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Gracious & Strong Podcast with Celia Swanson
The following is a transcription of a podcast and may contain grammatical errors.
Celia Swanson: Hi everyone. I’m Celia Swanson, and I want to welcome you to today’s Gracious and Strong podcast, where you can discover the authentic and resilient leader inside of you.
Welcome back to the Gracious and Strong podcast. This is Celia Swanson, and today this episode will be the first of a two-part series with one of the smartest, most confident and genuine colleagues I know, Ann Bordelon. I was thrilled to be able to sit down with Ann and just begin to have a conversation with her about how she’s been able to make an impact on organizations in her CFO roles. We covered everything from organizational savvy to the importance of building strong relationships to how she approaches every new role with a high investment in learning the business.
Ann Bordelon: Hello, Celia.
Celia Swanson: How are you, Ann?
Ann Bordelon: I’m doing great. Thanks.
Celia Swanson: Thank you so much for being here and a part of the Gracious and Strong podcast.
Ann Bordelon: Oh, I’m thrilled to be here.
Celia Swanson: I am thrilled to have you in my office, we’re going to have a real conversation here. It’s not like we’re doing Zoom or anything. We’re sitting in the same room, which is a miraculous accomplishment in today’s health environment. So, thrilled to have you here. But I’ve had the opportunity to work with you over many years, starting with our time at Walmart. And I’ve seen you do such a great job at transitioning to different corporations in different roles, serving both as staff, as support, and as a board member for many different organizations. And I just am impressed by your ability to be able to navigate those types of important and significant leadership changes and be able to rise to success in each of those environments, and that’s why I invited you to be part of the Gracious and Strong episode. We’re focusing on talent and I put you at the top of the list of talent I’ve had the opportunity to work with and be influenced by over the years.
Ann Bordelon: Well, that’s really flattering coming from you, especially given your esteemed career. And also I know how passionate you are about talent and talent development, and you’ve left your thumbprint on a lot of organizations yourself that I’ve, you know, I’ve certainly been the beneficiary of that as well. So we’re thrilled to be here.
Celia Swanson: Thank you. So let’s get started by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be you are today.
Ann Bordelon: Well, Celia, the way I think about it is, you know, I really have been blessed with a great career and one that I certainly couldn’t have planned, but as I think about some of the things that made me successful, I think back to my childhood and some of the things that I think have maybe made an impression on me and then maybe developed into leadership competencies maybe later on in my life. I was a middle child. And so I, I think that required me from early on to learn how to compromise. It also, you know, I think required me to look outside of my family sometimes for friendship or counsel or advice. And so I was very good at making friendships. My father was in the military and so we moved around quite a bit as I was growing up. And again, I was put in a position where I changed schools quite often, and, of course, having to develop relationships all over again every time that happened every couple of years. So, I really think that those, those two things were very central to who I became as an adult. Transitioning into my career, I knew going into college that I wanted to be an accounting manager. I had taken a bookkeeping class in high school and it just, I just got it. And I thought, it didn’t require any foreign language or a lot of heavy reading, so it was the perfect major for me. But as I finished my accounting degree, I went on to work for Ernst and Young in, in Little Rock, Arkansas as an auditor. And the great thing about that start in Little Rock was that it was a small office, and I wasn’t assigned to a specific industry. So I got to work in a wide variety of industries in agricultural industries and financial services, manufacturing, you know media, lots of different kinds of companies. And I think that really helped me develop a curiosity about how businesses run.
Celia Swanson: Great word.
Ann Bordelon: It also made me appreciate process. I think the auditor part of it made me really appreciate process. But the other thing that I think my time at Ernst and Young really impressed upon me was the importance of the relationship, the client relationship. And, you know, throughout my time at Ernst and Young, I had, you know, I had to develop relationships with, you know, an accounting clerk and also the CEO, so, you know, the whole breadth of the organization, and that takes a little bit of agility to be able to, you know, develop relationships at different levels in an organization to get, you know, to get done, whatever you need to get done. I left Ernst and Young after about three years and went to work for one of my clients, Tyson foods. And I was there for about five years and it was in that role where I really, I had a, I had a role in the retail sales and marketing organization kind of as their financial analyst. And, you know, the reason I, the only reason I bring that up is because of my later career. And that’s really where I got my first taste of retail only on the vendor side. I got it. I, you know, I ended up leaving Tyson after five years because I just didn’t really understand what my career could be there. I really enjoyed the people there and I really enjoyed the business, but I just couldn’t really grasp what my, what my career could be, and that frustrated me a lot. And so I had an opportunity to return to Ernst and Young, and I did that. And one of my lessons there is, you know, you just, you never know where you might end up, so maintaining those relationships and how you leave an organization is just so important as how you start with an organization. And and, you know, that really was a key thing in my return to Ernst and young.
And while I, while I was at Ernst and Young, I was fortunate to get on the Walmart account, and I served on the Walmart account for about five years. And throughout that time, Walmart recruited me heavily for a number of different of different positions. But after, you know, finally in the fifth year, I, I relented and gave in and I went to work for Walmart as the assistant controller. And my initial responsibility was to oversee the public financial reporting for the company. So I was the assistant controller, and I quickly became a vice president in that role. And I, and I led a number of different finance teams over the course of the time that I was at Walmart, including, I was the global chief audit executive and I was the CFO of Sam’s Club, as well as the CFO of Walmart Asia, and I spent some time in the US business as well. But in 2015, I decided to retire from Walmart. And, after, you know, just taking some time trying to figure out what I wanted to do in my retirement. I failed at retiring really, and went to work with the startup company that I had invested in. And it was a company, I like to say, I went from the world’s largest company to the world’s smallest company. It was a company that had very little revenue. They were really just getting started. They needed help setting up their accounting systems and governance practices and things like that, help them raise some additional money from their investors. And I did that for a time until I worked myself out of that job, and they didn’t need me anymore really. They, they didn’t need to spend, they needed to spend their cash on somebody, somebody else.
And I went to work in a PR company with a former Walmart colleague and, you know, that was a great experience. And just, again, it was a, a different perspective than what I’ve had before. It was a subsidiary of a much larger company, but, but yet it’s still a small business relative to the businesses I’ve worked on and overall a great, great experience. But in July of 2020, I, I found probably the perfect job for me. And that’s being the vice chancellor of finance and administration at the University of Arkansas, which, you know, it is something I hold dear to my heart. I’m a lifelong Razorback, and so I’m thrilled to be giving back at the University and using my skills in a completely different way than, than I have in my early career.
Celia Swanson: Well, it seems to the outside viewer that you’ve navigated all those shifts and changes so seamlessly over the years. So, kudos to you for how you portray your ease with which you can navigate those kinds of changes. I’ve seen you in action now at the University of Arkansas, and, I tell you, you have such great skills that you’re bringing to that organization. So it may seem perfect to you on the inside, but I also think it’s perfect from a view of outsider’s perspective as well. So that’s a great. So Ann, how are you at being the executive versus being the everyday, and are you the same person? Why or why not?
Ann Bordelon: I’d say yes or no. Yes and no. I mean, it’s a matter of degrees really I think. You know, I think if you were to ask my friends, they would say, you know, I’m, I, I’m fun. I’m a bit mischievous, a little snarky, maybe a lot snarky. And you know, I think those translate into the workplace too. I mean, I can be just a little bit, it’s just a much lower degree. I will say, you know, sarcasm is my defense mechanism. And so I think that translates probably today in my team were on here, they would recognize that it’s definitely an adjective to describe me. But I would say, you know, when my children were at home, it would be, you know, they would, they would say things like, “Hey, save those directives for the workplace, ma’am.”
Celia Swanson: I heard that before. I don’t work for you.
Ann Bordelon: But I also think, you know, the, you know, the parent in me, or the sister, or the aunt, or, you know, all of those things translate in the workplace, too. I mean, because I do genuinely care about the people that I work with and the people I work for and people I work around. And I think, you know, that nurturing side of me that may be not so obvious also translates into the workplace as well.
Celia Swanson: Well, I think what a great answer that it’s an, Ann answer, not a yes or no kind of answer because we’re all a blend of our life experiences. But I, I see you work so well with direct feedback, and you can use sarcasm to cause people to just shift a little bit humorous, but catch them off-guard, but get to the heart of the conversation really quickly. And those are really important skills in the workplace to your point, as well as in general in life. So I’ve also just observed that you have this uncanny ability to transform organizations at a very high level. You’ve been brought into several turnaround situations, or as you just described some smaller startup situations and you do it with great confidence and candor—those would be the two words I would use to describe you. Can you share a little bit about your approach?
Ann Bordelon: Yeah, I don’t, I don’t know. I have a real specific approach or formula. I, I definitely think it’s situational. You know, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but some things that have served me well are number one, and I think most importantly, anytime you go into a new situation it’s listening versus doing or directing or, or reacting. And, you know, even when I started my current role, I went on a listening tour. I scheduled meet, meetings with all of the deans, all of the vice chancellors, all of my direct reports and even a level below my direct reports. And part of that was to, you know, to, to at least start building a relationship with the people whose businesses I was going to probably impact with decisions that I made. And so I felt like I needed to develop that at least the start of a trusting relationship, but I really needed to learn their business. I mean, I’m coming into an industry that’s completely different from anything that I had done in the past; it has very different governance and constructs. And so I really spent a lot of time just trying, especially with the deans and the vice chancellors, trying to understand what is, you know, unique about their particular unit and what, you know, what challenges did they have, how did they interact with my organization? What, what was their perception of my organization? And you know, and I did the same thing with, within, within my team and, you know, it was in, it really helps. It took a long time. I mean, that was a real investment of time, but it was probably, you know, I was probably, my calendar was probably just those kinds of meetings for about three or four weeks. So I, you know, I really made it that time commitment, made it a priority because I just felt like I didn’t want to, I really needed to learn, and I really needed to, to understand where people saw that, you know, my organization could be better in serving both our students and the, the business of education. But also just thinking about, I use that information really in, in helping me understand what priorities needed to be; what was the most important things in the, in the minds of the people I’m supporting and hopefully enabling? Yeah. I just, I think that, that all of that conversation, I think just built that basic level of trust that allows me now to go, and people don’t assume that I have an agenda or a motive necessarily when I come to them with an idea or or, or need their help in solving it.
Celia Swanson: Right. Right. I love that theme of trust, because if you’re going to be a person of influence in any way in the organization, you have to do it based on trust and trust gets built, it isn’t given, it’s not awarded, it doesn’t just happen. It is built.
Ann Bordelon: And I agree. One of the, one of my favorite books that I’ve read is called The Speed of Trust.
Celia Swanson: Yeah. It’s a great book. Yeah. Well let’s talk about some pivotal moments in your career that maybe shaped or impacted you in such a way that you still remember them today, or the benefits of that situation has shaped you.
Ann Bordelon: Sure. I, there, there is. My second job at Walmart is probably the job that I look back on and think that really changed my career and the way that I looked at myself as a leader. Until that job, even though I had done jobs that weren’t really technical accounting jobs, they had a very strong, you know, there was a big, a very strong accounting element of, of most everything I did up until my second job at Walmart. And it was because of a situation where my accounting skills were going to be particularly helpful that I was asked to move over into Walmart’s real estate function. And there were some, some situations that needed to be improved. And so that’s why I went over there. But what I, I learned in that job was well beyond that. The team at the time, wasn’t a particularly great team. That doesn’t mean that those weren’t, they weren’t hardworking people. They were just in the wrong place, in the wrong positions. And so I had to evaluate that whole organization from a people perspective. So that just the amount of people leadership I learned in that role was incredible just because of the situation that I, that, that I was placed in as a, as a leader. The processes weren’t great, but the and the relationship with the business partner wasn’t great either. So people are probably going to ask, well, why on earth would you take a job? The real answer is, I didn’t know all of that.
Celia Swanson: They only told you enough to get you interested in the job. You learn the rest of it when you walk through the door.
Ann Bordelon: That’s right. It’s kind of the problem trifecta, but but I, I did, looking back, I mean, that job was just so as you use the word pivotal to my career in so many ways, I mean, from a people leadership, from understanding how to build a relationship with your business partner, how to, how to develop credibility when you have none and how to, you know, how to figure out how to get quick wins for your organization. So people will start believing that your organization can enable be an enabler instead of a, a barrier. And at the same time, while, you know, as an accountant, you know, putting in some form of internal control and which could be viewed as barriers, but we did it in a way that was, I think, something that was healthy for the business. I think the other thing that I learned in that role was because it was a role that was much broader than accounting. It really was about capital allocation. We were, we were deciding which three or 400 stores we were going to open back then. And if you, you know, if you have six or $8 billion worth of capital spin, how, and you have 1,300 opportunities to choose from, which ones do you choose. And that was where I learned that I hadn’t given myself enough credit for my, the, the finance side of my brain versus just the accounting side of my brain. It’s very, two very different technical skills, but I didn’t really know that I could do that. I always thought it was, I thought it was, I don’t know, in college, I took, took finance classes, but they scared me. I was intimidated by them. And, I won’t lie, I mean, in that job, I was intimidated by that whole side of the business. But, but I did learn that I could do it. I could understand it, I could lead it. I could, you know, make, make good decisions. And it really changed my whole outlook. I had up until that point very much looked at myself as kind of a technical accountant. And didn’t really look at my career path. I didn’t look, I didn’t, I would never have thought that I would have been a CFO of a $55 billion division of a company until I had that job, I just didn’t think that that was in the cards for me until I was put in that role. And so I’m very thankful that I was volun-told to go into that role because I don’t think I would have done, I wouldn’t have applied for that role, wouldn’t have probably raised my hand for that role. But my, my boss at the time said, Ann, you really need to go do this. It’s great for the company. It’ll be great for you. And I, I just never, I didn’t realize how great it would be for my career because of all the things that I learned in terms of leadership on the technical side, how to, you know, how to negotiate, how to build consensus and influence. Those were all things I learned in that job. And one way or another that I probably didn’t really, I mean, I probably had them, but I just didn’t use them to the extent that I had to in that.
Celia Swanson: Right. Isn’t that awesome that you had somebody who believed in you enough, who said you ought to apply for that because I see something in you that maybe you don’t see in yourself? And you, you, you got that opportunity, and all these doors opened after that.
Ann Bordelon: I also remember that about seven months into that job, I was probably, I was miserable. I mean, because there was so much to do and so much needed to be done to, to lift to lift the organization up. And I remember just feeling very defeated and to the point where I contemplated leaving, leaving Walmart. And I remember having a conversation with my boss and explaining to him how I felt like I, you know, I was failing because I had, you know, I had this in mind what I needed to have achieved by this point. And I hadn’t, you know, come even close to achieving what I had set my own expectation at. And, and that, you know, it was, it was the, what I hadn’t accomplished that I was, you know, viewing as my failure, what he did was helped reframe that, and he said, but look at what you have accomplished. And he just started rattling off, you know, all of these things that have been accomplished in the organization. And, and that was a big lesson for me because I had so much focused on what I, what hadn’t been accomplished yet versus what I had, as a leader, and that was something that I carry with me today at every job, because I, I use that counsel with almost everyone on my team, in every job I’ve ever had, because it was just so powerful for me to think about that. Especially for somebody who has set such high expectations for themselves, it’s real easy to, you know, get mired down in self-defeat, I think that was, that was a really big lesson for me personally.
Celia Swanson: Yeah, don’t look at what you haven’t done, right? Look at what you have been able to accomplish. Wonderful lesson from that story.
I hope you enjoyed hearing part one of my interview with Ann. Ann is a longtime colleague and friend, and it was a joy to sit down with her and to discuss how she’s been able to navigate complex situations, work successfully across different industries, and how she focuses on learning the business and building trust. Tune in on September 7th, as we share part two of this interview on the next episode of the Gracious and Strong podcast.
Thank you for joining us today, and I hope you’ll join us again next week.