New at the top: After a leap off the high dive, this CFO learned to jump into new challenges

October 6, 2013

In college, I took a swimming class.

One day, the instructor encouraged people to go off the high diving board. I didn’t know how to swim just yet, but I decided to try anyway. I climbed up to the top of the high dive. When I saw how high I was, I got afraid. I asked to go back down, but they said I couldn’t. Eventually I stepped off. It wasn’t a graceful dive, but I did it despite the fear.

I love to be challenged.

Throughout my career, I’ve been ready and willing to take on new opportunities.

The first opportunity was when I started as a consultant right out of college. I had no previous plans of entering the field because I was looking for a traditional sales role, but I grabbed hold of the consulting opportunity anyway and thrived.

Jean Holder is the new chief financial officer and executive vice president of Merkle, a Columbia marketing agency. (Merkle)

After three years, however, I began to feel that the very technical nature of my work didn’t line up with my interest as much as general business management might.

That’s when I learned the importance of speaking up when you think you can make a contribution. After I spoke up, they gave me the opportunity to take a leap and move to a position where I was wearing many hats, from human relations to marketing to finance.

Over time, I began to gravitate toward finance. I had the ability to understand numbers and make the connections, a skill I have cultivated through the years.

When I’m in meetings, it’s almost like I can visualize how a human relations action, for example, will result in a particular financial outcome.

I found that I could help articulate those connections in a way that could help business leaders understand them too.

In the ensuing years, I also learned the importance of embracing change and being a change agent.

For example, I remember when Accenture had organized its business around industries vertically, capabilities horizontally, all in a geographic context — it’s a matrix organization.

I wound up the lead finance person in each part of the dimensions of how the company managed its business.

Later, we were installing a new custom financial system. I took a leap and volunteered to be a region lead for the implementation. I provided input and helped train. We accomplished our goal of creating the ability to see the company’s finances along the industry dimension.

I also helped with another very large organization realignment within the global finance organization. I was the program manager for a project where we developed an approach for service delivery that involved developing a global delivery system. We did it with no increase in cost.

Then I took another leap.

After 27 years with Accenture, I decided to move to a company where I would drive a set of global change initiatives.

It was a tough decision, but I felt like I had accomplished a lot at Accenture and I was seeking new opportunities and challenges.

Shortly after the move, the opportunity at Merkle arose. It was extremely attractive to come to this established high-energy company.

I come from a very non­traditional finance background. I haven’t spent a great deal of time in controllership, but my experience is making the intersection of finance and business tangible no matter the challenge. That’s what I want to help do here.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Jean Holder

Position: Chief financial officer and executive vice president of Merkle, a Columbia marketing agency.

Career highlights: Senior vice president of operations, Quintiles; global managing director of finance and operations, Accenture Management Consulting; managing director of finance, Accenture North America; and global managing director of finance and operations, Accenture’s resources business unit.

Age: 50

Education: BS, business administration, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Personal: Commutes between Columbia and Cary, N.C. Married to Greg Holder.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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