Finance fuses with space flight in the mind of Kerry Christian, CFO of the National Institute of Aerospace.
By Christine Gatuiria
Kerry Christian has checked many items off of his professional bucket list, and he is still going strong. As the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), Christian has developed a rich background in financial auditing, strategic analysis and entrepreneurial management. He also works in academia as an Adjunct Professor at the College of William and Mary’s Mason School of Business.
“Complacency is an early warning of stagnation,” Christian said: a statement that he lives by, as demonstrated by his career path.
Keeping Things Interesting
Christian finds new ways to challenge himself every five or six years. He started out as a Staff Auditor with Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) in 1981, then moved into operational auditing and worked for the federal government for about six years. In 1990, he joined National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and was tasked with putting together an audit team to review the organization’s financial statements. Christian steadily moved up the ladder at NASA, taking on positions of increasing responsibility every five or six years and ultimately landing the role of Deputy CFO, leading all accounting and financial management functions for more than $700 million in annual operations.
When the opportunity came to join the NIA, a nonprofit research and graduate education institute that conducts leading-edge aerospace and atmospheric research, Christian was ready to return the private sector. The NIA offers comprehensive graduate and continuing education in science and engineering and works with NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense and commercial aviation companies, and ultimately proved to be a good fit for his financial expertise.
“Even though NIA is a nonprofit, we still have to earn our revenue,” Christian said. “The only difference between [us] and a for-profit organization is the kind of tax return we file.”
Hiring the Right People
Christian drew on his auditing skill set to develop and implement the NIA’s financial and accounting procedures. He was able to quickly evaluate his team, determine who to hire and augment as necessary to create an effective group.
“Hiring is the most importing thing any organization does,” Christian said. When interviewing potential candidates, he looks for the right experience and background as well as desire and drive, and hires the best talent he can afford. He currently manages six direct reports and describes his leadership style as that of “a cheerleader and a coach.”
Christian firmly believes that all employees should be empowered to make decisions and solve problems. “When [my team] comes to me with a question,” he said, “I always ask, ‘What do you think we should do?’”
Theory & Practice
Christian also is a proponent of cross-training, and his team engages in functional rotations. “I’ve found that team members learn from each other and it motivates them to do a good job,” Christian said.
He supports his staff by ensuring they have enough resources to execute their responsibilities and challenging them with high-level goals. He also holds biweekly meetings with the entire Finance Group to provide guidance and get feedback.
Christian’s job is always interesting, as his professorship encourages a laboratory setting. He often implements ideas shared in the classroom in the office and vice versa. “I do what I teach,” Christian said, “and I teach what I do.”
The NIA is a growing organization, so Christian plans to continue checking items off of his professional bucket list. He enjoys furthering his own education and preparing for new opportunities. Best of all, he shares what he learns by teaching others and in the process gains more knowledge.
“Teaching,” Christian said, “is the best learning experience I’ve come across.”
Christine Gatuiria is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, MO