How 3 CFOs at top companies went from intern to C-suite

February 1, 2023, 11:46 AM UTC
From left: EVP and CFO of Medtronic Karen Parkhill, TIAA CFO W. Dave Dowrich, and CFO of Analog Devices Prashanth Mahendra-Rajah.
Courtesy of TIAA, Medtronic, Analog Devices

Good morning,

As we continue our series for aspiring CFOs, finance chiefs at Fortune 500 and Fortune Global 500 companies share how their varied experiences from undergrad to internships led to a finance path, what they learned in their first-ever C-suite role, and advice they’d give their younger selves.

Prashanth Mahendra-Rajah, EVP of finance and CFO at Analog Devices, a multinational semiconductor company

A career in finance wasn’t originally in Prashanth Mahendra-Rajah’s plans as both his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are in engineering. But it was actually his first role as a process engineer that laid the foundation for his current leadership.  

“I worked at a plant where the factory manager was legendary for his focus on cost management,” Mahendra-Rajah explains. “Despite that frugality, one day there was a large order for a discontinued product and I was tasked with restarting the plant, with no expense spared. It amazed me how we spent so much energy on cost management historically, and this mentality shifted completely with the right profit opportunity.” Dealing with supply and demand dynamics was key to his understanding of finance’s influence at an organization, and compelled him to pursue an MBA at Purdue University. 

Prior to joining ADI in 2017, Mahendra-Rajah was CFO of WABCO Holdings Inc., a global supplier of commercial vehicle technologies. He previously served as division CFO and in other financial leadership roles at Applied Materials, Visa, and United Technologies.

“Early in my career, I had a mentor who taught me that to be an effective finance leader, you need to generate constructive conflict, but in an approachable and positive manner, to improve decision-making,” he says.

What’s a challenge you faced when entering your first-ever C-suite job? “You quickly realize that there is nobody to back-stop you. To put it another way, you can no longer walk into your boss’ office and ask if this sounds right or wrong because you would be walking into the CEO’s office. This is a significant shift in mindset, and what I learned was that you need to have confidence in yourself and trust that the experiences gained throughout your career have prepared you for the opportunity. While it can be intimidating at first, you have to trust your instincts and your team.”

What would you tell your younger self? “I have always been a firm believer in the 70-20-10 talent development model, which says that 70% of employee development is driven by experience,” Mahendra-Rajah says.

He is referring to the 70-20-10 rule, a leadership development finding, that people tend to learn 70% of their knowledge from challenging experiences and assignments, 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from coursework and training.

“Early in your career, you must commit to learning the business fundamentals from the products to the customers, not just the financial statements,” Mahendra-Rajah says. “You also have the benefit of being new, so it’s easier to ask questions, build your business acumen and take the riskier role to gain different experiences. This serves you tremendously later in your finance career when you need to solve problems with pattern recognition.”

W. Dave Dowrich, senior executive vice president and CFO at TIAA, a financial services organization

“I am first-generation college-educated,” says W. Dave Dowrich. He originally thought he’d be an architect when entering the University of Toronto. But earning advanced credits from his high school in Barbados led him to a major in applied statistics and actuarial science, and eventually to the CFO chair.

Dowrich, who joined TIAA in 2021, handles financial management and planning, actuarial, tax, accounting, and financial reporting. Before TIAA, he served as CFO of international businesses at Prudential Financial. He also had various leadership roles at American International Group (AIG) including interim CEO of international life and retirement, and several divisional CFO roles.

Dowrich credits an internship at Manulife in Toronto as providing a solid learning experience. In addition, the rigor of preparing for the “intense” actuarial exam process created camaraderie amongst a group of 20 or 30 students he knew. “So that gave me comfort; it gave me support,” he says.

“Not only was I enthralled by what I was doing during the day, coursework that included the combination of math and business, but my internship also provided me with a network that was really, really important,” he explains.

The actuarial community remained supportive, including at consulting jobs he had at firms such as Willis Towers Watson, while still working through the rest of his actuarial exams, Dowrich says. Senior partners became both informal and formal mentors. And that type of mentorship continued throughout his career.

“Every job change that I’ve contemplated, I’ve had somebody in my corner to talk to, whether it be an uncle or the CEO of a firm I was working for at the time,” says Dorwich, who earned his MBA at The Wharton School.

Dowrich is currently one of few Black CFOs at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies, and reports to Thasunda Brown Duckett, the first woman to become CEO of TIAA, and one of two Black women who are currently chief executives of a Fortune 500 company. “Thasunda has always said that talent is created equally but opportunity is not,” he explains. “So we need to keep creating opportunities, not just in the C-suite but up and down organizations to keep this trend moving forward.”

Karen Parkhill, EVP and CFO at Medtronic, a global producer of medical devices and therapies

“Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, I originally wanted a career in medicine,” Karen Parkhill explains. “It wasn’t until three semesters into my undergraduate studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas that I really recognized my love of math, which ultimately led me to shift gears into pursuing a career in finance.”

During summers at college, Parkhill first worked in the county clerk’s office filing and helping process misdemeanor tickets. She then later landed an internship in the installment loan department at a local bank. “It was there that I began to understand a little the world of finance—or at least lending,” Parkhill says.

When exploring careers toward the end of college, she realized the most coveted and difficult job to land post-college was in investment banking. “I am one who continually seeks the next highest challenge,” says Parkhill who earned an MBA at the University of Chicago. She joined JP Morgan in 1992, rose to CFO for the commercial banking business, then moved to Comerica as vice chairman and CFO.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am today in my career—or my personal life—without the mentorship I’ve received through the years,” she says. Parkhill currently serves as the executive sponsor for Medtronic’s Women’s VP Network.

What’s a challenge you faced when entering your first-ever C-suite job? “Early on in my career, I encountered male domination in investment banking. My career and personal life both started to flourish simultaneously and after marrying my husband, we made plans to start a family. Sadly, back at that time in investment banking, there were very few senior women role models, and almost an unspoken rule that you shouldn’t start a family before you were a vice president. I did follow this cue and fortunately, things turned out fine for me and we’ve been blessed with our beautiful family—but one of the things that I tell women now is, ‘Never, ever put your personal life on hold for your professional life.’”

Tune in tomorrow for Part 4 of our series for aspiring CFOs. Forward this email to the aspiring CFOs in your circle—they can sign up for the newsletter here.

See you tomorrow.

Sheryl Estrada

Big deal

A new Gallup report, "6 workplace finding leaders need to navigate this year," explores where leaders and managers need to focus their efforts. One of the findings: Although the majority of employees prefer hybrid work, it has simply put more on their manager's plate. From the daily coordination of employees who are on different schedules and working from different places to not being able to observe all of the real-time interactions of the team they’re managing, has brought new challenges. As a result, hybrid managers are now more burned out than their direct reports and their bosses, Gallup finds. 

Courtesy of Gallup

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This is the web version of CFO Daily, a newsletter on the trends and individuals shaping corporate finance. This edition is part of a weeklong series, “CFO Daily’s Guide to Becoming a CFO.” Sign up to get CFO Daily delivered free to your inbox.

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