Aligning Financial Leadership With Organizational Goals

May 23, 2024 Mimi Torrington

financial leadership discussing organizational goals in conference room

Everyone thinks the main job of a CFO is to maintain the financial health of an organization. While true, Stacey Ryan-Cornelius believes a modern CFO's role goes beyond keeping the books. They should be a strategic business partner, working closely with all leaders to ensure aligning financial leadership with organizational goals. To learn more about this crucial shift, Stacey joins us in the latest episode of CFO Weekly.

Stacey is the Global Chief Financial Officer at Ogilvy, bringing over 30 years of experience in the entertainment, media, and communications industry. As an innovative and strategic business partner, she is dedicated to driving growth. Stacey is also an NYS Licensed CPA, a Certified Management Accountant, a member of Chief, and serves as a Trustee Board member of Marymount Manhattan College.

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Megan - 00:00:18: Today, my guest is Stacey Ryan Cornelius, Global Chief Financial Officer at Ogilvy. Stacey is an innovative and strategic business partner with an exemplary balance of commercial, operational, and technical financial acumen. A results-focused growth champion with 30 years of experience in the entertainment, media, and communications industry, she goes beyond the traditional boundaries of a CFO and is uniquely adept at leading complex strategic and operational initiatives, as well as managing risk, driving transformation, and unifying people for common goals. Stacey is known for her empowering leadership style and encourages innovation and experimentation without sacrificing thoughtful and accountable decision-making. She is very passionate about creativity and unlocking areas of the business to elevate value to enable sustainable growth. Stacey started her career at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she gained valuable experience in auditing major multinational production, advertising, and publishing clients, and complex merger acquisition and IPO transactions. In 1999, she joined Ogilvy & Mather, and during her 19-year tenure, she held various regional and global financial leadership positions, including serving as the company's worldwide controller until 2018. After leaving Ogilvy, Stacey went on to be the Global Chief Financial Officer of WPP Health & Wellness, where she spent 15 months restructuring the portfolio, executing key transformation initiatives, and delivering financial and strategic direction across 64 operating units in the U.S., Canada, EMEA, and Asia. Stacey most recently served as the Global Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer of Geometry Global, which was the global force behind launching a restructuring and transformation plan to drive growth and strengthen the financial health of the company. This bold transformation led to Geometry's successful relaunch as VMLY&R Commerce in 2020. Active in her field, Stacey is an NYS licensed CPA, certified management accountant, a member of chief, and a trustee board member of Marymount Manhattan College. She is also a proud member of the steering committee of “We All Rise Together” a collective of advertising and media industry professionals catalyzing change in and for the Black and Brown community across 3 strategic pillars: health, wealth, and mobility. Stacey has been featured in Black Enterprise Magazine as one of the 75 Most Powerful Women in Business. And is a graduate of the Zicklin School of Business of Bernard Baruch College. Stacey, thank you very much for being my guest on today's episode of CFO Weekly.

Stacey - 00:03:44: Hi, thank you. It's a pleasure. I'm looking forward to it.

Megan - 00:03:47: Yeah, and today we're going to be talking about elevating financial leadership and the strategic imperatives of modern CFOs. And I'm looking forward to learning from you and about you and your experiences. So let's jump right in.

Stacey - 00:04:00: Cool, excellent.

Megan - 00:04:02: So our listeners can get a sense of who you are professionally. Let's just start with a brief overview of your career journey to date.

Stacey - 00:04:10: Absolutely. So I started, well, it's funny. So my very, very first sort of job in this field was probably when I was 16 as a bookkeeper in a supermarket, right? That's when I got the bug, to be quite honest, about numbers and keeping things in balance and just being able to help people in a certain way. I had a feel for it, started, went to Baruch College here in New York City, started in public accounting. So I'm going to date myself and call it PricewaterhouseCoopers, but I started in what was Legacy PricewaterhouseCoopers, now PricewaterhouseCoopers in the audit group. Luckily, when they were kind of picking straws, I did get assigned to the entertainment, media and communications group, which I think was pivotal to how my career turned out after that. So I had a lot of great clients there that really piqued my interest in the very creative industry that I still sit in. After about seven years there, had my first child, kind of looked at landscape. Didn't feel like I wanted to be on the partnership track. And I had a very close friend who was actually at Ogilvy at the time, who I'd worked with at Pw. And she was like, when you get a moment and you want to have a conversation, let's do that. And that was 24 years ago. So since that time, I've been in Ogilvy and a couple of other companies within the WPP group, but just two organizations between WPP and PwC, but years and years of different challenges and experiences. So it wouldn't have changed a thing.

Megan - 00:05:39: And what is it that you enjoy about the entertainment, media and communications industry?

Stacey - 00:05:43: Oh, I think it's that no day is the same, right? To actually see what we do day in and day out in different levels of culture and the marketplace, I've always found fascinating. And like you can work in another industry where there's a product on the shelf or et cetera, but the emotional connection that I think people have to the product of creativity and the impact that it can make has always been something that, that I fascinated. And I think I got it honest because when I was young, very interested in performing arts, fancied myself a dancer through dance in school until I got onto pointe shoes and realized that wasn't for me either, but love the theater, love anything TV production wise. And I guess falling into advertising or communications where I am now was a natural progression. So just looking at the business from all those angles and the fact that the creative mind is so fascinating, I think has just been something that I've always gravitated towards.

Megan - 00:06:39: And as a CFO surrounded by so many right brain thinkers, do you ever feel like you're speaking a different language or do they bring out the creativity in you?

Stacey - 00:06:48: They bring out the creativity in me. I've typically been said or characterized as not a typical CFO. And I take pride in that because I feel like I'm not a fish out of water, quite frankly. Yes, I have this other saying, like, I don't mind being the keeper of the truth. I like being sort of the round pig in a square hole, just try to keep everybody together. And I live vicariously through them. So yes, I'm the one that tries to make sure that we deliver on our financial objectives and our strategic objectives, but I feed energy off of them and I think vice versa. So like, I'll even start the communications that I have either to our executive committee or to others with quote, right? I love the written word. I love to write. I love to read. So that kind of storytelling with the financials is something that I take pride in. So I try to make sure that I'm communicating to our business in the language that they understand. And I love that. I love actually creating those stories around the numbers because I think part of my job obviously is to be persuasive and to drive results. And it's just another way to do that.

Megan - 00:07:51: Yeah. The role of storyteller is something I hear over and over again as it relates to a CFO today. Right. And speaking of the role of CFO, how have you seen that evolve throughout your career? And what do you think have been the key drivers behind this evolution?

Stacey - 00:08:09: It's interesting because you start out with a mindset, at least I did, not really knowing what a CFO did. You startup and say, okay, you're the one who keeps the books or you kind of keep risk at bay, et cetera, et cetera. Over time, I got really, really interested in the operational aspect of it and the strategic aspect of it. What are the products that we want to put out into the market and how's the best way to do that efficiently and the impact that it makes on the organization? So I've seen a much more future forward, strategic, business partnering. Like, actually, yes, CFO is my craft. The financial health of the organization is my craft, but I'm a partner in business just like everybody else. So in any given day, particularly if I talk about our people, our talent for this particular organization, our talent is our biggest asset. That's not on the balance sheet, but it's also my biggest cost. So we need to make sure that anything that involves the people in our organization, no matter what role they play, is critical to how we're going to be successful as an organization. So I have a very close people partner. If I'm talking about the reputation of the organization, which will then affect the business and pipeline, then I'm very closely aligned to our communications group, clearly have a great partnership with my CEO. So when she has her brain thinking about all the different things she wants to do, I'm trying to keep up with her to make sure that I'm moving things out of the way in order for those things to happen. So in any given day, you are an architect, you're an engineer, you're a therapist. And it's just that excites me that it isn't actually one single thing. And if you are a good CFO and an operational CFO, you will have either good teams in either of those places that you partner with, or you'll have your arms around it if it's a smaller organization yourself. So I see the beauty in both.

Megan - 00:09:59: And you mentioned at one point that you became interested in the operational side of things. So how do you nurture that desire, to learn more about the business, particularly like early on in your career?

Stacey - 00:10:14: You just talk to people. I feel relationships, I mean, this is a relationship business in particular. And it's funny because I never fancied myself as being an extrovert. I probably am not. I'm probably an introvert because I do get my energy. Once I learned what the difference was, I kind of get my energy from going into my office and trying to re-energize myself that way. But there's so much to be learned from conversations. So I just, in my early parts of my career, where I kind of had my day-to-day that I was supposed to be doing, I took it upon myself to talk to people who are running different product lines or different businesses or capabilities. And people love to talk about what they do, right? So and, as long as you seem interested and you're catching on, and then you're also then helping them do certain things along the way, they will continue to feed you so that you feel like you know what you're talking about eventually. And I think that was one of the things that I used the most was just opening up the conversations. And thankfully, I had willing business leaders who at the time loved what they were getting from me. And it was a cross-mentorship sort of situation to the point where I felt more comfortable across the organization to talk about it. I mean, particularly here where I am, we have several different capabilities with different nuances and different commercial models. So it's very, very important for me to understand what we do and the challenges that the business leaders have in doing that in order to help them the best way.

Megan - 00:11:41: And as a CFO, you've been deeply involved in leading transformative initiatives and driving strategic growth. So can you share some examples of how you've leveraged your financial acumen to spearhead innovation within your organizations?

Stacey - 00:11:56: Absolutely. So again, kind of leading with the creative mantra, there's a mindset that we have, particularly here at Ogilvy, that was started by a creative leader a while ago called pervasive creativity. And it basically means that we're all created equally creative. It's just different ways that it comes about. So there was a time where I didn't think that you can come up with a way to do something depending upon the problem, but we didn't necessarily feel like that was necessarily something that would be classified as creative. I mean, essentially being a problem solver is what happens. So if there is... Particularly, I think one of the things that I've gotten the knack for is sort of transforming and restructuring, to your point, right? So I go in there and there's a couple of different things that could be done better with the organization. And it takes really decisive scenario planning and decision making. So there's been a couple of occasions throughout my tenure within WPP where things have been less than optimal. And you basically, you figure out the right team that you need and you kind of figure out, all right, what's the path forward? And you've got to be able to be persuasive and push through it. And it's hard work. It's really hard work. It takes a lot of energy. But I mean, I think the best example I have, maybe not the best, but one of the ones that I think meant a lot to me was when I was at one of the other WPP companies right before this one. And we had to re-engineer the brand. We cast the talent. And so to take it from A to B and the partnership that I had with the CEO at that time of that organization, I mean, basically she asked me, where's my wiggle room? So we kind of went through the entire finances of the organization. I kind of gave her a realm of possibility with where she could play with some money in order to get some things done. But then operationally, that's where it was actually a big operational challenge because operationally it was a lot of, all right, let's talk people through it. It was change management pieces of it. So it wasn't only this is the plan. It was executing that plan with everybody in lockstep with her. And that business actually was able to be transformed. We took it and we put it into a bigger, broader business within the group. And it's doing extremely, extremely well now. And to the point where even a vision that we had of what was basically our commerce business that we had, that it's now won awards. And just that vision that we had back then in terms of revitalizing that brand. And it was helped a bit by the fact that we were going through COVID and that part of the business was starting to boom. But even today, like with them winning awards and seeing people in that business now in very high levels of the new organization, I still to this day get calls or thank yous for the way that we kind of held that business through all of that during that time. And now here at my current organization, we're just, again, getting ourselves into such a great position with taking risks and doing certain things. And it's paying off and it's very, very good. So you have to have a good stomach, definitely.

Megan - 00:15:00: Yeah. I mean, particularly as a CFO, who by nature is probably very risk averse. How do you get comfortable with the idea of taking risks?

Stacey - 00:15:10: I think it's measured, right? So it's measured risk. It's not haphazard, right? Because that's not a good practitioner. It's trust a bit, right? Because sometimes things don't always go the way you expect them to go. But when things may be turning a different corner, you have to be with a team that you trust that you can get it right again. So I think that's important. Like there's no individual when you're doing these types of things. There's obviously people leading and that's important. And the most uncomfortable part of leadership is being able to say things that other people don't see it. So I think that's, it's a bit of art and science I've always said. So the science part is obviously doing all the financial modeling, knowing what you can, well, knowing what your parameters are and kind of figuring all of that out. But then that's just numbers on a piece of paper. It's the human behavior piece of it that can throw that completely off if you're not really in tune with the other parts of what it takes to make things work. So. And I find that fascinating. I find behavioral science fascinating because I leverage that into whatever models that I'm building with the organization to say, this may look good on paper, but again, if you don't have the right people, if you don't set the right environment or right culture, it won't work. So that's why it's really exhausting because you do have to look at it in that full picture.

Megan - 00:16:30: And leading those types of transformational initiatives require collaboration and alignment with other business functions. So how do you foster that collaboration between finance and other departments to ensure alignment with organizational goals and objectives and just to make sure everybody's on the same page?

Stacey - 00:16:50: Yeah, I think as human beings, we each are trying to fulfill a need that is driving us. So I find myself to be a good observer. And so if I'm needing to get, in our instance, the creative and strategy groups aligned to something or even something to deal with my parent company or whatever, you got to kind of take a moment and figure out what's motivating them. Right. What is their intense need? And then where do we bridge? And then you work on that a lot. And it's hard work. Right. But then you, again, talking to people in the language that they understand, connecting the dots, being direct and open and transparent. I think it's really super important.

Megan - 00:17:30: Yeah.

Stacey - 00:17:30: You never want people. I mean, there's politics within it, of course. But if you're a decent human being, you're talking about the issue, you're building a level of trust and you're respecting where people are coming from and what their individual needs are. Chances are you can get to a good collaborative situation. And it doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes it takes time to build it. I always say I actually have trust issues myself. So I understand where people are coming from when they're motivated by what they think is the most important and you're trying to get something across the line. So I think it's just constant communication, constant relationship building, pick up the phone. Don't do everything in texts or emails because they misinterpret what you say. Sometimes body language is more important than most things. So, and that's what I do enjoy. I always say the organization here in particular, we have our clients, which are our marketplace clients, which are very, very important to us. But then each person who stands in front of my door is a client to me because I know they're coming here with a need. And I feel that a part of my role in the organization is to help them deliver. So I'll listen to them the best way and then bridge them to try to collaborate the best way. Because again, there's no I in team, as they say, which is a stereotypical way of saying things. But I've seen it years and years and years and it just doesn't work if you have just individual contributors.

Megan - 00:18:50: And I know that change management is often the hardest part of any of those transformations. So how do you go about getting people to adopt the change once it's been made?

Stacey - 00:19:03: When I figure it out, I'll let you know. It's tough, right? I mean, what do they say? Most projects fail because of that, right? Because you can have a great strategy.

Megan - 00:19:16: People don't like change.

Stacey - 00:19:18: They don't like change. They really don't like change. And you got to, I guess, understand what it means to, what is your definition of success sometimes, right? Because I think we do have very altruistic ways of defining that. And I think, look, the one permanence of life is change that I think people don't realize the most.

Megan - 00:19:36: And taxes.

Stacey - 00:19:38: Oh, there you go. So it's no matter what you're doing, there's a level, you try to get them as comfortable as they can. There's some people who will not want to stay on the boat. So you give them an off ramp, right? I think that's honest, as long as the direction of travel is clear and you kind of get to it as the best as you can. And even when you're given the off ramp, you try to make sure that you do it in the most empathetic way possible, because that's just who I am as an individual. And it's, again, constant communication. You can never communicate enough. And then over time, if the vision is strong and if the team is strong enough, then things start to happen. And then you leverage momentum.

Megan - 00:20:20: Yeah. Right.

Stacey - 00:20:21: Exactly. Right. Because then you're like, okay. And then you use other people as change agents, because if you're doing it the right way, you shouldn't be the one who's always having to say it. Right. Because then it's building into the DNA of the organization. And then everybody else is being a change agent as well. I mean, the best example of that I could think of is years and years and years ago. We, change an ERP system that shocks the system in particular, the business, the finance organization, and especially its people process tools. Right. So the tool, the ERP system itself is just the after. It's getting people's heads in the mindset that we need to align to a different business process and what's in it for them is the most important thing there. So you spend a lot of time on that first. And then the ERP system, hopefully, if you do a good implementation, will work itself out. But success is defined by the business then working more in tandem to something that's better for them, but that the people accept where that change took them to.

Megan - 00:21:22: Yeah, great answer. Thank you. And as a high achieving leader, avoiding the trap of seeking constant approval can be challenging. So how do you maintain confidence in your decisions without succumbing to the need for external validation, particularly in an industry where perfectionism is often rewarded?

Stacey - 00:21:41: Yeah, now that is actually when I was sort of setting my mindset for our conversation today, that was actually my favorite question. And I'll tell you why. Look, I'm a woman of color leading a very, very big organization that I adore. There's always the conversations of imposter syndrome that come in no matter who you are, right? I think anybody can get imposter syndrome, but it is more aligned to some reason to women and possibly even people of color. And I am probably a type A individual, as they say, and do like to feel like my contribution to an organization, it's felt like it has this gratitude towards it. That being said, I had to learn over the years because I'm also, whenever they've done a 360 on me, they're like, you work too much, right? Like, it'd be better if you delegate more, those types of things, because you have so much to offer, bring more people along the journey. But as I mentioned a little bit before, because I have trust issues sometimes, I know personally that I feel like, again, if I do it, then it's going to be perfect, right? So it's a little harder for me to sort of reach out. And I had to learn over time that no set of tasks define who I am. And you can't live or be successful if you're in fear of somebody approving what you do all the time. They're not going to get the best of you. You're not going to feel like you're releasing your energy the right way. So especially, I think, over the past, say, seven to eight years, where the decisions got tougher to make, and the stakes were higher, the businesses were bigger, the people's lives that you were affecting were much more impactful. You kind of felt like you can't spend your entire life feeling like everything you do is based off of that one moment, right? It's a collection of moments. I have a brand as a person that hopefully is strong, having been here for 24 years. And it's just a constant reminder that in order to be the best person I am, I have to be comfortable with who I am at the end of the day. And of course, I care about what the sponsors or the leaders of the organization say about what I deliver and what I bring to the organization. But in the end, it's only going to be me in the end. So I need to be comfortable with what I'm contributing. And hopefully, people will like what I do. Not everybody's going to like who I am. And I appreciate that, although I hope that the mass majority of them do. But I think it's very important to be comfortable in yourself and what you have to contribute. And then if you're doing that the right way, then people see that and it flows and it takes on its own life.

Megan - 00:24:16: And diversity, equity, and inclusion have become increasingly important considerations for businesses these days. So as a member of the We All Rise Together Collective, how do you see CFOs contributing to DEI efforts within their organizations? And why is it essential for them to champion diversity and inclusion?

Stacey - 00:24:38: I mean, I think it just goes back to the strategy of the business. I would be a fool if I thought that I could be the leader of a communications company and not have individuals in this organization who culturally understand the world and who look like the world. Like, it just, the math just add up. And thankfully, I'm in the room or responsible for approving or making decisions around budgeting and forecasting and approving hires that allows me to ask the tough questions along with my partners in the organization about what we need to do in order to be better. And I take it in pride that my family was able to support me enough to be able to get to a position of this level. I have two daughters, who I equally support, but at least they get to see me in this seat and take pride in that. And I'd like to see that replicated as much as possible, no matter what level of or what type of diversity you would be talking about. So, A, if you're in the room, you got the checkbook, do the right thing. I think that's really important. Support the program. Support the outreach. Support the hires. Support the recruiting. Support the training. Because if there's a matter of, well, we don't have enough of that, then create the environment where that can thrive. Because it's one thing to acquire the talent. It's another thing to make them feel comfortable in the space that they're in. So, I think that's super, super important. And with We All Rise Together, that was such an amazing, or it is such an amazing experience because it was people from all over the industry using their talent to help brown and brown people all over the city in any way, shape, or form.Do a lot of different things. It was mental health. It was small business. And it was just each other helping recruiting and getting talent into organizations. So, really, really respected group of people who kind of just came together to do good. And so, those relationships, again, relationship building, I think has helped me do good also here in making sure that this organization in particular is starting to evolve in that way as well.

Megan - 00:26:59: And, last question for you. But as you look into the future, is there anything that keeps you up at night?

Stacey - 00:27:06: Well, it does, doesn't it? I actually sleep fairly well.

Megan - 00:27:09: Sleep is very important.

Stacey - 00:27:12: It is, in order to have the energy to come back the next day. Look, I'm always worried about whether or not the people that we have in our organization feel like they're in the environment that they can thrive the best, because that is essentially what will give us the best outcome from a business perspective. So I do worry about people issues quite frequently, as well as delivering on some of the financial objectives we have as an organization, but that's kind of normal. So I think it's a matter of, like, I'm always worried about my team. I'm thinking, like, is my team okay? Am I working them too hard? Am I clear on what we need? I'm a very, very people person. So I think if there's anything, then I'm always mindful as to how my team are doing versus myself. So that's one of the things that I constantly have to work on is kind of putting myself first, definitely. But without your team, you're nobody. So I do worry about my team quite a lot.

Megan - 00:28:08: Yeah, you sound like an amazing leader.

Stacey - 00:28:10: Oh, thank you.

Megan - 00:28:12: No, thank you for being my guest here today. I really appreciate you taking the time to be here with us just to share your experience and knowledge.

Stacey - 00:28:20: I appreciate it. This was wonderful. Thank you for the opportunity.

Megan - 00:28:23: Yep. I wish you all the best and Ogilvy all the best. And to our listeners, please tune in next week. And until then, take care.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How CFOs drive strategic organizational success

  • The creative mindset of a CFO

  • Aligning financial leadership with organizational goals

  • Leading transformational initiatives

  • The role of diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Key Takeaways:

From Numbers to Narratives

As a CFO, Stacey sees herself as a storyteller who uses financial data to create compelling narratives that drive results. Stacey's role has evolved from simply keeping books to becoming a strategic business partner, working closely with talent, communications, and the CEO to ensure organizational success. Stacey enjoys the multifaceted nature of her job, where she can be an architect, engineer, and therapist all in one day, constantly energized by the challenges she faces.

financial leadership goals Quote

“I love creating those stories around the numbers because I think part of my job is to be persuasive and drive results.” Cornelius said. - 06:39 - 09:59

Aligning Financial Leadership with Organizational Goals

As a CFO, Stacey has led transformative initiatives by embracing her pervasive creativity. By leveraging decisive scenario planning and strategic decision-making, she has successfully restructured organizations, driving significant growth. One notable example is her work at WPP, where she re-engineered the brand, cast new talent, and collaborated closely with the CEO to navigate financial constraints.

Stacey Ryan Cornelius Global Chief Financial Officer at Ogilvy Quote

As Cornelius said, “There's a mindset that we have, particularly here at Ogilvy, that was started by a creative leader a while ago called pervasive creativity. And it basically means that we're all created equally creative. It's just different ways that it comes about.” - 11:40 - 15:00

Mastering Financial Leadership and Organizational Collaboration

To foster collaboration between finance and other departments, start by understanding what motivates each team and where their needs intersect. Build trust through constant, transparent communication, and be open to understanding each person's perspective. Use direct, empathetic dialogue to connect the dots and ensure everyone feels heard. Also, admit that change is hard, but by defining success clearly, offering empathetic exits for those who can't adapt, and leveraging momentum through strong vision and team alignment, you can drive effective, lasting transformation.

mastering financial leadership and organizational goals Quote

“As human beings, we each are trying to fulfill a need that is driving us, so I find myself to be a good observer. And so if I need to get in our instance the creative and strategy groups aligned to something, or even something to deal with my parent company or whatever, you have to take a moment and figure out what's motivating them.” According to Cornelius. - 16:30 - 21:21

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Many organizations struggle with misalignment between financial leadership and overall organizational goals. This disconnect can lead to inefficiencies, missed opportunities, and ultimately, hinder growth. At Personiv, we believe in fostering a collaborative environment where financial leadership can become a strategic partner, driving initiatives aligned with the company's vision.

Our financial services can help by streamlining administrative tasks and freeing up valuable time for your CFO and financial team to focus on strategic planning and collaboration.

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