A century isn’t the only thing separating General Motors Co. and fintech startup Stripe, but overseeing the finances of both companies taught Dhivya Suryadevara valuable management insights that apply to any organization.
Suryadevara joined GM in 2004 and became the company’s first female CFO in 2017. In 2020 she left the automobile manufacturer, which was founded in 1908, to serve as chief financial officer for online payment processing platform Stripe. Stripe was founded in 2010 by brothers Patrick and John Collison. In 2021 it was named the most valuable U.S. startup, worth $95 billion.
“Industries are different, companies are different, cultures are different, but ultimately there's some common themes that you can take into pretty much any job,” Suryadevara said during a fireside chat at the November MIT Sloan CFO Summit.
Here’s a closer look at four of them.
1. Put first principles first
No matter your industry or job, focus on first principles: What are you trying to solve, how do you solve it for your customers, and what’s the simplest way to do it.
“Oftentimes people say ‘You’ve got to do A because of B because of C,’ and before you know it, you feel like your decision is already sort of made for you because of some preexisting conditions,” Suryadevara said.
Instead, question perceived wisdom, and consider that while it might be easier to explain things in a complicated way, “sometimes the most powerful things are simple.”
For CFOs, resource allocation is often a focus. At a car manufacturer like GM, the CFO might ask questions like: What are the programs we’re investing in? How do you make capital efficient, and what kind of return are you getting on that capital?
At a fintech company like Stripe, it’s more about considering management bandwidth, engineers’ time, and whether or not the company is developing the right kind of products.
2. Learn the ins and outs of your company
Every company is its own ecosystem, Suryadevara said. GM operated in a world of suppliers and deals and market predictions, while Stripe exists alongside banks and technology partners and users.
CFOs must be “intimately involved in every aspect of running the company,” Suryadevara said.
At General Motors, she had to think about vehicle development and product features that customers loved. At Stripe, it’s about making it easier for users to do business online.
“A CFO does not have swim lanes,” Suryadevara said. “There’s no perimeter of what your job is.”
3. Strike a balance between deep dives and broad thinking
Some people are better at taking 30,000-foot views while others are better at deep dives. CFOs need to be able to do both. They need to think broadly about the trends and different aspects of a business, and they also need to be able “to double-click on something and say ‘OK, why is it this way?’” Suryadevara said.
Striking that balance between micromanaging and flying too high is easier said than done, she said, but that comes with gaining experience and learning which strategy to use in any given situation.
4. Take time building the right team
No matter where your career takes you, it’s crucial to have a team of people you can rely on, Suryadevara said. If you’re used to doing everything yourself, don’t let that independent streak prevent you from taking the time to pick talented team members, especially as you move up an organizational ladder and your role becomes more about people and talent development.
CFOs need to build a team that they can rely on, because no matter how smart they are, it’s about leveraging the knowledge and skills of the people around them.
“Give them the vision to do the right things, and they're excited to do it,” Suryadevara said. “You’ve got to make sure they're happy as well, and they have job satisfaction in doing what they're doing.”