CFO Turned Entrepreneur: A Q&A Interview with Marianne Abib-Pech
It's fair to say Marianne Abib-Pech has experienced a meteoric rise in business leadership. From working her way up the corporate career ladder to launching her own boutique advisory firm in Merger and Acquisitions, Marianne has followed a core strategy which has helped her learn, communicate, lead and succeed in business.
We had lots of questions, and lots to learn from Marianne, so we sat down to tap into her wealth of expertise.
Hi Marianne, you became the Global CFO of Shell Aviation when you were just 35! That’s an incredible journey – how did that come about?
I can tell you this was not planned…but I would not be honest if I would say it just happened!
I think I always had one thing in mind: Learn as much as possible and develop my skills as quickly as possible. I refer to technical skills of course, but also and maybe more importantly leadership and business skills. I think I have always wanted to become a well-rounded business individual… the concept of being in and doing business always fascinated me.
I was naturally attracted to fast-paced organizations that thrive on change, are renowned for “pushing for excellence” and have a very holistic definition of business. Arthur Andersen and GEstood for what represented ideal learning environments for me. Joining and working there not only set the path, but also accelerated my professional development.
Additionally, I embraced by natural curiosity, and regularly volunteered for extra activities. When I was in Arthur Andersen, I asked to intern in Andersen Consulting, during the off-peak auditing season. I wanted to get familiar with consulting methodology. In Motorola, I volunteered to work on developing the Leadership transformation program for Finance. The intent was to get access to the most senior people in the Finance organization, and be exposed to different leadership styles. I was also looking to understand how you can create something from scratch… and the list continues…. even after I got the CFO role, I looked to honed by understanding of emerging markets and M&A processes, that ultimately led me to creating LTF Partners.
So, it was about learning and growing. I believe while you develop your skills, it gives you confidence in your ability, it leads you to take risks, ask for promotion or actually jump ships knowing that whatever happens you will be fine.
I think I am also a very impatient person with this unquenchable thirst for doing more and having an impact.
If you put the four elements together: learning, curiosity, suitable environments and impatience. you get risk taking, a fast pace career and… it lands you in the corner office!
And we read on your biography that you’ve worked in 6 different countries with over 80 nationalities. That must take superb communication skills to get the best out of people when you’re conversing in a 3rd or 4th language!
Actually, I think, it is now 8 countries and close to 100 nationalities… and hopefully it will continue to increase with the years to come.
How do I do this? Hum let me think… there is a beautiful little thing called English that does wonder for business…
No… joke on the side, I believe communications skills are the number one skill one needs to focus on to successfully lead and nowadays work in more and more multi-cultural environments.
It needs to go deep, very deep. The starting point is to understand the cultural making and the psyche of the population you are going to interact with.
I am currently expanding in the Middle East and on my bedside table you will find a mix of FT articles, academic books, religious books, a couple of novels and, poetry, yes, you read well poetry… because a lot transpire from language and culture. I use a wide array of sources help me gage my own perception gap, be aware of my own cultural bias and in a better position to address them.
I always follow the same process, I research, I read, I think I meet with different people and communities. I learn as much as I can- yes full circle back to learning – and I guess, I always try to engage with humility and from a position where I can assess the cultural gap and ultimately bridge it.
Listening and observing are critical…and yes speaking the local language can help, but to me it is just another element in the equation.
From a leadership perspective, it is more about understanding what drive the other person, and try to agree on goals that are both appealing for him/her and matching the need of the organization you are working in.
We are in a highly virtual world, but at the end of the day, business is done with people of flesh and bone. They come with history, a story, a personality, needs and fears.The closest you can get to understanding THE person, the closest you will get to be successful as a leader, or as a business person.
Since your time at Shell Aviation you’ve gone on to fulfil your own entrepreneurial adventures. Are you able to share some secrets to success that other entrepreneurs could follow?
I spent 15 years in corporate and I have started my 5th year as an entrepreneur this year. I can tell you, I have learnt so much in the last 5 years, that I feel making the switch has been a fantastic personal growth accelerator.
The two worlds could not be more different. They have this love/hate relationship that is subtle but very real. My business requires to navigate between these two worlds, with an extra layer of complexity: emerging economies and their related culture. It feels like I am permanently bridging three different worlds or better said, playing a 3rd dimensional chess party! My communication skills and strategic thinking are used, abused and tested every single day and I must admit I am really enjoying it.
A bit of an ode to entrepreneurship, now for me, the qualities to make it as an entrepreneur are for following:
You will encounter highs and lows like never before. You will realise that the notion of time does not mean the same thing for you anymore than for others. You will have to embrace and be at ease with waiting and not being in control. Your drive and resolve will be tested every day.
You will be the driving force about pretty much anything- success will be yours but so would failures. You will develop your problem-solving skills with – at least in the beginning- limited resources so creative will become your middle name! You will have to rally and constantly expand your networks. In the process, the solidity of your relationships will be put to the test. You will find help in unexpected places… or be disappointed in even more unexpected places!
You will have to constantly balance pro-activeness and reactiveness to adapt with ever changing situations. You will have to hold two strategic thinking processes at the same time: One for or with your clients, and one for your own company. Sometimes you will have to make tough choices on what should come first.
And finally, I want to say a few words about money….
I would highly recommend to always start with a big enough “slush fund “. It is important to ensure you can maintain a certain level of control so as to focus solely on your venture. Money will give you the luxury of saying no to things you feel are not the right things for you or for the venture. I also think it is important, yes, run a tight ship ready but definitely be ready to celebrate success properly and to reward anyone who has helped you.
Achieving success as an entrepreneur remains for me the ultimate test of leadership capabilities. Overall, be true to yourself, love what you do and enjoy the ride!
What piece of advice out there could you give to someone who wants to progress their career and fulfil their potential?
It would boil down to the following:
Believe in yourself,
Understand the people around you and
Never stop observing the world at large.
These will allow for you to be authentic, to lead and to have an impact, which is, for me, the definition of fulfilling my potential.
And finally, if there was one phrase, perhaps in 10-15 words, which summarises how to lead effectively and generate results, what would it be?
10 to 15 words for a concept as subtle, evolving and important as leadership… that is a real challenge.. but I will say the following… in 22 words!
Authenticity and humanity paired with a love for business growth and rooted in deep understanding and questioning of the world around you….
Will allow you to lead and generate results…so Take the first step!
Wonderful advice Marianne, thank you so much for your time!
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