The latest Daring Women interview is with Jennifer Ceran, chief financial officer of Bellevue, Washington-based Smartsheet, a leading software as a service provider that specializes in managing collaborative work and automating work processes.
Ceran, who earned an MBA degree from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, was named chief financial officer of Smartsheet in 2016. She served previously as chief financial officer (CFO) of Quotient Technology Inc. (formerly Coupons.com) and has years of experience working in executive roles at leading technology companies. Read about the career successes and challenges she’s faced, the advice she offers women starting out in their careers, her mentors and views on leadership.
Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.
The high point of my career was becoming the CFO of Smartsheet and helping the company through a successful initial public offering. I had spent years preparing for this role, developing a diverse skill set, really understanding the capital markets and what drives shareholder value, building and leading high-performing teams and developing the leadership skills to execute with excellence. What I love about my work is that feeling of responsibility to make Smartsheet the best it can be. That means ensuring we take great care of our most important assets, namely our employees, customers and shareholders.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?
I have been lucky in the sense that being a woman has not held me back. Or at least, I have not let it hold me back. Challenges actually inspire me to work harder, and I just find a different path to achieving my goals. I once asked for the same job twice before I was finally given the opportunity on the third try. (This was a very stressful role, and there was a lot of turnover.) A man was hired each of the first two times. I was only offered the job the third time after two more men turned it down. I took a big risk because I knew I would learn a lot, as long as I could handle the downsides of the job. Today, I can confidently say that it was a game changer for me. I developed two new and important finance skills, and it helped me reach the CFO level.
Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?
This is tough to answer because so many people have inspired and mentored me along the way. If I had to pick one, I guess it would be Maureen Culhane, who was Treasurer of Sara Lee Corporation in the 1990s. She delivered feedback, made decisions and occasionally delivered tough messages directly, objectively and, when helpful, with a sense of humor.
She gave me an opportunity at Sara Lee to take on a new role when I had no prior experience. She told me that it was important to her to develop her team and that she believed in me. I said I would repay her by working hard and paying it forward. As a result, I regularly give people new opportunities that stretch them. I am willing to take more risks on people and invest time in them because of what she did for me.
She also encouraged me to accept my first Treasurer job when I was planning to reject the position because I did not like the culture of the company. She said, “Jenny, you are now a VP and have the opportunity to change the culture” ― and she was right. She is the epitome of someone who cares about doing the right thing for employees, customers and the company overall. She showed a lot of courage in her role and has inspired me to do the same.
What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?
I would give the same advice to a woman as a man. Work hard, do more than what is expected and be a great colleague. If you don’t find your passion in your first role, rotate after 12 to 18 months and keep doing that until you find what you are best at and what you love. Always leverage your strengths.
What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?
It is rather simple. Recognize that there could be issues, investigate, identify discrepancies and fix them. Both men and women in positions of influence should speak up and show that it is important to them personally to resolve inequities. I think Marc Benioff has done a great job of this at Salesforce. It’s speaking up, showing support and taking action.
Tell us about a favorite book/show/podcast and why/how it inspires you.
I like the book “Discover Your Strengths,” which focuses on finding happiness at work by doing what you’re best at rather than trying to shore up weaknesses. My strongest attributes are in taking action, achieving goals, maximizing results and doing it all with a positive attitude and building strong relationships. I am happiest when there is a lot to accomplish and working with a talented team to deliver great results together.
Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
My husband is my number-one supporter. I am very lucky to have him in my life, and whenever I need confidential and objective advice, I go to him. Networking is very, very important. Most of my opportunities have come this way, and I regularly seek advice on a variety of topics from my network. One of my mentors told me that you can build a network by opening yourself up to others first. So, I always make myself available to others and am responsive to people who reach out to me.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?
Inspirational, great listener, decisive, trustworthy, high integrity ― these are the characteristics that stand out to me. I think the best leaders combine “tough-mindedness” with “tender-heartedness” and know when each is most needed. There can be challenges when a leader is only tough or only tender. Finding that balance is crucial.
What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over.
I would not have spent so much time as a Treasurer. I was in that role for too long and that made it more difficult to move around and diversify my skill set later in my career. I could have become a CFO sooner if I had spent more time in other areas of finance earlier in my career.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
[It would be] “My Crazy Work Adventures on the Way to Becoming CFO.”
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. Feel inspired? Join us for our second Daring Women event on May 21, 2019.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.