DNA CFO_Debra Farquharson interview

DNA of a CFO
Interview with Debra Farquharson

Debra is a prime example of how you can bring an entrepreneurial spirit to any task or opportunity. Having founded, grown, and sold her own business, she was a significant investor in a start up TSX – V manufacturing company in which she played a key role for over 5 years.

CEO and interim CFO International Real Estate Development

She has been a key leader of a number of finance teams throughout her career. She has C-Suite experience as both a CEO and CFO, coupled with over 20 years of management experience for both public and privately-held enterprises. She is currently the CFO and CEO of a start-up real estate development company. We spoke to Debra about what it really takes to become a successful finance leader.

Have you always aspired to becoming a CFO?

“When I was a university student at Ryerson University at the age of 17, I decided I would like to become a CEO. I knew it was difficult for women to enter senior management at that time, and it still is to some degree today, but I was ambitious and had my view on the top. I have strong business acumen and I’m good with numbers, so I took the finance path to get a good understanding of how businesses work. My decision was to have a double major of both finance and marketing in my under graduate diploma, and then focus on getting my CA. It is still a common transition today to move from the CFO role to the CEO position for those that have well-developed leadership abilities.”

You became a CFO at age 34, how did you achieve this at such a young age?

“I was always focused on the end goal and I wasn’t afraid to take the risks that would lead me there. At 22, I got my CA and articled with PWC. From there, I ventured to Calgary to work for Dome Petroleum, and not long after I learned that they were facing serious financial problems. I saw this as an opportunity to learn and be a part of the solution (an integral component to becoming a CFO). I was working on financial statements, doing tax work, and moved into the Finance and Treasury management area to assist with the renegotiating of the company’s $6 billion debt while managing the treasury function. I got exposure to as many sides of the business as I possibly could and this experience was critical to my success down the road." 

What have you learned along the way that is integral to the path?

“I learned how to be a successful leader. Early in ones career, we can feel as though we have something to prove and our ego may get the best of us. It can become more about the title than the opportunity. Suffice to say that in today’s work environment there is no place for the old draconian rank and file style of leadership.

My focus is on my team rather than myself. I am a much more effective leader because I’m able to engage people towards a common goal. Good leaders know how to engage and empower their team. Open communication and feedback are as critical as having the right talent mix."

What is needed to become a CFO?

Think strategically.
This is my number one piece of advice for aspiring CFOs. Focus on the bigger picture and don’t get too caught up in minor details. In everything you do, consider what it means for the business as a whole. It’s a given that we must stay up-to-date on international reporting standards and SOX requirements and pay attention to the global economy, however the CFO that truly adds value is a key strategist in business growth initiatives.

Take calculated risks.
Don’t be afraid to get creative in ways to grow the business; the worst thing that can happen is that you can learn from what didn’t work.

Be a confident team player and decision-maker.
See yourself as a critical part of the leadership team. Walk the talk, and be respectful of yourself and others. Be the leader.

Have integrity.
This is essential for all CFOs. It is necessary to convey honesty and credibility for investors and for the company itself. Exemplify this value in all aspects of your personal and professional life.

Constantly develop your leadership skills.
Get leadership training, and attend leadership seminars and courses throughout your career. The workforce dynamic does not stay static, so you must keep abreast of changes in attitudes and expectations. These seminars provide a non-threatening forum for candid feedback and discussions around leadership issues. Don’t be afraid of constructive feedback on how others see you. It’s all part of the learning process”

What advice do you have for the next generation of finance professionals in Canada?

“Put yourself out there; opportunities won’t necessarily come to you. Build a strong profile on LinkedIn and get out to networking events. If you’re passionate about a certain industry, go to networking events for that industry and don’t be shy in telling people about your ambitions as well as asking for their advice on how to get there.

Find a mentor. I wish I’d had one. Ideally I would recommend someone that has 10-20 years more experience than you. They can help you with advice, not only based upon their experience, but their network could provide you with some helpful leads to new opportunities.

Get as much diverse experience as possible. Compared to 10 years ago, companies are more specific about the talent they are looking for. For example, they used to focus on compliance experience, but now compliance is taken for granted and M&A expertise is required. This means you need to expose yourself to as much as possible to get experience under your belt. If you aren’t getting that experience with your current company, look for opportunities where you can develop yourself professionally.

You should never feel trapped in your job; always focus on your career moving forward. You need the right people around you, the right leader, and the right company that will motivate and encourage you towards achieving your goals. If things aren’t right, don’t be afraid to make a change. It’s never been more important to be proactive in managing one’s career. Seek out a corporate culture based upon leadership that is keen to develop the next generation of new CFO’s and business leaders.”

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