Visa’s CFO reveals the hardest part of any leadership role

There’s an old saying that “the only constant is change.”

And nowhere is that more true than in the upper ranks of the media business, where current Visa CFO Vasant Prabhu spent a chunk of his career.

He had spent several years as the SVP of finance and CFO at PepsiCo, when Harold Whittlesey “Terry” McGraw III, then CEO of McGraw-Hill Companies, approached Prabhu about taking on the role of president of the information and media group, he said. McGraw-Hill was one of his clients when Prabhu began his career working as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. The position included overseeing TV stations, B2B trade publications, and the flagship magazine BusinessWeek. (Bloomberg LP bought the magazine in 2009 and renamed it Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)

The job met his four criteria. “My first passion has always been the media business,” he said. Prabhu knew McGraw-Hill’s culture and team well from his consulting days, he explained. McGraw was someone whom he liked and respected. And Prabhu saw a way to make an impact. “It was 1998, just as the internet was taking off,” he said. “I saw this incredible opportunity that existed to digitize these [print] businesses.” Although “it was very hard to leave Pepsi, I felt this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Prabhu said. “Terry bet on me. I’d never run a business before, let alone businesses like these that were quite substantial.”

Under his lead, the group started to make the pivot by creating BusinessWeek online, Prabhu said. “We tried to get a whole bunch of the businesses to move to digital,” he said. But it was the early stages of the dotcom boom. For instance, Amazon just went public in 1997; AOL was “still a big player”; and Google and Facebook didn’t yet exist, Prabhu said. “I would say nobody at that time [understood] how devastating the impact of digital media would be on the traditional print media,” he said. “Everyone thought that they needed to add a digital component to their business. But they didn’t realize how significant the change would be over time.”

As the leader of the media group, Prabhu shouldered this responsibility to a greater degree than if he were the finance chief. “The big difference between being CFO and being president is there’s a much larger component of people management,” Prabhu said. “The role is more operational. And the hardest part of any leadership role is managing change, which is hard because it’s risky. It’s uncomfortable. And often people are threatened by it.”

The media world’s pace of change only accelerated from there, but Prabhu says his time in that role helped make him a better leader and CFO later on.

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