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International CFO offers revealing insights

The Network of Executive Women held its 10th annual leadership summit earlier this week in Orlando, and Walmart’s International CFO Cathy Smith was listed as a featured speaker. Nothing unusual about that, but what made Smith’s appearance unique is that rather than read a canned speech written by someone else, she engaged in a candid conversation with Jan Hill, founder of Hill Enterprises. Seated in two large chairs in front of an audience of 700 women and a handful of men, Hill probed Smith with all sorts of interesting questions that allowed Smith to shed light on a wide range of topics including her personal life, joining Walmart, working in a male-dominated industry and achieving balance.

For example, Smith shared that she is 48, rides a Harley and as a young girl growing up in central California, sold corn and eggs door to door and rode dirt bikes with her brothers. She long aspired to be the CFO of a public company, but when the opportunity first arose with Walmart she declined and took a CFO position with Gamestop. After six months, the opportunity arose again and she said yes.

“You don’t get a do over in life very often and I felt like I got a do over,” Smith said of the decision to join Walmart. Even so, it wasn’t without some reservations that she left Gamestop. “Coming to a company with 2.2 million employees worried me a lot,” Smith said. As did relocating to Northwest Arkansas. “It is tough to move to Northwest Arkansas because it’s not like moving to New York, Chicago or Dallas.”

The other challenge came from accepting a job where all of the country managers are male and she had no background in retail or merchandising. Although CFO skills are transferable, most of her career had been spent in the defense and homebuilding industries.

“Immediately I had no credibility with any of these folks,” Smith said, referring to Walmart country managers.

To overcome that challenge -- on the advice of international division president and CEO Doug McMillon -- Smith said she spent a lot of time walking stores with individual country leaders and asking a lot of questions which helped her gain respect over the course of the 18 months she has been with the company.

Smith’s also earns respect for the manner in which she approaches life. As CFO of Walmart’s international division, which has a presence in nearly 30 countries, she is on the road a considerable amount of time, which creates balance issues since there are only 24 hours in a day. As the mother of two boys, ages seven and nine, Smith told the overwhelmingly female audience that her husband handles most of the household responsibilities.

“He is amazing and I couldn’t do what I do around the world without knowing that he is taking care of things at home,” Smith said.

When she is home, in order to maintain balance Smith said she makes sure to leave the office by 6 p.m. so she can have dinner with her family at 6:30, which she said is possible in Bentonville due to a 15-minute commute. She does some additional work in the evenings. Her “me” time comes in the mornings when she gets up at 4 a.m. to run everyday no matter where she is in the world.

“That’s how I define balance, but everyone’s definition is different so you have to choose your own balance,” Smith said.

And that means having some fun and trying new things, according to Smith.

“I know how to have more fun than most and I will try anything once,” Smith said. “If you can name it I’ve probably done it once.”

On the topic of women in leadership, Smith expressed frustration that there hasn’t been greater progress made over the past decade, but did note that women currently in senior leadership positions are doing a better job of paying it forward than in the past by moving past pure mentoring relationships to sponsorship relationships. As was noted by other speakers at the summit, women tend to be promoted based on their performance whereas men are promoted based on their potential because men do a better job of sponsoring one another whereas mentors tend to be more advice givers.

“We have a great pipeline of women leaders up to a point, but then women tend to check out,” Smith said in reference to the current state of the retail and CPG industry and figures presented earlier in the day by author and Age Wave co-founder Maddy Dychtwald. She cited figures showing that women occupy only 11% of the top leadership positions in business and only 3% of Fortune 500 companies are lead by female CEOs.

“We’ve made no progress in a decade and that just stunning to me,” Smith said. She does expect the situation to change though. “Gender equity is a business imperative and because there is such a war for talent it will happen.”

At the conclusion of Smith’s conversation with moderator Jan Hill, Walmart SVP home Michelle Gloeckler took the stage as she served as emcee of the day’s events in her capacity as NEW board chair.

“Note to the Network,” Gloeckler said. “Jan Hill never gets to interview me because I learned things about Cathy Smith that I never knew.”