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You Don’t Have to Know Everything Before You Take the Job

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November 06, 2019

By Anne Friberg

Smartsheet CFO Jenny Ceran talks about her circuitous journey to her current role. 

Luck favors the bold is an oft-used Latin proverb. It is also a theme that has run through three Women in NeuGroup events over the past year. The latest, held at Expedia in Seattle, featured Jenny Ceran, the CFO of Smartsheet, a cloud-based platform for what it describes as “enterprise achievement,” who suggested that women moving up the ladder should take chances—and take a job even if it means most of it would be learning.

Your major doesn’t define your potential. Although she majored in communications and French in college, Ms. Ceran began her journey at Merrill Lynch as a financial analyst after discovering her passion for the capital markets. Yet after two years she decided that a business degree would be necessary to further her career.

Find your fire. After getting her MBA at the University of Chicago, she joined Sara Lee because it was an industry she was interested in (food and personal products) and the company was women-oriented, both of which were important criteria (see more below). She had three jobs there. As a financial analyst, she did a lot of research on possible mergers and acquisitions but grew bored when there was infrequent execution, learning that she was more execution-focused. On the FP&A team, she partnered with the business but the work was repetitive and “business units didn’t love us because our role was to challenge their operating plans.” Finally, she discovered the treasury function and the importance of capital management. She decided that she wanted to be a treasurer and set a goal to become one by the time she turned 40.

Look for opportunities to make a difference. After having saved Sara Lee a ton of money by introducing PowerPoint into the organization, allowing the company to keep presentation prep in-house instead of outsourcing it, she was promoted (thank you, Microsoft!) and simultaneously discovered a love for workforce efficiency.

Work offshore if you can. If you want to rise in a multinational corporation, an international assignment can be career-enabling. While in the Netherlands for three years in treasury, Ms. Ceran helped set up the structure for transacting in the euro, which was about to be introduced as a new currency. The team was awarded the Alexander Hamilton Gold Award for the solution but Ms. Ceran realized it would be tough rising further at a well-established company like Sara lee.

What’s missing for the treasurer job? Ms. Ceran determined that one knowledge area she needed to hone related to 401(k) plans, and that the internet was going to be a game changer for business going forward. Here, another learning: Bankers can be your friends; they know where the job openings are, and she found one at Cisco. It was at a lower level in treasury but with more responsibility and more money. “It’s OK to go down in title if the job is bigger,” she notes. And a supportive boss allows you to learn on the job: Ms. Ceran and her boss learned together during the process of setting up Cisco Capital in Ireland.

“Give the hiring company something.” While in the running for the treasurer job at eBay, she didn’t get the job at first, but offered a document of her vision for eBay’s treasury, which got her back in the door and eventually the job. She became treasurer at 39¾.

Branch out. Even a treasurer who loves the job can want to do something else after nine years. After the financial crisis, Ms. Ceran was ready for a new job; she set her eyes on investor relations, another learn-on-the-job opportunity for which she ended up earning accolades. Not only that, in order to do investor relations, she also had to take on FP&A, a combination that can be too much for any person with a small team at a multi-billion dollar organization. Plus, she was criticized for not having sharp enough elbows. By way of the treasurer and head of IR positions at Box, she became CFO for the first time, at a publicly traded digital coupon company, before finally becoming CFO of Smartsheet.

Shoulda done it earlier… The CFO job is a big one that requires a lot of energy. If Ms. Ceran had to do it over again, she would have gunned for the CFO job earlier in her career when she had more of it. Lesson: Don’t wait.

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