Human-Centered Leadership: Lessons From Transitioning from CFO to CEO

There’s no one recipe for good leadership. How successful one is as a leader is contingent on seemingly countless factors that differ based on industry, team structure, skill set and more. But there is also a stark similarity in the responsibilities of all leaders: People are looking up to you for guidance and expertise. 

I recently transitioned from CFO to CEO of any-context speech recognition technology leader Speechmatics, and realized throughout the preparation process that most people I spoke with considered these roles to be completely different; one focused on a series of numbers and dollar signs and the other on leadership, vision and strategy. But as I now navigate my new role of CEO, I keep coming back to the leadership aspect of my job and realize there are foundational qualities that are consistent.  

No matter if you’re a junior manager, or a vice president, a CFO or a CEO, true leadership requires many of the same qualities: integrity, transparency, communication, a keen eye for business opportunities and challenges, and above all, empathy for those around you. So, whether you are a manager for the first time, or taking over at the helm of the company, these principles will help you navigate the journey and be successful in leading others. Here’s how:


Have integrity, be transparent and prioritize communication 

When I made the transition from CFO to CEO, I began the process of immersion–spending time with colleagues, learning, understanding and expanding my knowledge to new depths. While it started as an onboarding exercise, I quickly realized it was exactly how I needed to shape my leadership strategy; open, honest and integrity-driven communication with and throughout my entire team. 

As CEO, I have to over-communicate with the whole organization, be as transparent as possible about companywide KPI’s, define success for the business, and consider any risks. Communicating information must be done with integrity, honesty and trust in order to take your whole organization on the journey with you, especially in the technology industry. 

This is true for any leadership position. Not one person knows all, and to lead your company, team, or project to success, it’s critical to surround yourself with others who can ensure you can drive that success. Communication is the most important part of your job, and doing it with honesty and integrity will only bring you the best results within the most efficient and effective time frame. 


Focus on what really drives success: your employees 

It’s no secret that many successful leaders are data-driven–and rightly so–but data on its own won’t create a world-leading organization. Good leadership, no matter your role in the business, should always be human-focused. Leaders must be data-driven in order to build a successful business; however, the numbers only work if the employees feel valued, passionate and that they bring something unique to the table. Without driven and appreciated employee morale, it is unlikely that your numbers will stack up at the end of day. 

According to Gallup, leaders and managers account for at least 70 percent of engagement with employees. It’s a very simple formula to remember: Whether you are a CFO or CEO, valued employees equals good revenue. Your employees are the ones behind the machine, without them, the product wouldn’t work, the sales team wouldn’t have anything to sell, and the marketing team wouldn’t have anything to market. 

As a leader, you must lead with empathy and humanity for the breadth of skills, knowledge and talent your team offers. Your goal as a leader is to unlock their potential, give them opportunities and provide them with a voice where they feel valued. 


Be empathetic by finding the right balance

With a finance background throughout my career, I am extremely detail-orientated and have developed a strong set of methods for planning–essential in a role as CEO. Transitioning from CFO to CEO, one key factor differentiates the roles: Everyone needs a minute of your time. As a CFO, you are mostly left to get on with your day job until it comes to the leadership meeting or board meeting, but as CEO you need to wear many hats. 

For any leader, employees from all areas of the business will need your advice, your direction, your approval or simply your support on a decision or piece of work. In order to give every employee the time they deserve, planning is fundamental to mastering the balance. Your driver for success will be ensuring that the scales don’t tip in the wrong direction and become imbalanced. It could unnerve you but most importantly, it could demoralize your team. Success is only as big as your team’s motivation so ensure you master your time, so every decision should be succinctly based around your employees. 

It is now more important than ever to focus on human-centered leadership. To bring teams together relying only on digital communication for over six months was an unforeseen circumstance that no business leader could have predicted. Focus on trust, honesty and transparency directly with employees, but also ensuring your leadership teams and managers are echoing your direction to human-focused leadership is key to an engaged, remote workforce.

Katy Wigdahl, CEO, Speechmatics

  • Originally published December 17, 2020