Lessons I learned interviewing women CFOs – CA Nidhi Agarwal's journey to inspire more women to take up leadership roles

Nidhi Agarwal, author of Women CFO stories

  • Nidhi Agarwal was inspired by her father to become a Chartered Accountant. 
  • Her work gave her the opportunity to travel the world and interact with some of the great global leaders who have inspired many women to take up leadership roles.
  • She is the author of the book - “Women CFO Stories” where she interviewed women CFOs across the globe from diverse industry backgrounds.

CA journey that started at my father’s firm  

My inspiration and dream to become a CA came from my father. He is a Chartered Accountant and has his own practice in Delhi, India.

Since childhood, I used to spend a few hours each weekend and during holidays in his office. I loved the paper files in his office and the discussions he had with his clients. 

After completing my 10th-grade exam, I took the commerce stream and enjoyed accounting and economics as subjects.

As soon as I completed my 12th-grade exam, I started an internship at my father’s office and enrolled in the CA foundation course along with B.Com (Hons) from SRCC, Delhi University. 

My aspiration was to clear CA exams with an All India Rank. 

I worked towards this goal and by God's grace achieved it. 

Once I cleared my CA exams and articleship, one thing was clear in my mind; I do not want to work at my father’s office.

I wanted to create my own identity.

Because of that, I joined one of the Big 4 firms as a qualified CA. 

Hearing diverse perspectives is critical for decision making

Handling leadership roles at work 

I must mention that I have been lucky to work for great organizations and leaders (many of them males) where I never faced any bias being a female in the workplace. 

Early in my career, I got to work with Kristina Isherwood, who was my role model. 

I love my work and get energy or a kick from solving complex problems and interacting with colleagues across the globe. 

I delegate work to my team members to groom them to be future leaders. 

Why a supportive family matters in a working woman’s life

I never try to be a superwoman and do not shy away from taking help be it at home or at the office.

As I strive for work-life balance I cannot always feel like running on a treadmill. Remember life and career are a marathon and not a sprint. 

You can manage stuff at home and work only if you love what you are doing and are passionate about it. 

I would take care of household stuff for my family because I love them, but I delegate tasks to household help and family members. 

Remember, there will be instances in life when at times your family may need you more or there will be certain instances when at work, you would be required to stretch. 

In these scenarios your family will support you to spend more time at work and similarly your team, peers and bosses will support you to spend more time at home.

With respect to challenges, each life stage transition like marriage, pregnancy, and motherhood did have its own set of challenges.

However, the support system both at home and at the office, helped me sail through the challenges. Because of this I thoroughly enjoyed the last 20 years working in the corporate sector.

Women empowering women

I am an avid reader, and as a finance professional, I could not find a single book that covers the stories of women Chief Financial Officers (CFOs)! 

I felt there was a huge dearth of successful career women as role models for young women. And that is why I chose to share real-life stories instead of fictional characters.

My work on this book started with self- questions like “Why and What I wanted to write” and “How should I plan and execute it”. 

In the year 2020, the first step was to identify women leaders from diverse backgrounds and geographies. 

The second step was to approach the leaders and convince them to be a part of this book  - “Women CFO Stories”.

I interviewed 11 women CFOs across the globe from diverse industry backgrounds.... all of this in the middle of the pandemic! 

In these virtual interviews, I asked them questions about their life, their career journey map and major pit stops, instances of success, challenges, failures, and leadership mantras.

The leaders took every challenge that came their way and turned it into an opportunity, learning from failures on the way. 

I want every young girl to dream by reading these stories. I hope this book will inspire many women finance professionals to break the glass ceiling and aim to become CFOs one day. 

Lessons from seasoned women leaders 

I noticed the following common traits upon interacting with those women leaders:

  1. There is no substitute for hard work. None of them took success for granted, and they prove themselves each day.
  2. You should be passionate about your work. As you climb up the corporate ladder, the working hours will increase. Unless you enjoy what you are doing, you will not be able to cope.
  3. It is crucial to choose the right life partner and build (Yes, ‘build’) a support system at home. Share your dreams with your family and leaders at work to find sponsors.
  4. Stay humble. Humility is the hallmark of success. The women leaders in this book have detached their designations or work titles from what they are as human beings. 
  5. Building relationships and networking at the workplace are critical. In a world where investors do not want to be surprised, it is vital that the CFO of the company is well connected at all levels of the company.
  6. Influence people to achieve change instead of directing change. In times of uncertainty, interacting with team members and hearing diverse perspectives is critical for decision-making.
  7. Constant self-evaluation and having insatiable curiosity are essential. You must constantly upgrade yourself and keep pushing yourself outside the comfort zone if you want to grow.

In my book, I would say that the stories are not glamorous stories of women with superpowers saving the earth from alien attacks. 

But, these are real stories of ordinary women who reached top positions in the finance world with their resilience. 

You will realize that careers are not built in a vacuum, but rather by a network of people supporting you and challenging you to be the best version of yourself.

Family, friends, colleagues, leaders, mentors, and teams are part of that network. This network helped and challenged them to grow and develop beyond what they could have imagined for themselves.

What’s stopping women from reaching leadership positions?  

The life stage transitions do impact women more than men but what stops them more is their own willpower and clarity of thoughts. 

A recent study by Catalyst shows that less than 13 percent of the women in Finance make it to leadership roles like CFO.

Further, a study by Harvard Business Review mentions that most women leave the workforce partly because they do not have female role models at the top in the finance world. 

I hope as females, we support each other and lift others as we rise.

Nothing is impossible in life. Everything in the universe is within you. 

In the end, I would quote - “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist. 

(Edited by Preeti Mondal)

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