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Making Finance Tick

Why the right executive assistant makes all the difference.

1Jun

Ed Cordell was in a tight spot. As CFO of Gravograph Inc., he was telling his board about the company's quest to capture 8 percent of U.S. sales for its engraving equipment. But the members were not happy. "We had signed a $3 million distribution agreement with a retail company and our board had a few questions about the contract — which we'd left back at the office," recalls Cordell. Which, as it happened, was 850 miles away.

Thinking fast, Cordell sent an E-mail to the one person at the Atlanta headquarters who could help — his assistant, Lisa Jackson. "I told her the general location of the information," he explains. Within minutes she had figured out the answers and sent the information necessary to placate the board. "It was a big save," says Cordell.

Such "saves" happen daily if you have the right assistant, say finance executives. And while there are no statistics on how many CFOs have their own assistants, those who do insist they are the glue that keeps their finance department together. No longer relegated to answering phones and taking dictation, many function as the CFO's right-hand man — or woman, as is more often the case — taking on everything from office management to account oversight. More important, says Bob Blakely, recently installed CFO of Fannie Mae, he or she has to be "my eyes and ears."

Comfort Levels


Finding the right assistant is never easy. In Blakely's case, though, it began as an exercise in frustration. Brought in from WorldCom to direct Fannie Mae's $11 billion restatement effort, Blakely needed to find an assistant committed enough to work night and day to get things done. So Beverly Fitzgerald, executive assistant to CEO Daniel Mudd, took matters into her own hands and borrowed Pauline Stephenson from another department.

Blakely immediately took notice of Stephenson's attention to detail, ability to stay ahead on filing, and willingness to take ownership of tasks. Two weeks into the arrangement, he asked Stephenson to stay on. "After being in business for so long, you can just tell when an assistant knows her game," he explains.

Other finance executives are more comfortable with known quantities. For Daryl Rhodes, CFO of Waltham, Massachusetts-based MetaMatrix Inc., there was no doubt whom he would hire when finance at the software provider proved too much to handle alone. Rhodes had known Carrie Flick for more than 20 years, having worked with her previously at Bridge Information Systems Inc. (now part of Reuters). "Through her many years of work experience, Carrie has naturally transitioned from a pure assistant to more of a department manager," he says.

That's imperative in her new role, where Flick handles such duties as accounts payable, payroll, and employee benefits, along with all the administrative work. With such a small staff, says Rhodes, "the two of us have become the entire finance, HR, and accounting departments."

Chemistry Must Be Right


To help determine fit, Dale Wallis, CFO of Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit R&D center for the U.S. Air Force, recommends a trial period. With more than 30 years' experience in the finance sector, Wallis has had about 12 assistants. Of those, most were promoted or hired after he'd tested them in their roles. "Chemistry is so important, but it's so hard to figure out in a few interviews," he says. The best way to test? Use a temp agency, he says, and have the person remain in the position for three to six months.

Observing the candidate at work is just what Wallis did with his current assistant, Janice Mitsushima. Three years ago when Wallis's previous assistant left, he looked around the company for a replacement. Mitsushima, who worked for another business manager, "was respected by the other executive assistants. Whenever they needed help, she would jump in." That teamwork showed when Wallis's assistant was on another assignment and Mitsushima stepped in to cover both offices — a stint that solidified Wallis's decision to hire her.

One area to assess during a trial or interview, says Cordell, now vice president of finance for Given Imaging Inc., in Duluth, Georgia, is whether or not the person complements the CFO. "The assistant needs to have better skills than I do in certain areas," he says. For example, "I'm a pack rat, so I'll look for someone who's not afraid to say, 'We need to do something with this stack.'" He also finds out what candidates disliked about previous bosses. "I know my style, and I want to make sure it won't conflict with the other person's," says Cordell. Wallis welcomes differences, too, especially when his office gets hectic. "When things get very busy, I tend to raise the stress level. Janice knows how to calm things down."

Remember, of course, that the potential assistant is also testing you, says Jeri Hilleman of Santa Clara, California-based Symyx Technologies Inc. "A surprising number of assistants do not want to work with women executives," she notes. "Often they perceive us as tougher or colder. All three of my assistants had reservations about working for a woman." But she was able to change that perception once they came on board. In fact, Colleen Morefield has been Hilleman's assistant for eight years, and the two have cultivated a great working relationship. "We often say that between the two of us, we have one capable person," quips Hilleman.

Share and Share Alike


Some CFOs, however, don't have the luxury of an executive assistant. Tight budgets and new technology have combined to eliminate the position at many firms. For example, it's been nearly six years since Cordell has had his own executive assistant. Ginger Disney, whom Cordell shares with Given Imaging's vice president of development, handles travel plans, manages calendars for both executives, assembles presentations, and manages their offices.

With so much for her to do, there's no room for last-minute forgetfulness. "We can't come in on Monday morning and expect her to prepare presentations for both of us for Tuesday," he says. Instead, the two executives must remain on top of their own tasks and anticipate busy times. "It can be difficult, especially around board meetings and presentations," says Cordell.

Despite varying opinions on how to find the right assistant, most finance executives agree there are three must-haves: strong communication skills, top-notch organizational skills, and dedication to getting things done. When all is said and done, however, CFOs recommend following your gut. "There's no set formula," says Blakely. "Sometimes you just get lucky."

Laura DeMars is a reporter for CFO.

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