The Making of a CFO

John Kiernan shares six lessons learned from the Boy Scouts of America and Wall Street that guide his work at Greenwich Associates

John Kiernan believes the key to success is to learn as much as you can. "Read everything you can...and challenge yourself with the rigors of earning new credentials."

I remain heavily influenced by the outdoor and leadership training I received as a youth through the Boy Scouts of America, and I’ve returned as a board member and Scoutmaster. Early in my life, I was planning outings and testing myself in executive and leadership capacities. I learned skills that now help me every day in my leadership role within our finance department. The Boy Scout motto—“Be prepared”—may sound cliché now, but it is the bedrock of leadership. When I walk into a board meeting, I am ready to answer any financially related question. I anticipate all lines of questioning and I bring backup material.

Someone out in the woods for the first time probably can’t make a fire without matches, but someone more skilled should be able to accomplish that task. It comes with practice. It’s the same principle in business. As financial leaders, we need to hold ourselves to high standards so we can cast vision and do what we’re there to do. A good leader should keep learning, read a lot, view webinars, talk to colleagues, and attend conferences to stay current. By the time you’re a CFO, you have a great foundation of knowledge, but to stay in the game you’ve got to keep up with technology and trends in the industry.


We all know that working in a team gets things done more efficiently, but what’s really important is developing the ability to be a good team member. This requires some of the traits that I learned during my days as a scout. The Boy Scout law teaches members to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. These are good qualities for a teammate. It requires honesty and communication to build the shared sense of purpose needed for a strong team. Then someone has to step into a leadership role. It’s hard to lead by appointment; you have to earn respect. In the financial world, that’s earned by competency.

As an investment banker, I know how important cash flow is. It’s the most important thing for a company, and it’s my top priority as CFO. Adequate cash flow gives a com-pany cushion so it can set its own agenda and control its destiny. You’ve got to be able to pay the bills. Vigilance and aggressive cash-flow management are good technical skills every CFO needs to master.

When I was on Wall Street, I always hated micromanagers. I try to allow my team to do their jobs without interference. We’ve got a great mix of seasoned veterans and rising stars. We’re all held accountable for milestones and deadlines, and we sit together and talk constantly. We meet in smaller teams weekly. We’re paid competitively, but I think [the team’s] real motivation is that they have the opportunity to be excellent. I try to serve as a buffer from external distractions while still ensuring our colleagues get what they need from finance to improve their business.

This comes from the Boy Scout oath and our duty to self and to others. That means we should have strong moral character and we should help those around us. Credibility is so important. People in business have to be able to believe you’ll do what you say, and they need to know that they can rely on the information you provide. Otherwise, you’ll never be seen as a good leader and a valued member of the organization. Our finance department employees all have marketable and transferrable skills. They can find a job just about anywhere. Treat them right, and they’ll stay.