Building a Successful Career on Unexpected Opportunities: An Interview With Taylor Harris, Medical Device CFO

The most common questions I get from young professionals are: “What can I do now to set myself up to be a CFO in the future?” and “How can I take steps now to make sure I’m in a career that has value and purpose, outside of just making money?” I think that’s one of the wonderful things about the new generation and what they’re bringing to the workforce: they’re looking for careers that have a lot of purpose. I was excited to sit down with Taylor Harris because I frequently use his story when I’m coaching young professionals. It’s marked with the characteristics of hard work and perseverance and taking steps down in order to take steps up. I hope you find his story to be as encouraging and inspirational as I do.

Amy Hann: Let’s start at the beginning. At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to build a career in finance?

Taylor Harris
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Taylor Harris: When I was really young, I legitimately thought that I was going to be a basketball player. And I wasn’t a business type; I wasn’t focused on business at all. It wasn’t until my junior or senior year in college that I started thinking about finance. I had lived in New York for a couple summers, teaching in a program called “Summer Bridge”. I loved teaching in New York, and I thought, I want to move to New York City. I also liked math, so that was it. Those two: New York and math. I thought, okay, maybe I should go and interview in some investment banks and that was it, that was the start.

Why did you choose to join JPMorgan as your first job out of college?

JPMorgan chose me as they were the only bank in New York that offered me a job! But, more importantly, I just loved the JPMorgan culture. They certainly weren’t taking me for my expertise in corporate finance. I think they picked me because they felt that I had demonstrated the characteristics, the capabilities to learn and to work hard, and they valued that.

Tell me a bit more about your JPMorgan experience.

My first six years were in investment banking. The first couple of years, I worked on every type of healthcare company, but by year three, I focused on Medical Devices. I chose to focus on Medical Devices because of the person who was leading the firm’s Medical Device practice and the respect I had for him. And I felt like there was an opportunity to learn a lot just by being around him. I was also drawn to the Medical Device industry because there is a science & technology element to it, but there’s also a very human element to it. I really felt like the industry had the ability to do so much good for people at all stages of life.

Tell me a little bit more about that leader’s characteristics and why he earned your respect.

Chris Holland, the person I’ve referred to, was excellent at what he did, but more importantly he always operated with integrity, he was great at building relationships, and he truly cared about other people. He would never let the deal or the money affect the way he acted towards people.

One thing I’ve noticed in people who have achieved the level of success that you have is that they always, early in their career, have had exposure to somebody like a Chris Holland, whom they can look up to and respect. Not just for their professional attributes, but also their personal character. It’s great that you were able to come under his wing at such an early point.

It was.

Why did you decide to transition from investment banking to equity research?

I loved the work I was doing in investment banking, but I wanted to gain a different perspective on companies in the Medical Device industry. Equity research provided the opportunity for me to have a different, more day-to-day relationship with companies.

At any point during your career at JPMorgan did you think about going to business school?

I did. But the thing that I loved about investment banking was that it felt like a surrogate business school and it actually paid me to learn! I didn’t really know what I would be looking to get out of business school that was missing in my experience at JPMorgan.

Has your lack of an MBA held you back in any way? Tell me your advice for somebody who’s trying to make that decision.

I don’t think it’s held me back in any way. Most finance professionals ask at some point in their career – will I be able to get where I want to go if I don’t go to business school? I think there are just more important questions to answer than that, such as: what do I want to do? What do I love doing? What exactly do I want to learn? You have so many opportunities to learn in the places you’re at. So answer those questions first and then decide whether an MBA will help you get there.

Looking back on your career at JPMorgan, what was one of your biggest challenges? And what is something you’re really proud of during those years?

In equity research, I had so many wrong calls on stocks, and I felt like a failure. And I had some really great calls on stocks, and I felt like a total hero. But when I look back on it, all those feel kind of minor compared to some of the more lasting shared experiences and relationships that I developed out of it. I’ll give you one example: During my third year in investment banking, I spent almost the entire year working with Bristol Myers Squibb to spin out one of their medical device businesses into a public company. I embedded myself in the business and with the team for about a year in order to effect that ultimate process. It was a ton of work. But I look back and just have such good memories of the team of people that did that and the fact that we overcame a lot of challenges, in order to get something done. It wasn’t any one moment along the way; it was the entire process. The success – what was rewarding to me – was that shared experience over a year of time, with a group of people.

You mentioned some of the biggest failures you experienced at JPMorgan when you got a call wrong on the stock, and I’m sure that felt like a big failure at the time. What kind of advice do you have for people who are just three to five years into their career and experience failures that seem really significant?

I think you learn the most about yourself in times of adversity or times of failure. It’s a time to build character and also learn about other people and the type of people you want to associate with. I’d say, embrace the failure because you’ll learn from it. Just remember that in the big scope of your life, it’s a relatively fleeting episode. You’ll look back on it with a completely different perspective. So don’t do something rash, and try to have some perspective on it. And just don’t let it adversely affect the things in your life that are the most important to you.

As you were considering leaving JPMorgan, how did you envision the perfect job?

I don’t think I had a vision of the perfect company. The most important thing for me at that time was finding a company with a senior leadership team that valued my experience and wanted to give me the opportunity to grow. In the long term I knew that I wanted to be involved with the real running of a business, but I knew there was a lot I needed to learn before doing that.

Tell me about your first job outside of banking?

I joined Thoratec as their Senior Director of Investor Relations and Business Development.

On paper, did that role at Thoratec feel like a step back for you?

Yes, for sure. And it was a risk because, on paper, I’d say it was less responsibility. It was certainly a step back in terms of compensation by about 60 – 70%, and there was not a clear path to something else. But I loved the company and I trusted their leadership team and I knew this role would give me the experience I needed to take my career in a new direction. It was the single most important decision of my career.

Was the transition to industry more difficult or easier than you expected?

It was easier. The things I was concerned about were, “Will it feel slow? Will the pace be totally different? Will the people be less stimulating than they are in professional services?” The answer to those questions was no. What I loved was that the culture at Thoratec was so team-oriented and mission-focused. When I needed help, people would help me, and if I wanted to help other people, they were receptive. And there was no shortage of opportunities to contribute. I think that’s always the case, though. If you really want to, you can always find things to do that are important. So, if you’re worried about being bored, then I think you need to look in the mirror and say, “Where can I help?” and “How can I get the most out of this experience?” I think there’s that opportunity across the board.

Tell me about how you ended up becoming the CFO of Thoratec?

When Thoratec began their search for a CFO, I had been at the company for less than two years. I was fortunate that during the duration of the external search process I reported directly to the CEO and forged a great relationship with him. I took on all of the public-facing responsibilities the CFO had and I had the opportunity to lead a couple of strategy processes internally.   So, as the external search progressed, I ended up becoming a candidate for the role just by virtue of that exposure. I remember going on a trip with the CEO to an industry conference. I remember telling him, “Hey, I wouldn’t have considered myself a CFO candidate six months ago, but I think I would be the best candidate now.” And he let me know that I was, indeed, a candidate. That was the first time I even knew he was considering it. And a few weeks later, he named me CFO.

Tell me a bit about your first couple of months as the CFO of a public company.

Well, it was humbling. I knew there was a lot I didn’t know. It was also anxiety-producing for me to feel not in control and in over my head in terms of leading an entire finance organization. There was a lot for me to learn in accounting, as well as in financial planning, process, systems. I think the accounting piece was the most nerve-racking. Fortunately, we had a really good team that taught me a lot. I was okay admitting when I didn’t know something; I just had to. I knew that if I didn’t, I would lose credibility.

While operating for 3 years as the CFO of Thoratec, what are you the most proud of?

It was not an easy three years. We had some industry challenges, competitive challenges, product challenges, and financial challenges. We had a year in which our revenues declined, our earnings declined. So what I’m the most proud of, is that despite that, despite the near-term challenges, we as a team, as a company, kept our focus on the long-term value drivers. We invested and focused on those at an appropriate level. We were efficient and we saved money in areas that weren’t those focus areas. I’m proud of being able to keep our wits about us as a team, despite a lot of internal and external pressure.

After leading Thoratec through a successful acquisition, you quickly landed at Zeltiq as their CFO. Did you go into the transition to Zeltiq with a lot more confidence? And what was it like, your second stint as a CFO?

I did, and definitely, experience helps. I’m not sure I would have been able to do the job at Zeltiq if I hadn’t done the job at Thoratec. The challenge at Zeltiq was that the commercial growth had outstripped the infrastructure that had been built. And so the challenge was to build a finance and accounting infrastructure to support that growth. That was a fun challenge, but it just meant there was a lot of work to do. And what I realized was, you can’t get anything done until you have the right quantity and quality of individuals in the organization. Zeltiq was a fun company to work for, and we were able to hire great people. I think people saw that we were really intent on having a great team. And they came. After building a great team, the company went through a successful acquisition. I would have loved to stay for longer but I was also really proud of the outcome.

In closing, I have some bigger-picture questions for you. What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made for your career?

Well, I have worked a lot. So the opportunity cost is time. It’s time for my family, my friends, and for myself. And that is a sacrifice for sure. At the same time, I love my work, I’ve loved my jobs, I love my family. I’m still learning how to balance all of my passions. What I’ve learned for certain, no matter what, is that when I’m not working, I need to be fully present. It is so easy to not be present when you’re outside of work because you’re thinking about it. Your phone is so close. So the idea of being where you are, I think, is one thing I can control.

You know the term “work-life-balance” is thrown around a lot in the workplace, and that means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

We’ve decided in our priority scheme that our family is the most important. And my job, while it is a priority, is not as important. So, if there is ever a conflict that we would have to choose, we would choose family. But I also think there has to be a real sense of grace and trust on both sides. It’s not easy, and both are really important. So, if you have to work really hard for a period of time, that may be the right decision. But if there is an event or a season of life that’s really important for my family, then I want to be at places that value and appreciate that.

What have you learned about leadership in your career? What does it mean to be a leader?

I’ve learned a lot. The thing that’s on my mind recently is that leadership involves setting a vision, establishing priorities, and then keeping the organization focused on that set of priorities. I think part of that is having to understand for real what it will take the team to accomplish that set of priorities. I think it’s really important to set a vision that resonates with the team and that people want to be a part of, and then to communicate about that regularly. And then I think it’s also critical to create an environment where people flourish. Understanding people, understanding what they want to contribute, what they can contribute, and then valuing that, is just really important.

What kind of advice would you have for somebody just starting their career in finance? What kind of decisions should they make two years, three years into their career, that might set them up for future success?

From a personal perspective, I think the advice that my dad gave me has been pretty fundamental for me: above all, be a person of character. Never, for whatever reason, sacrifice that. And secondly, if it’s something you think is worth doing, do your best. Do your absolute best. I think those characteristics will make you indispensable, they will make you valued. And then I would just say, learn as much as you can, view everything as a learning opportunity.

That’s great, that’s really good advice. Thank you, Taylor, I appreciate all of your thoughts, and I know that you are in the midst of a job search. So we look forward to seeing where you end up and all the amazing people that you end up working with in the future. I’m sure there will be more stories to be told.

Me too, thank you.

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