Socratic CFO


Bill was never shy to ask questions. As a CFO, he was expected to. But his questions were not superficial, rude, “gotcha” machismo. They weren’t simple expectations such as, “Did Sourcing vet this? Can we negotiate a better price?” The hourly rate of a CFO is better spent in deciphering process and strategic connections than worrying whether or not another executive was looking for the best price. If he was doing that then the organization had bigger problems than executive-level respect. Of course, Bill had his moments too, feigning shock at a seven-figure licensing cost, sometimes for dramatic effect and sometimes because he just couldn’t fathom the “why.” I didn’t blame him, most times; there were some hefty costs for software. But Bill’s value was in conjuring the enterprise impact, the reasons why we were making investments. It wasn’t enough to rationalize a change of investment by saying a vendor was sun-setting a product, or curtailing support unless you upgrade. The conversations were complex and deep, and sometimes downright philosophical.

In the early years of college we learned the beauty of the Socratic approach -- its value to assure logic and assure empathy. If one is unable to see another viewpoint, then there is failed understanding of how the company operates, or what problems other colleagues face. We all succumb to kneejerk reactions, at least to varying degrees, unless our colleague’s perspective is recognized. But we cannot see other viewpoints unless we challenge them, and challenge our own. This style should be on display in every executive meeting room.

What is the behavior in some executive staff meetings? In some cases it’s often surface level and cheap as, one by one, executives seek to manage upwards, dropping a rhetorical question to look good, or responding to a question like a Jeopardy buzzer beater. As leaders, slow the Gatling gun quips. Bill wasn’t immune to some of that, but in general he controlled a conversation by a deliberate pause and a question and answer dialog that helped him qualify and quantify a path forward. His questions connected issues to cross-functional processes, like an archaeologist uncovering a hidden cavern. As we discussed in our last blog on strategy, everything must connect. I recall that he would even verbally “play back” his understanding, rehashing it after he learned something new; he wasn’t shy from being educated by other professionals at all levels of the organization. He taught this by example. Some of us learned. Some didn’t.

You’re on this planet for a brief time, so metaphorically see yourself as giant, shaper of understanding, teacher to scholars. Most of us will assuredly not be remembered by a future Rafael honoring philosophical giants of Western civilization; but we can extend glorious milestones in thought, by contemplating issues and solving problems in the most logical and humanistic manner possible.

Many a meeting room, particularly at the executive level, tends to be a weekly report on what’s up and what’s down, what’s new and what’s old. An adequate manager or leader will use the time to troubleshoot a gap or mobilize the group to ensure the problem du-jour is addressed. Are we looking to be just ‘adequate”?

The remarkable leader depends on others in the room to elevate the conversation into a holistic understanding of the environment. Questions are prompts for dialogue, full-fledged and considered.

Here is where Bill’s style should have been emulated by everyone in the room. His questions and playback routine evoked images of a detective, digging through all avenues in the organization. Was it perfect? Hardly. He had several moments where he shelved strategic planning for transactional cost-cutting without delving into the long term impacts. But that behavior was short-lived. His value, maturing every day, was the ability to absorb the long-term, understanding that the immediate quick-fix was not a sustainable approach. So he asked his questions, and followed a trek of meandering railroad tracks. His Socratic method of professional argumentation, accidental or not, ultimately led to insight on the impacts of pulling or pushing a certain enterprise switch. Whether it was a technical solution or a monumental process challenge, he used the open question and answer to drive engagement from all managers. Some learned that a meeting with him was a collaboration of information mining, bottom-line impacts. For others, unfortunately, they still clutched to meeting as a ‘show’, attempting to manage upwards, only reporting on the latest project completion or quick fix, or trying to quibble with another person's idea. Worse, some executives still saw the meeting venue as a rapid fire show of intellect, as shallow as a Cretan beach at low tide.

As leader you are coach and teacher. If the teacher is not continuously learning from colleagues at all departmental levels, and if all contributors are not learning the art of team-oriented dialogue, then the quick fix won’t be a fix at all.

The meeting dialogue is not about showboating; it’s about thorough analysis and empathy – seeing all parts of the firm as effected by all other parts.

Bill was no more Socrates than I am Plato recording a memory. But I will always appreciate his candor, even when I disagreed, and his engagement style of Q&A --- back and forth, deeper and deeper, like ancient philosophers seeking answers to our existence.

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