From UC Davis to Global CFO

Lessons learned along my career path

Lessons learned from UC Davis alumnus and lecturer Suzy Taherian, who took risks and roles around the globe on her path to CFO.

I would like to say my path from a mechanical engineering degree at UC Davis to chief financial officer was carefully planned. But really, it was lots of hard work and luck. And here’s what I learned.

Choose the Job For the Experience, Not the Money

One of my UC Davis professors, who had been an executive at General Electric, shared this advice about choosing experience over salary. I took it, along with a job at Andersen Consulting, managing multi-million dollar projects just three years out of college, while working 60 hours a week. It was an exhausting but fantastic experience that positioned me well for the next step.

Be A Lifelong Learner

I had set a goal to go back for my MBA to understand how business decisions were made. I didn’t know how high I could go, just to keep growing professionally.  

Play To Your Strengths

I started as a marketing major. But I’m a numbers person. Engineering and finance were a great fit for tech companies, along with my international background and language skills. So I stopped interviewing for marketing positions in regional food companies and applied for a finance position in Exxon’s global leadership program. They jumped at the chance to hire me.

A mentor tells you how to climb the wall. But an advocate lobbies on your behalf.

Cultural Fit is Key

Exxon was a great company, but not a great fit for my cheery California style. I wasn’t going to be successful there.

Be Lucky

Chevron then offered me a position in its global finance program. It launched my career. I worked on over $2 billion in acquisitions.

Taherian leads the annual International Study Trip, with visits to companies like Microsoft in Vietnam.

Work Hard

I was the first in the office and the last to leave and it was noticed. I read every contract, when nobody reads contracts. If an executive was working late and needed an answer, I had it. 

Visibility Matters

In my next role, I was three years out of business school and working for the corporate controller, who reported directly to the CFO of Chevron. That kind of visibility put my career on warp speed.

Take the Hard Jobs

I was managing a large team of MBAs, which had me realizing how ambitious but demanding I had been. Managing was hard, but a great experience and a critical skill to learn.

Have A Strategic Plan

One young MBA came into my office one day with an eight-year career plan. I was amazed. So I developed a 15-year plan. I looked to our CFO and his activities, plotting a path of the jobs and skills I needed to get there: banking, governance, financial reporting, budgeting, international experience.

Taherian visits glaciers in Patagonia while working as a Chevron controller in Argentina.

Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

I came back from maternity leave to a great job in corporate treasury. I learned every kind of financing and covered more than $4 billion. But I still had to grow. So I left a comfortable, sexy job in global financing and my home in California for an accounting position in Houston, Texas. And I took many uncomfortable trips to Nigeria and Angola.

If You Don't Ask, You Won't Get It

I posted for an international assignment and came in a close second. I was crushed. A great woman in Buenos Aires got the job. So I asked for her job before it was even posted.

Find an Advocate

A mentor tells you how to climb the wall. But an advocate lobbies on your behalf. I found an advocate in Houston and asked for his support with the Buenos Aires job. He was surprised, but lobbied for me. With his help I beat out the 12 other strong candidates.

Drive Performance

On my first day in Buenos Aires, Carlos, who reported to me, came into my office and said, “I don’t know why you got this job. I speak Spanish. I know Argentina. I’ve worked here for 15 years.”

He was right. So I set about adding value. He knew Argentina, but I knew the rest of the world. So I reached out to my contacts and through them identified the key indicators driving performance in our organization. I benchmarked us against other Chevron organizations and told my team if we could hit these 16 targets we would be a world-class organization. They were inspired. We hit those goals.

I was able to then secure great promotions for my team with global opportunities. The corporation chose us to test their new software. Carlos and I became great friends and he was later promoted to my job.

I didn’t know how high I could go, just to keep growing professionally.

Take Risks

I had saved enough that I could afford the risk with a startup. It was still terrifying to let go of a great job at a great company. And I don’t usually encourage friends to leave a good job for a startup.

You Don't Work for a Startup. You Work for Many Startups.

They’re high risk but high reward. Some are bound to fail. But that experience strengthens you and you get better as you go.

Taherian was CFO of a publicly-traded Canadian company renting excavators.

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

When my first startup had its IPO, the stock price doubled in six months. I hit the jackpot. Then the technology hit some challenges. The stock dropped to pennies per share and half of us were laid off. A week later, my father suddenly died. It was a tough time and I found out how strong I could actually be.

Aim High

I then got an offer from a company with an empty CFO spot. But they offered me a lower position to have more time to decide on the CFO role. But I felt I was finally ready; so I held out for CFO. And I got the title.

Be Ready to Make A Sacrifice

I commuted to Chicago from California every other week. In a later job, I drove two hours each way. Some have asked me how to get to a senior executive role, but without moving or having a long commute or working long hours or taking risks with startups. We each have to figure out which sacrifices work for us and our family.

What Got You Here Won't Get You There

As CFO of a public company, I had to learn how to interact with shareholders. As CFO of a startup, I had to learn how to do an equity road show. As CFO of a company for sale, I had to learn how to push through that sale. When our CEO had a stroke, I had to learn how to be CEO. I had to make the tough decisions and lead the team, with a different set of tools, strategy, style and knowledge.

To this day, I still look for opportunities to learn, grow and add value. The journey continues.