond the traditional role of a CFO, acting as a key strategic business partner.
While at Kodak, Young was able to work directly with the General Manager and really grasp how to run a business. “I participated in everything needed to run a company—sale
s, supply chain, understanding manufacturing, pricing.”
She also learned the importance of understanding the customer. “In finance, you have internal customers,” she said. “My first job was supporting telecommunications.” Young learned everything she could about the business of telecommunications, even going so far as to train like a new hire in Information Technology. “You can really support a business when you know what the business is and how it works. I am a huge advocate of being a business partner, and any finance person who works for me here understands they are the finance business partner to whatever role it is.”
Young believes in getting to know each division. “It requires sitting down and meeting with key people in each department and really understanding how this business works.” This dialogue and understanding helps her and her team members effectively contribute to the business. “You can either hand them data or analysis. Analysis takes all the discussions to the next level and allows everyone to understand the key business drivers. Understanding what the department needs adds value quickly.”
This paradigm shift—that a CFO is not just a controller, treasurer and economist, but also a business strategist—was one of the reasons MarVista was so attracted to Young. The company had evolved into a stable one, and they were looking for growth, which mandated hiring their first ever CFO. “They wanted to bring in a CFO who really understood strategy—a business partner concept,” Young said. “I work for the CEO; I was brought in to help him grow the company. It is inherent in the culture. My role has been to demonstrate my value to our senior leadership team… I am providing them with tools and analysis that will make them see that what we are doing has meaning.”
The CFO-as-a-business-strategist approach also calls for a leader to be looking and thinking ahead. “In order to be really strong at forward looking, you have to be able to be a business partner and understand the business,” Young said. “I cannot advise my CEO where MarVista should go unless I really understand the business.”
It takes a while, and it takes patience. But MarVista is not the only one benefitting; Young’s achievements and career portfolio continue to grow as well. “Just seeing the financial growth makes you feel really good because you know that you contributed to that, and the work that you did helped the company achieve its goals,” Young said. “Seeing things grow is where I get a lot of satisfaction.”
Young and MarVista have a symbiotic relationship that is flourishing. Admittedly, growth comes with its share of changes and challenges. Fortunately, that poses no problem for Young; in fact, it is the change and challenges she thrives on and that keep her career portfolio evolving and expanding.
Jill Yarberry-Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.