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Why, as CEO, I sent myself back to school

By: Joanne McKinney

I was appointed chief executive officer of Burns Group back in March 2018. With 30 years of experience in the advertising industry and eight years as chief strategy officer at the agency, I felt ready to lead. At the same time, I had learned at every stage of my career that the skills that helped you shine in your past role are not necessarily the skills you need in your new role.

Being ready to step up and having the skills to step up are not one and the same.

As chief strategy officer, success was measured by the impact I could make on a brand’s strategic vision and by the tools I invented to keep our company ahead of the game. As CEO, overseeing and managing every aspect of the business was far more diverse — in my case, not just responsibilities related to client relations, brand strategy, new business and marketing, but also, accounting, finance, HR, operations...the list goes on.

What I learned, and hope to impress on others, is that it’s OK not to know everything as you step into new roles — and to not only recognize these knowledge gaps, but also be willing to fill them. For me, this meant going back to school. So, I registered at Columbia Business School for a continuing education course in finance and accounting for the non-financial executive.

Admitting when you need a skill set and taking the time out of your day-to-day routine to acquire it are two different things. Taking a significant amount of time away from the office, clients, and my new position was an investment on my part. It also required support from my team, who stepped up while I was away. It was a major commitment and I questioned myself: Is it OK to take time away from growing the company to grow my skillset?

I learned that the answer is and always should be a resounding YES.

Here are four reflections based on my experience.

Embrace a growth mindset

One of our most important company values at Burns Group is having a growth mindset. This means that at any age and any stage you can pick up new skills, learn, and evolve. Accepting new challenges goes hand in hand with putting energy into learning. By going back to school, I was embodying this value, increasing my impact, and, hopefully, setting a good example for our employees.

Short-term sacrifice for long-term gain

I chose a week-long executive education class in finance and accounting because I had never taken a class in either topic. Classes started at 8:30 a.m. every day and most nights went until 8:00 p.m., with group gatherings following class time. The program was fast-paced — there was a lot to cram into a single week. During lunch and late into the night, I was cranking through work emails, trying to catch up on everything I was missing. The week was intense; the class stretched me intellectually and exhausted me. But I did expand my skillset. I'm definitely better equipped to understand and handle the financial side of our business.

New knowledge = new ways of thinking

With limited knowledge of finance and accounting, I got a crash course on the topic and was able to get a basic understanding of financial accounting, valuation, and financial reporting. I also learned to understand accounting as a management tool - and gained fluency in managerial accounting is a huge benefit to my role. The Columbia Business School faculty leading my class were brilliant and adept at transferring complex concepts to a group of experienced leaders lacking deep knowledge of the topic. When I returned to the office, I started having conversations with my senior leadership team about the relationship between accounting and management and discussing ways our accounting practices could be more closely tied to our business vision.

Just like in kindergarten, classmates make the difference

One of the most interesting parts of my experience was my cohort and the camaraderie built between people in the program. People often go to business school to build their network, and I would say the same is true for executive education. We had a diverse group of about 25 men and women in our class, all in various situations, but for the most part, all finding themselves in a position where better financial acumen would improve their leadership ability.

Everyone was in leadership roles, but the size of each person’s company varied from start-ups to major corporations. Hearing from my classmates expanded my skillset and ways of working, thinking, and leading. I was able to see how other leaders problem-solve, address challenges, and manage their companies in various industries. Collaborating on complex problems and sharing a glass of wine at the end of the day were both critical to my experience.

Is it time for you to get schooled?

The opportunity to be a student at any stage of life is a privilege. It’s important that as we exit academia, enter the workforce, and move up the ladder, we continue to identify ways to grow, learn, and change. Nobody is too smart or too experienced for more knowledge. And, in fact, excelling in leadership roles and positions demand that we acquire it. I’m not saying it’s easy — trust me, my week at Columbia was anything but easy — but it is necessary.

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