Jeff Babka

Position: Chief financial officer of D.C.-based data analytics software company Applied Predictive Technologies.

After studying business in college, Jeff Babka landed a job as an accountant at a major accounting firm. He eventually moved to AT&T, where he spent 15 years in various functions, including controller and manager of the federal markets group. That led him to becoming chief financial officer at a series of companies, including Neustar, before coming to Applied Predictive Technologies.

At AT&T, you led an 850-person organization. What did it take to be successful?

Throughout my career, I’ve always given people opportunities to take on a job that if you looked at their background, maybe they weren’t 100 percent qualified, but you give them an opportunity to stretch forth. We did a lot of brown bag lunches and after-work learning experiences. I would go out and spend time with the technicians installing switches at the Labor Department just to get to know the people there. I wanted them to know that I’m really there to support them. When you’re leading an 850-person organization, you’re not the one person generating revenue. You really have to get the troops behind you. That’s what I focused on. Understand what they do, how they add value and what they want to accomplish.

Can you give an example?

I remember I had a person who was often a rabble-rouser at meetings. He would get noticed for negative reasons. I spent some time with him, and I came to understand that he wanted to produce the same result that the organization wanted. He was just going about it by accentuating the negative instead of focusing on the positive. I told him that if you got noticed for bad reasons, very few good things would happen. But if you got noticed for good reasons, good things would happen. He changed his whole attitude on how he looked at his job and became a real leader in the organization from a positive perspective, as opposed to a negative perspective.

Is there a theme to what makes a successful chief financial officer?

If I ever taught in college, it would be a course called “Finance for the Non-financial Executive.” A lot of times people look at finance as being this black box voodoo thing. I try to simplify it and make it as easy as I can for people to understand. Most people don’t need to get into the depth of detail that sometimes chief financial officers get into with people. I try to make it simple and help them understand how what they do adds value to the company. To do that, you really have to understand what they do. I’ve been here three weeks and I’ve already been out on three sales calls. I have to understand how our products are being sold. When I have a conversation with our sales people about the financials in the business, I understand their world. They need to know I’m an approachable guy. I try to demystify the world of finance and make it something people can understand.

How do you get them to see their value to the company?

In finance, there are jobs where you can only screw up. You’re running payroll for a company, people expect to be paid well and correctly. It’s hard to excel in payroll. Instead of only celebrating people who go out and make a sale, we would celebrate the fact that we got the W-2s out on Jan. 15 instead of Feb. 1. We acknowledged and celebrated the payroll person for that.

How did you celebrate?

We had acknowledgments. We used to hold monthly all-hands meetings with 250 people in the company. We would have people on the call from the U.K., Germany, all over. At the end, we would acknowledge people for a job well done. I always look for the opportunity to acknowledgment a financial person who sometimes goes unnoticed in an organization.

Which business books are you reading?

I was a student of Jack Welch early in my career. Now I read about the world that I’m in, big data. I really enjoy Tom Davenport’s writings like “How to Design Smart Business Experiments.”

— Interview with Vanessa Small