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Episode 12

How to Lead with Curiosity, Clarity & Community with UA’s Ann Bordelon, Part II

Gracious & Strong Podcast with Celia Swanson

In our interview, Ann opens up about her personal story and how she’s found great success on her CFO journey navigating various roles and organizations, complex situations, and different industries.

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. 

Thank you for joining me for part two of my visit with Ann. As one of the most confident and candid leaders I’ve ever worked with, it was a true pleasure to have her open up about her personal story and how she’s found great success in her CFO journey. I’ve had the opportunity to watch her in action now as a vice chancellor at the University of Arkansas and her leadership capabilities and influence are quite remarkable.

So you’ve been able to move around in different businesses as well. And you, as I said, you were, in the beginning, what appears to be seamless to others? And you leave them better than when you joined them. How do you accomplish such great results? 

Ann Bordelon: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t say that—while it may appear that some of those transitions were seamless—I’m not sure that that internally, they, they certainly didn’t feel that way. You know, as we were just talking, I think that everyone has a, some degree of self-doubt and unease and, and stress related to a new situation. And, and I think some of us are just better at hiding it than others, maybe. But I will say, I think there’s, there’s, there’s a couple of things that that I tend to do when I move into a new role. And one is I try to understand who the chief influencers are in the organization. I call it organizational savviness.

Celia Swanson: Good thing to call it. Yeah. 

Ann Bordelon: Who, who are the decision makers and who are influencing the decision makers, who do they listen to? Who are their go-to people when they want to, you know, kick the tires on an idea and who are they asking? Because I figure if I have to make a decision or I need, I need to promote my initiative somehow, or get support from my initiative, I need to get those people in the boat with me, those other influencers, if they’re, if they’re aligned with me, then the decision makers are more, obviously more likely to listen to that to that initiative. So I go back to earlier building relationships. So find, figure out who those people are that are, that, that, that the leadership is listening to and build relationships with those people. Look for the people who are getting stuff done and develop relationships with them. Those are, I mean, just by aligning with those people quickly helped me learn quickly. 

Celia Swanson: Yeah. 

Ann Bordelon: Every, all of those you know, just moving from one organization to another, whether it’s a new industry or just a new business segment within the same company. And I go learning the business. If it’s retail, get out into the stores and the distribution centers, you, you know, that Celia. If it’s manufacturing, go to the plants, see how it happens. I mean, I can’t tell you how many chicken processing plants I’ve been in, in my five years at Tyson, but I loved it. I mean, it’s not the most sexy thing to go watch happen, but, but you learned so much about the business and why some things are important just by being in that environment. If it’s agricultural, go to the farms.

Celia Swanson: Right. Right. 

Ann Bordelon: If higher ed, like I said, I went to campus events. I met with all those deans. I went to their staff meetings. I went to the enrollment services strategy session. I mean, there’s nothing more important to a university than enrollment, it’s the flywheel. So really learning, you know, what’s important to their business, it really helped me think more clearly about you know, how we attract and retain students, why we choose to recruit from certain areas, of where we’re, where we’re not recruiting well, and what, what can we do differently to attract more students in areas where we’re probably under-penetrated. So I just, I think about that whole learning the business, and then back to learning the business and then who are the people who can help you sell your agenda without really selling your agenda? You know what I mean? 

Celia Swanson: Right. They’ll be the influencers to help you get that big idea over the…You know, I love your point about just going out into the business and learning it at its grassroots level. Every time I could go out to a store or a Club or a DC, I was on those planes and I was walking those facilities with the operators, because to your point, that’s where you learn. And with merchants, I would just go sit down and do line reviews and just listen. And while I was never great on the merchandising side, at least I could talk their language.

Ann Bordelon: That’s right.  

Celia Swanson: And they couldn’t pull the wool over me, nor was I trying to put solutions in place that had no relevance to what they were doing inside the business. And just so important. I think too many people come in with the perspective of, I know a lot, I have a lot to offer and I have to hit the ground running pretty quickly. 

Ann Bordelon: I’m here to save you from yourself.

Celia Swanson: Exactly. I’m here to save you. Well, guess what, they’ve been pretty successful without you. How do you add to it and how do you leverage your, what you do know and bring into the organization through, and with the leaders that you build partnerships with. 

Ann Bordelon: And I think when you do show a commitment to learning somebody else’s business. They are more willing to support you and trust you and let you be a part of their decision-making process. 

Celia Swanson: Yeah. They welcome you in that’s exactly right. Great, great insight there. Well, what do you feel are the most important traits for a CFO to attain today? 

Ann Bordelon: Well, I mean, I don’t think that those traits are any different for a CFO than any leader. I mean, obviously a good CFO has to have some kind of technical background, but, but anybody can have that technical background. It really comes down to leadership. And we’ve talked about a lot of those right now. And so, but what I would say, I think a CFO needs to have a lot of is what I call managerial courage. I mean, a CFO is all often put in the inattention spot, you know, there’s limited resources and everybody wants everything. 

Celia Swanson: Yeah. 

Ann Bordelon: Or, or, or people are competing for the same resources, and you’re having to make tradeoffs between initiatives or organizations. And so, you know, I think about managerial courage in being willing to say no and taking an unpopular position to protect either the business or a shareholders’ interests. And you know, I think CFOs typically are the people who sometimes unfortunately have to hold the organization accountable at a different level either, you know, from a compliance or, or control perspective. And I think about one of the things, when I was promoted into the chief audit executive role, it was a huge role. And I probably underestimated how big that role was. I, you know, I had spent 10 years almost at Ernst and Young, and so I knew auditing for sure. 

Celia Swanson: Right. 

Ann Bordelon: What I didn’t really understand is, is what was expected of me as an auditor outside of the nuts and bolts of auditing. And I remember a couple of different situations. One was in this job, I had a regular audience with the CEO of the company. And I remember one of my very first meetings, he asked me about somebody in the organization who, who didn’t report to me, but he knew that I, I knew and he had a specific concern for this person not related to their, necessarily to their job performance. And he asked me about it and I was so caught off guard about that and wondering, okay, why is it my job to evaluate, you know, this other person’s personal choices. But then I realized the reason that I was being asked that, is he was asking me just my perspective about whether that was impacting the job performance or compromising, perhaps, you know, the, the culture of the organization or the control environment in the organization. And, you know, I think the other thing, the other thing that I remember one time that again, just kind of blew me away at the time in, in an audit committee meeting. I remember as, as the chief audit executive, I had a private session with the all the independent board members of the audit committee with, with no one else in the room. And typically that was a very mundane meeting. I mean, session, I clarified some things that I, you know, thought that they might have misunderstood in a presentation or something like that. And sometimes there was never even a question, but there, there had been a particular presentation this time and the audit committee chairman asked me what I thought of the leadership capacity of the person who gave the presentation, what was, which, you know, happy to answer that question, but this person was actually a much more senior person to me. And so it really put me in an unusual position. And, but you know, I gave them my candid answer with with a lot of caveats around it that, you know, I only saw a very narrow perspective of this person’s leadership, not, you know, I probably wasn’t the best person to opine on somebody’s leadership. But again, that helped me think about how big that job was. 

Celia Swanson: Right, right. 

Ann Bordelon: And that I needed to focus. I needed to be thinking about things well beyond process of the organization that, that the people capital, the organizational health was just as important. 

Celia Swanson: Right. 

Ann Bordelon: And to me, I’ve, I’ve those two situations to me, I think have stuck with me. And I think that they have influenced me as I am much more attuned to watching the dynamics of the people around me, especially my peers than I, than I probably would have had I not been asked those questions in that role, because, you know, I think just understanding people’s behavior: is it healthy or unhealthy? Is it causing stress in the organization? Is it, you know, is it, is it positive to the organization? Those are all things that I think as leaders we need to be super cognizant about. But people don’t really like to take on that role in the organization. And, and it was in that role though, as I, as I mentioned, I just, I was, oh my gosh, I didn’t realize this was part of my responsibilityl. And interesting. 

Celia Swanson: And getting an audience, so rare that an individual outside of the executive committee would get an audience with the board members, independent board members, but that’s part of the role, as you said. And using that opportunity in a wise, healthy and respectful way is a really important skill.

Ann Bordelon: I will share though, you know, in that situation where they asked me about the leadership capacity of the other leader, I did feel it was my responsibility to let that person know that I had been asked that question. 

Celia Swanson: Oh.

Ann Bordelon: And I did, I did share. And I shared my answer. So, and I mean, and that was tough of course, because it wasn’t all super positive. So I mean, it, so it was, but I felt like an obligation to that person as a, as a leader of the organization. 

Celia Swanson: And how did they respond? Did they appreciate that or were they offended and..? 

Ann Bordelon: No, I think there was general appreciation. I’m not sure at the time that it was happening, that, that it was fully processed about what the question was. So, yeah. Yeah. It was interesting though.

Celia Swanson: But thats speaks volumes about you and how you felt an obligation as you just said, to share it with the individual. That’s great. Well, did you ever feel that there were odds against you as a woman in a male-dominated industry or occupation? And tell us a little bit about that or if you didn’t that’s okay, too. 

Ann Bordelon: I’ve had, first of all, I don’t think I’ve ever been overtly, you know, treated differently, or I don’t think because I was female. Now, there were things that happened in meetings or, you know, that I thought, oh, I wonder why, why did I get that look? Or what did they mean by that kind of thing? I will share though, a situation that, that I recall very clearly. The Walmart finance organization every quarter would have an all-day meeting. And the morning session would be the CFO of the company and all of the direct reports of which I was one. And I can’t remember how many of us there were eight or 10 and a very diverse group, racially gender. And and then the second half of the day was anyone who was a vice-president or higher within the finance organization. And as we transitioned from one part of the meaning into the other as all of those people started filing in the room, I realized they were all white and all, but maybe two were, were male. And I thought, how interesting, cause we sit around this table and look at ourselves and we’re so proud of this diversity, but you know, just a level below us, it wasn’t nearly as representative. But it did become something that we worked on very intentionally. But what it, what it meant really made me and one of my, one of my peers do is we just decided to reach out to all of the senior directors. So the level right below vice-president, all of the females that held those jobs and there were quite good representation of females at that level, just to understand what they were feeling. Were they opting out of, you know, putting their hand up for vice president jobs? What did they see? What were their perceptions of being a vice president at Walmart? And it was really, really interesting to hear their, their feedback, you know, nothing, you know, especially concerning, but there were definitely things. And we, we decided to share those things with our male counterparts and didn’t really go over very well initially. I think there was a lot of, I think they felt attacked a little bit because they weren’t expecting us to share this information and we didn’t prepare them very well for it. And so I think at first they were in a little bit of denial and took on a, a pretty defensive posture when we shared. But, you know, I think over time we made some real progress and I think, you know, creating that awareness sometimes is the, it’s the first step and you just gotta let it plant the seed and let it germinate.

Celia Swanson: Exactly. Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of research into what are the barriers that cause women not to move from entry-level into management because that’s really where the first big jump happens and what might be 48/52% representation in the broad workplace then becomes 35/65, 35% women, 65% men in the managerial roles. And so that, and that happens at each major jump in level in careers, going from a senior director to vice-president, vice-president to an executive vice president, and then to a president of an organization. And I have to tell you one of the most important lessons, I think in all that research is the top of the organization has to reach down inside the organization and help people work past their fears, see that it’s possible for them to be in that job, help sponsor them to be successful in that role, in those roles and give them broadening experiences so they’re prepared for those roles. 

Ann Bordelon: Definitely. 

Celia Swanson: And that’s what you demonstrate in this example, and it’s not going to change if leaders like you and others don’t reach down into the organization and work through those dynamics. And if then you don’t change what the representation looks like as a result of working through that. 

Ann Bordelon: Right. That’s right. 

Celia Swanson: So and then bring along, bring everybody else along with you. There’s no, you know, no blame in this situation, there’s just solutions that we need to implement to change. So I love that story and that’s a great one. Do you think it’s possible to reach the top without being a good partner or collaborator, and how does that alignment help when it comes to implementing, you know, major initiatives or buy-in? 

Ann Bordelon: Sure. Well, I definitely think it’s possible to reach the top or at least reach a fairly significant leadership position without being a, what I would call a great partner or a collaborator. I don’t think that people are particularly successful when they get there though. I think that they get to that point based on the results that they might’ve gotten before. And, and maybe those situations, they might’ve been much much less whatever, whatever they had been doing before might not have required as much. They might’ve been in more control of their destiny, their own destiny. 

Celia Swason: Right. 

Ann Bordelon: And I think, you know, they struggle, I think sometimes when they get to that leadership role in creating alignment with the level below them, especially if they’re, if they have, you know, a number of different functions that have to work together. So if the leader isn’t a good collaborator, you can’t expect them really to get good collaboration amongst their peers, unless those people, I mean, the, the peers of the level below them, unless those people were already super collaborative before. 

Celia Swanson: Right. 

Ann Bordelon: And so I, you know, I’ve worked with people who I felt like, you know, left bodies in the wake, so to speak. And while, you know, I think some of those people, I think about, gosh, I could listen to that person, talk about whatever merchandising all day long, because they were so brilliant. And just even just the way they approached it was just incredible. But then when it just came to leading people or making decisions about across an organization, it just wasn’t working. And so those people either opted out on their own or, you know, were given assistance on their way out. 

Celia Swanson: Right, right. I love this whole concept of alignment, creating alignment. And you’ve talked about building relationships and learning the business. Would, would you have any other advice for people and how to create alignment? Because it, it is the secret sauce. I think of getting things done. 

Ann Bordelon: I think back to one of the teams that I worked on, where I felt like alignment was the strongest that was at Sam’s Club. And, you know, and actually we had two different, I had two different CEOs as the CFO at Sam’s, you know, and but that alignment persisted. And I think part of it was initially, it was because Brian Cornell was the who’s now the CEO of Target was, was the CEO of Sam’s Club. And I think he did just a fantastic job of creating clarity and as a, as a leader. And when there’s clarity, you know, what your role is and so, if there’s clarity in what the vision and the initiatives and the strategy are, then you know, what your, what you need to do to support those. And so I think that was really strong during that time that I was at Sam’s and then Brian left that role and Roz Brewer came in, who’s now at Walgreen’s, and she stepped into that role and she also made changes. I mean, not, not huge changes, but again, I think she just saw that alignment there and leveraged that even levered it up.

Celia Swanson: Yes. Wow. 

Ann Bordelon: And I just, it was fun to work at Sam’s during those years because it, everybody was working together. And what did we agree on everything? No, but it was healthy disagreement. And when we in those, but those debates usually resulted in a better decision overall for the organization. I feel like we made so much progress as an organization for Sam’s Club, you know, no matter what you’re talking about, whether it was the financial structure or distribution or merchandising or operations, or even real estate, it doesn’t matter. I just felt like we were so aligned in the strategy. We really, it was, you know, every day was a good day. 

Celia Swanson: Yeah. Well, and look at the success of Sam’s now, and that wasn’t that long ago. It wasn’t. And so that consistency and that alignment, and then, you know, leveraging it up, as you said, Roz did when she came into the role we have paid huge dividends now in, you know, that business overall. I felt the same way at Walmart U.S. when Bill Simon came in as the CEO. And there was just this real clarity, as you said about who’s accountable and responsible for what, but also a real team environment of saying we’re going to win together. 

Ann Bordelon: That’s right. 

Celia Swanson: So let’s all, you know, commit hash through whatever it is we need to, but all for the same outcome and purpose. And when you can have that, it really is fun to go every day to work and contribute. 

Ann Bordelon: And that clarity is just so important because there is a billion things to work on. 

Celia Swanson: Right. 

Ann Bordelon: And when there’s clarity, some of that gets filtered out and it becomes a much smaller population if they, I mean, you know, th th the clarity creates such, you know, just shines a light on, well, these are the five things I’ve got to work on today because these other things aren’t really going to solve, you know, the, these pillars or strategies or whatever you want to call them. And I just felt like I knew what I needed to do every day that I walked in the door. And that was just so motivating. 

Celia Swanson: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I love that story. That’s great. Well, let’s wrap up and I’ll ask you my, my last question, which is you know, often CFOs, and you talked a little bit about this even in the audit role, but often CFOs come in and they face really complex challenges and situations. And how do you make them manageable? How do you break them down into something that’s achievable by others and by you? 

Ann Bordelon: Well, I think you just, I go back to my story about real estate and, you know, I think about what I, I was focused on what I hadn’t accomplished and I, and I think that the answer is when you can break something down into manageable pieces and not focus on the whole forest, maybe just a few trees at a time it, it makes it a little bit easier to consume in the organization. And so you know, a recent example when I took on the role at the University, the same day that I started was the day that the University went live with a new finance and HR ERP system. And it wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Some, some would use much stronger words than that. I mean, it was tough. It was tough on the organization because it created a lot, I mean, change management, hadn’t been great. And so, you know, the, the organization I think, was unprepared for what came, what hit them. And, of course, I’m there on my first day of the job. And while I knew that that was coming and I, you know, suspected that there would be some challenges—I’ve been through this before. So, you know, it is difficult to step into a brand new job when the whole organization is just you know, struggling under the weight of this change. And there was, you know, just high emotion and frustration and long hours by the organization. And I just had to roll up my sleeves and dig in and try to understand what were all the problems and what were the things that we could solve immediately and get those quick wins. So we can start developing some light, but, you know, what are the other things that were the most critical effects? I mean, where were, where were the biggest log jams? And let’s just start pulling one log off at a time. 

Celia Swanson: Right. 

Ann Bordelon: And so, you know, and I think most of the organization was so overwhelmed by everything, but they didn’t have the capacity to kind of rise up above it and see, you know, which, which log to take out. And it’s like pick up sticks, right? I mean, which one do you need to take out? And I, and I think that’s me being brand new, I think was actually helpful because it allowed me to ask a lot of questions to get to the heart of the issue quickly without, you know, hurting somebody’s feelings or being feeling like I was being condescending. I was just asking questions cause it was my first week. Laughs.

But I think that a lot of times that we tend to focus and get overwhelmed on complexity when you can, if you take a step back and just try to unbundle it and figure out, where are those big logs? And work on those first, because they’re going to have the biggest impact. So that’s, that’s worked well for me in just about every, every situation. 

Celia Swanson: Very wise, stepping back, it goes, I was just going to say, even if you’re in an organization for a long time, that ability to step back and just look at the macro of the situation that you’re in and then break it down, can be a refreshing leadership strategy to take, to try to help the team move past what might seem like insurmountable pain and suffering. 

Ann Bordelon: That’s right. 

Celia Swanson: And so applying that same principle, even if you’ve been there awhile is great wisdom. Well, Ann, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you being here with me today and sharing your wisdom and perspective with the audience. The things I take away, you talked about trust some of these themes, but trust starts with building relationships, learning the business, investing that time in understanding who the influencers are in an organization, and then, along the way, learning the business from them so that there’s not a distrust when it comes time for you to implement, change, or ask for their support and solutions. The importance of, I loved people capital, organizational health, and then just staying attuned to watching what’s going on inside an organization, and what’s going on around you to being constantly aware of how you might be able to influence a situation, or when you’re going to be asked to give a point of view on a situation, another key theme and nugget. And then, the importance of alignment and how fun business can be coming to work every day when you have a team that’s very clear about what it’s supposed to do. And that clarity allows you the opportunity to come together as a team and to ask and challenge issues, ask great questions and come to solutions even better than you might’ve thought were possible before. So, any last advice you’d want to share with the group before we sign off for this awesome episode? 

Ann Bordelon: I just, again, I, I just can’t reinforce enough the importance of relationships, Celia. I mean, I think no one can do, be a leader without the help of others. And even though I, I know sometimes there are times as a senior leader, you feel like you might be alone. You’re not, I mean, there are plenty of people there to support and encourage you. And I, I really, I think one of the things that we didn’t really talk about this today, but I, one of the things that I certainly have benefited from in my career is, is a strong network of people around me that I felt comfortable going to and asking for feedback and getting a little bit vulnerable and being okay with them, putting the mirror up and sharing with me what I could do better and taking that and, you know, and, and learning from it all along. And I’ve just been so blessed, both at Ernst and Young, at Walmart, even at U of A today, developing that strong network of, of people who will support and encourage you goes a long way in your job happiness, and, I think, in your success. And I think I try to be that person for other people because I certainly have it in spades and in, in all my career. 

Celia Swanson: Well, you’re a great example of someone who then keeps that network alive. So we haven’t worked together until recently in a while. And yet you do a great job of just touching base periodically and, and then saying, Hey, what about this situation? What do you know about this? Can you help in this situation? And that network is really a difference maker when people don’t spend time developing and nurturing that network and they can’t possibly navigate through some of the tough moments of life, as well as those who have a strong network. 

Thanks to Ann for joining me for this important conversation. And thank you for joining me today on the Gracious and Strong podcast. See you next time.

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