How I Got Here: Mark Hawkins on becoming a strategic CFO

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Mark Hawkins has more than 35 years of experience with leading finance organizations at global software and technology companies including Salesforce, Autodesk, Logitech, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard, and more than a decade of public board of directors service. As President and Chief Financial Officer at Salesforce, Hawkins was responsible for leading the company’s global finance organization and was a member of the company’s executive committee. During Hawkins' tenure, Salesforce's market capitalization valuation increased from $33 billion to over $296 billion. Currently, Hawkins is a member of the public Board of Directors at Workday, Cloudflare, Toast, and Secureworks. Hawkins also serves on private company boards and provides strategic advising to a variety of clients. He sits on the NYSE Listed Company Advisory Board and is a founding member of the USA Chapter of The Prince of Wales' Accounting for Sustainability Project CFO Leadership Network and Chairs the A4S Global Advisory Council. 

The Vareto Visionaries community exists to bring experienced finance professionals together to inspire the next generation of leaders. We were thrilled to sit down with Mark Hawkins to discuss his journey to becoming a strategic CFO, his advice for aspiring leaders, and the importance of being a lifelong learner.

Did you ever imagine becoming a CFO when you were a kid?

No. I didn't imagine becoming a CFO, nor having the good fortune to work at iconic technology companies with leaders such as Bill Hewlett and David Packard, Michael Dell, Marc Benioff, and all the founders and leaders and teams that I supported then, and the great founders, CEOs, executives and teams that I support today in my current capacity as a board member and or strategic advisor. 

In college, I earned an academic scholarship that helped pay for books and tuition, and then I worked nights for four years at the university while I went to school during the day. I was really committed to getting an education, but I didn't know what to major in initially. I was the first of my grandfather’s sixteen grandchildren to actually graduate from college.

I ended up pursuing Operations Management at Michigan State's College of Business. When I joined HP, my first job was to be a manufacturing buyer; I learned about operations, manufacturing, and supply chain firsthand. The agreement was that they would pay for me to go to night school for my MBA at the University of Colorado. For my first four years of college, I worked nights, and in my first four years after college, I worked days and went to school at night. It was nonstop education. HP later sent me to Harvard Business School as well.

I've been blessed with getting a good education by people who really helped me. When I went to get my Master's in Finance I enjoyed it immensely — and still do to this day. I think being a CFO is one of the greatest jobs in the world. And I'll stand by that.

How did you find yourself in the finance space?

I grew up — one of five boys — in a small farm town south of Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

After graduating from Michigan State University, I surprised my parents by turning down the highest-paying offer that I received from the most powerful company in the world in 1981 — General Motors. This was a departure from the norm, since generations of Michiganders took pride in working at one of the Big Three auto manufacturers: Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors.

Instead, I decided to follow my dream and leave Michigan to work for, at the time, a relatively small company called Hewlett Packard in California. Little did I know in 1981 how critical that pivot would be on my journey in tech.

I worked with HP from $3.1 billion to $50 billion in top-line sales. My last job at HP was to be one of the seven business unit CFOs of HP. During my last years at HP, I was involved in a team supporting the Agilent Technologies IPO spin from HP. Agilent became one of the bigger employers to this day in Silicon Valley. Right after the IPO spin, I got a phone call from Dell Computer and they said, why don't you come to Austin, Texas, and be one of our four business unit CFOs at Dell?

I accepted the role at Dell. My wife’s family lives in Texas, and it made sense to be closer to family and also be a part of the great opportunity at Dell. I joined the company when it was approximately $20 billion in revenue, and I left six and a half years later when it was at $56.5 billion in revenue. I felt incredibly fortunate to experience such explosive growth, and I work with Michael Dell to this day on his board with Secureworks. 

After Dell, I thought it was time for me to lead as a global public company CFO, so I joined Logitech International SA, working with the founder Daniel Borel and the leadership team.

When the financial crisis hit, I got a call from my mentors that said you really need to meet Carl Bass, CEO, at Autodesk. I had a chance to work with Carl and the leadership team during a very challenging time.There was a lot of restructuring and rework, and then strategically repositioning things to the cloud. But in the end, that proved to be a really successful endeavor thanks to the 10,000 employees at Autodesk and the leadership team. That caught Marc Benioff's attention at Salesforce. I joined Salesforce in 2014 and worked with him for almost eight years side by side. I started at Salesforce, when the company was $4.1 billion in revenue and we then went big, and it was an incredible joy. 

So that's been my professional career. Today, I'm doing what I call chapter two. I thought after forty years of being an operator, sixteen years as a CFO, and CFO and President of Salesforce, that's quite enough. Now I’m in the plural stage in my career where I am serving on boards, I'm doing strategic advising and I'm giving back, in addition to more time with my family and friends. 

It sounds like you've had mentors or advocates along the way. How did you find those folks?

Leaders lift people up. 

So number one, if you get your ego out of the way and you let them, I think there's a lot of people who want to help you. 

Number two, some of the best mentoring I ever got was from my mother: Be around really good, world-class people. That's been the number one criterion for me in terms of where I've worked and critical decisions in my career. It's about being around the best and seeing great, and knowing what great is.

If you can ask for help and take on all the work of doing a mentoring relationship, take all the responsibility for it, don't overwork it, and also be a resource — give as well as get — I think it is a really powerful thing.

I stand on the shoulders today of my family, my community, educators, mentors, and bosses who gave me the confidence and courage, and frankly, the skills to scale up. Making progress is always a team sport. Creating a successful business is always a team sport. The people that I work with today and the different companies that I work with are just amazing leaders with amazing teams who win together.

What’s your take on “soft skills” — how did you learn the art of influence and relationship building? 

I think soft skills start with genuinely caring about people. Have deep empathy — and do your best to understand and observe, and be a student of people. I don’t have magic lessons for that. 

I mentor people and say if you approach the people that you interact with like you are going to work with them forever, as opposed to more transactionally, the level of respect, the level of listening, the level of empathy, the level of care and concern, and loyalty is higher — and as a result relationships are deeper and more enduring. This builds and fortifies trust over the years.

I'm a huge fan of really treasuring relationships and respecting people in every interaction, including hard interactions with hard decisions. I think it goes a long way to cultivating a person's EQ and their “soft skills”.

As far as leadership and communication, counterintuitively, part of that starts with being very comfortable with yourself and being able to start using the superpowers that each of us has been gifted, whatever they may be, to have better interactions, relationships and communications.

What makes a great CFO?

Number one is trust and integrity no matter what. You're going to be making hard decisions continuously, and that's so important. Those decisions never go away and your life work needs to always embrace trust and integrity to the fullest.

Secondly, is endurance and stamina. These are big, tough jobs. I read in the Wall Street Journal that the lifecycle for a CFO for their whole career in that position is 4.85 years. There’s a reason. It’s a big, hard job. You need to have stamina and resilience and you have to do things that are going to recharge you. 

A person needs to have deep financial acumen, deep and wide business acumen, and incredible empathy for all your different stakeholders, including your peers. You're typically in the middle of very hard decisions, which are causing pressure and trade-offs. Being a good team member in order to make the team be successful is a critical framework.

I hosted five of the World Economic Forums, CFO forums, and I remember asking the president of the New York Stock Exchange, you've seen so many CFO and CEOs, what's the pattern of success? His answer was instant. Those that view their job very narrowly typically don't have the impact that those that view their job much in a much wider way do. Those that think, ‘I'm part of the leadership team — put me in wherever you need me’ and the ones saying, ‘Here's how we can contribute to the greater good of this entity and really serve the team and the company and the stakeholders in a broader way,’ stand out.

I relate to that. I think there are so many ways that you can contribute and look for high-impact ways to contribute vs narrowly thinking about your opportunities to contribute. Having a broad mindset about how to contribute to the success of your company, your CEO, your peers, your team, your customers, your shareholders, your partners and your community is really powerful.

And lastly, constantly refactoring what you work on to meet the moment. What was needed to meet the moment for Salesforce when it was $4 billion in sales versus what was needed when it was heading to $30 billion was very different. So how do you keep changing what you're doing, your prioritization, when you're working in a company that's changing to, to meet the moment, I think is, is really important. And what are you doing to renew yourself and take yourself to the next level of competence and capability? Getting there is the beginning of the journey, not the end of the journey. Don’t be complacent. Be a tenacious learner and have the ability to prioritize relentlessly and love what you do.

You have to want and love a big, tough job. I certainly did. So if it's a good match for you in that way then it's not a burden to shoulder. It's a privilege to shoulder those responsibilities.

How do you keep up to date and help issue-spot effectively

That's a never-ending journey and I'm still doing that.

I read the Wall Street Journal every day without fail. I have lots of different sources of information that come in, from equity analysts to capital markets analysts to banking. I am insatiably digging into data in every way I can. I pick at least one or two topics a year that I want to go deeper into, the most recent being, AI, cybersecurity, sustainability, and the importance of China for the next 40 years.

It's all about learning. It's immersing yourself to be a student forever and constantly knitting things together, networking, and trying to formulate the patterns that you think are there. I can't just tell you the five things I subscribe to. It's an attitude of learning and an insatiable appetite to push myself every day to be leaning forward.

You can learn from every single person you interact with. And when you have those really big opportunities, double down on it. When you get in front of somebody special try to extract all you can. Also, share all you can!

You've been credited with being the first strategic CFO. Did you know when it was happening at the time?

It’s better, better, never done. People ask me about this story and it’s about being around companies where I saw great. When you are at a company that is performing really well over long periods of time, it is vital that you think with a beginner's mind, where can we be better? Where can I be better to meet the moment? You need to think about the fact that even when we're strong as a company, staying number one is transient. We have to constantly be learning and pushing and stretching and refactoring, and even if we're best, we're not done. 

I took that approach with my job as a CFO. I networked with other CFOs. I was constantly trying to be a learner as well as a sharer and a giver back to the CFO community. That’s so important. And then I started to push broader and continue to refactor what I should be doing to help the company. 

I began to realize later in my career that I was able to operate as a CFO in a way that was broader than a lot of classic CFOs and I was so grateful for my founders and my CEOs, who trusted me to do that. I started to get a sense that I was doing it in a different way, but I was still learning from my peers. And there's still more learning to go. 

I immensely enjoyed being a public company CFO for sixteen years! Today, I greatly enjoy serving and contributing to the boards I am on as well as the strategic advisory work I do for companies, So now I'm on a whole different learning journey! And it's been awesome.

You serve on several boards and advise high-growth companies. What are your personal priorities for 2023 and are there any interesting trends that you're observing across all industries

My goals for 2023 involve taking great care of my family and wellness goals and helping my family in an extended way. Especially as a CFO, you need to find healthy outlets or you'll find unhealthy outlets. I'm a big fan of fitness. A lot of people who know me know that I love to run and be fit. 

Professionally, I want to keep learning. So I'm stretching myself on different topics. I want to do outstanding service to all the people that I'm working with and continue to dig deeper. This year, certainly AI is so applicable. It took 50 years to show up, but it's here for sure. It's just the beginning of the beginning for AI. For example, I think of ChatGPT / Bard as something like the internet in 1995! This is an important inflection point. Hence, I want to learn about that even more and translate that learning into strong contributions to all who I serve. 

I also really aspire to maximize my impact and give back. I'm deeply involved in sustainability. I'm trying to help in every way, and working with many business people around the world to try to help pragmatically as it relates to finance and sustainability and to figure out how we can do our part to help, especially as it relates to climate change.

How can CFOs contribute to ESG initiatives?

I think it's fine to start small. Everybody can't do everything, but everybody can do something. When I look in the capital markets, you know, the message on ESG from seven years ago versus today, the expectation in the investment community is exponentially higher. You can see that with assets under management where there's a screening for critical parts of ESG. Our jobs are to help support and address our stakeholders. I think that this is really important for a CFO to wrap their mind around.

Business is one of the greatest platforms for positive change, and it's needed. A business loves to operate swiftly, decisively, and effectively, and I think doing that will balance the amount of regulation that's going to be required eventually. 

Public and private companies together can really make serious progress — and it's the right thing to do. So let's work together on it and not underestimate what we can get done in a decade.

What would you tell your 18 or 20-year-old self?

There's no question that I would strongly encourage you to follow your own dream and I mean that in the fullest sense. When I turned down General Motors, it paid 10% more. Keep in mind I worked nights to get through school. So that money was important at that age. My fiancee's father also worked at General Motors, so I truly followed my own path. My and my wife’s family all resided in Michigan at this time. I truly followed my own path. I'm just encouraging each of us to find our own path, to own it, and to drive it. That would be number one. 

I think number two is to do something that you really love. We've heard that before, but it'll give you the energy when you need it, when things are challenging, to press on.

And I certainly think being a lifelong learner is ever so critical in so many different ways to pivot, to adjust, to adapt. I don't think at any stage of your career, one should say, I've got it. I've figured it out, it's all there — because it's never all there.

I would encourage all of us to choose the values we cherish the most because if you don't, the business world or the environment, in general, will do it for you. Be super intentional. You know what's important and what you want to be, not in terms of a job title, but in terms of how you operate from a values standpoint. 

I also encourage you to take care of yourself along the way. Have a great time, and be super committed, but taking care of yourself gives you the resilience to perform even better. 

Lastly, remember feedback is like blood to the brain. If you have it, you're healthy. If you don't, it's a medical emergency. So make it easy to get feedback, and don't be defensive about it. Be coachable.

What are some things people would be surprised to learn about you?

Well, I've run 19 marathons. And it would probably surprise people that I co-founded the Silicon Valley Marathon Club, of which there are at least five World Marathon Hall of Famers. I am one of them as I was admitted in 2016 after finishing the Tokyo marathon.

I've also been working on a book with my two sons called Walk With My Sons. Ever since my kids were little, we would go for a walk after dinner. Now they're in their thirties and the first thing we do when we get together is to go for a walk. So it's just about three different views of what we've learned from each other. 

What book are you reading or listening to, or what song is on repeat on your playlist?

I love all kinds of different music. These days, I’m based in Austin, Texas — the live music capital of the world. There's a band down here that I've enjoyed recently called The Bleachers, which is different. 

I love music like John Prine, Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen and everything in between. At Salesforce, I came in around 6:00 a.m. in the morning, and I would crank music in my office until 8:00 a.m. when people came in, and then I would tone it down. Then after 6:00 p.m., I'd crank it up again. People loved it.

I just read a great book that a friend of mine sent me called Halftime, which was super fun. Right now, I’m reading Time Management for Mortals. It’s about being super intentional with your time and I think that's important for all of us.

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