I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Elena Gomez, the CFO of Zendesk and former Senior Vice President of Finance and Strategy at Salesforce.
During her time at Salesforce, Elena helped build a world-class finance operation, and she now leads Zendesk’s global finance and accounting team. But we spoke about much more than her job description.
In this interview, Elena discusses the importance of building meaningful relationships in businesses, the challenges women face in technology, and the best decisions she’s made in her career. She also tackles the realities of maintaining a work-life balance, and shares exactly what motivates her to make it happen.
Leslie Boudreaux: Thank you for taking the time to chat, and congratulations again on your role as CFO of Zendesk! When did you decide you wanted to become a CFO?
Elena Gomez: Honestly, it was never on my bucket list. At one point I realized that I had accomplished what I wanted at Salesforce after 6 years there. One of my mentors challenged me with the idea and encouraged me to explore the idea of becoming CFO. He planted the seed in my head that I could do more and that the next logical step was to become a public company CFO. However, it was important to choose the right organization. Once the idea was there, I started becoming more comfortable that was the next step for me. Now came the question of where.
Through a series of circumstances I met Mikkel Svane, Zendesk’s CEO. His passion and vision for the company was infectious. I knew I wanted to work for someone like that and for someone who wanted to disrupt an industry. Ultimately, that made me reflect on the opportunity and consider this as my next step. If it weren’t for Mikkel, I would probably still be in my comfort zone at Salesforce. Thanks to Mikkel I’m able to claim the rights to being Zendesk’s first female CFO. It’s exciting.
You’ve obviously been extremely successful in your career or you wouldn’t have been approached for this position. So, when you think back on your career, what challenges have you faced along the way?
Personally, I think finance is thought of as a back-office function. Generally the job isn’t client facing or customer facing, and that’s usually what the business cares about.
Here’s something powerful to consider to overcome this line of thinking: Make yourself relevant. A lot of people don’t think finance is relevant so you have to make yourself relevant. And once you make yourself relevant, it’s like you’ve gone from a bad neighborhood to a good neighborhood. It’s completely different. But you have to work really hard to do that.
What advice would you give women to make themselves more relevant in their organization?
I think the most important thing I would tell anyone, regardless of gender, is to always have a voice.
Three tips to keep in mind:
1. Speak up: Make it a point to be add value in each meeting you attend. You were asked to be there for the perspective you bring. People want to know your opinions and ideas. Make sure to give them.
2. Be heard: Don’t overpower anyone else’s opinion, but definitely assert yourself. Your voice is as important as everyone else’s at the table. You are a valuable part of the organization.
3. Don’t apologize: All too often I hear women apologize when starting a conversation. I’m not sure what that is, but it’s often the case. Don’t apologize, even if you have an unpopular opinion. Challenge the status quo.
Maybe especially when it’s unpopular.
Yes, especially when it’s unpopular. It took me a while to find my voice. In fact, I would say I didn’t really gain my voice until later on in my career. I always felt like I had something important to say, but then someone would say it before me because I didn’t have the confidence to express my views.
I think the culture at Salesforce forced me to have a voice, and over time I just owned that. I decided I was going to make sure I was relevant. But I also did it with intent. For example, I would go to meet with people in the company and try to figure out what was on their mind at that moment. Sounds very simple but often not what orients conversations. I also prepare by reflecting on my customer or my business partner: What is their context and how can I be relevant to that context?
I could go in there and talk to them about their budget, which is typically what a finance partner does, but that only takes a minute or two. So you have to find a way to connect with them on something that they actually care about. Unless there is a budget problem, in which case you should talk about that more. But generally, as long as that is going well, I would leverage that time to talk about things that were relevant to them or share an insight with them that they might not have otherwise known, or offer my perspective on the current hot topic.
Do you feel that building meaningful relationships within the business has played a role in your success?
100%. In fact, I’ve seen people who are technically brilliant, they know the business better than most people in the room, but they don’t know how to translate that power of knowledge and insight into something relevant for whoever they’re talking to.
It’s a unique skill to take all the context and complex concepts, whether they’re financial or not, and boil them down to you and me talking and sharing a platform that we can both relate to.
When do you feel like you were able to step outside of the financial box and understand the business risks and opportunities for the company?
I was able to understand the business opportunities early in my career. The earliest signs of it were when I was an auditor at KPMG. In those days when you showed up with your ten key calculator, most business partners didn’t really care about the audit function. It was a necessary evil.
I would always try to find a way to relate to them on a personal level because I didn’t have enough experience to have much business context to share. I was probably 22, but I knew then, if I could build a relationship with this person on whatever level, it would open a door for them to talk to me about other things.
I had those instincts early in my career. When I was a finance business partner at Schwab, I observed when people from the finance team would talk to non-finance people and how horribly that could go. Finance people are known to speak a language that other teams don’t always understand. You can’t go into a meeting and talk about the square root of two is equal to x. You have to go in and talk about the business – the common language in the company. And the more you do that, the more value and the more often you’ll be invited to the party.
I still do that to this day. For instance, in two weeks I’m going to Madison and there are no finance people there, but I’m going to go and meet with other teams in our office there. It’s so important to understand how the company works in any support role. Simple things like: what is your role? Why is it important? How do you do your job? What dependencies do you have? What are your challenges/obstacles? How can my team help? That is incredibly valuable for me to have this context and help me do my job better. And even better, share my observations with my CEO.
As a finance business partner you’re typically set up to support a certain group like technology or sales. In my experience in this role, I never used that to define what I learned, ever. My goal was to understand how the entire company worked. Connect the dots. I may support sales, but I want to bring value to the head of sales by telling him more about what is coming out of the products group or real estate or marketing. I’d ask questions like “Have we invested enough in training the sales team to sell the new product?” I would offer context on the broader subjects that were relevant to him and offer a perspective. I learned that really early in my career.
Let’s switch gears. What challenges do you think women, in particular, face working in technology?
I think lacking confidence, because it’s not uncommon to walk into a room and be the only female there—and frankly that’s a diversity issue, too. We still have a ways to go to drive diversity. So, when you do walk in a room and you see all men, you should not change your approach AT ALL to the meeting. It’s easy to get flustered. But you have stay steady and calm; and remind yourself that you’re there for a reason. That’s so important. Approach the meeting same as you would if it were all female. Keep your voice, articulate your key message and embrace the challenge.
And prepare! Always prepare for your meetings and know what you are going to contribute to that discussion. Especially if you feel like you are going to be in that situation. Just like when you’re on stage, you perform better when you prepare. You may find yourself in a small room with eight men. Prior to entering you have to prepare and represent your team – your gender team, your business team, your cultural team – to the best of your ability, as if you were on stage.
Well, you are on a stage. It’s just smaller.
Right. So always think about it that way and be resilient. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in these meetings and maybe something I’ve said is dismissed for whatever reason. Maybe someone talked over me, or the point was already said. That doesn’t mean, “game over,” that means “be resilient.”
There will be so many times when you’ll walk out and feel discouraged because you weren’t heard, or because you feel like someone didn’t respect you the way they should, but don’t let anyone shake your confidence. Go back again to your next meeting with confidence.
That’s what I do. I still do it. For instance, when I’m at an investor conference (generally a male dominated field) I don’t change my approach. I ensure my key messages are heard. I play offense—and I avoid playing defense.
That’s a good one! What advice would you give young women early in their finance career who want to move up?
Number one: You define how much you’re going to learn. I would say to be religious about learning the business. Don’t ever stop learning the business. Even if it’s not in your job description, don’t let your job description define what you’re going to do or how you will approach your job.
Number two: Have confidence and don’t be afraid. You’re there for a reason. So many times early in my career, I remember going into a meeting and leaving having said nothing. Worried about what I would say or how I would say it and then not contributing. I wish I had spoken up, because I had great ideas.
Number three: Be respected. Don’t worry so much about being liked. In having your voice, you may have differences of opinions on how to solve a problem or differences with your colleagues. That is okay. People respect input and want valuable input even if it’s unpopular. Don’t wait too late in your career to learn this!
And take risks?
Yes, take risks, that’s number four. And like I mentioned, be resilient. You’re going to miss out on a job that you want in your career, we all go through that. You may lose a job; I’ve lost my job before. It doesn’t mean that the day is over; it means that you get up the next day and you go look for that next job.
There will be so many things in your career journey that you view as setbacks or curve balls. Don’t let that prevent you from getting where you’re going. You’re going somewhere, and sometimes the path may not be so clear. Stay resilient.
What do you feel is one of the best decisions you’ve made in your career?
I’d say going to Salesforce was a pretty big changing moment in my career, in terms of elevating me and pushing me beyond my boundaries. I think taking that risk was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made. It’s an amazing company.
And then, even taking the Visa job in hindsight, although I didn’t love it, was a good decision for me because it humbled me. It’s not that I was arrogant; it was more that I had an incredible amount of success in my first job. Going to Visa, I had to re-prove myself. I had to start new. Every time you go somewhere you have to prove yourself over again. That’s humbling. You go from knowing everything and then walking into a place where you know nothing.
That’s how you grow.
It is how you grow, absolutely. I admit, I was scared of leaving Schwab after 11 years. I wondered if I could be successful somewhere else. Treating my career as a journey and making sure I get experiences along the way has been really important. This is in large part why I left Salesforce. I loved Salesforce and the family I build there, but I wanted to get broader experiences. This is especially true if you want to be a leader. I think I’m valued more by my CEO and my leadership team because of my breadth of experience as opposed to my deep subject matter expertise.
On another topic, do you think there is such a thing as work-life balance?
Ah – the work-life balance question. I knew you were going to ask that!
Yes, I think there is, but you have to be willing to set boundaries. I have guardrails on certain things that I won’t compromise on, such as dinner with my kids.
Yes, every night I have dinner with my kids. I leave the office by five p.m. unless I have a work commitment. I also try my best to drop my children off at school in the morning at least two times per week. I like to be there for the pledge of allegiance and prayer in the morning.
This schedule comes with choices, like not scheduling meetings before 9 a.m. on those days. Mikkel, my boss and my work peers and staff know they can reach me but I’m not in the office physically.
I’ve gotten more comfortable with setting this schedule over time. I’ve been able to create the boundaries in order to create a work-life balance. Do I work a ton? Yes, but I also prioritize spending quality time with my kids and that’s how I define success.
I try to be a very present mom. You can ask my kids and they will tell you that! It makes me proud because I’ve created that. There was a time in my life where I would have taken that meeting and missed the chance to drop them off at school. Or, I would have said, “Oh, I’ll miss my daughter’s first day of kindergarten because of a work meeting.” But this comes with time and confidence. You have to create your work life balance that works for you. What works for me won’t work for everyone. And my level of tolerance for work also won’t work for everyone. I’m ok taking a phone call on vacation. I’m not ok cancelling vacation, but, sure, I’ll take a phone call or two. As you move up, you make compromises, but it affords a certain flexibility that I don’t take for granted.
You do seem to have it all and you are doing it very gracefully. You can be a successful CFO and a great mother at the same time.
Absolutely, and if I couldn’t be a great mom I wouldn’t have taken this job. Truthfully, I did think a lot about my role as a mom and being a public company CFO at the same time. Someone said to me, “Do you think you can do this job and still be as committed to your kids?” With some planning, I can do both and am not willing to compromise being a great mom for a job.
That’s very inspiring. So, juggling all these responsibilities and doing it well, takes an incredible amount of drive and motivation. Where does that motivation come from and what keeps you going?
What keeps me going are my girls. Now that I have kids I want to be a good role model for them. Sometimes it’s hard to balance it all, but what anchors me is knowing I’m doing this for them. I want to set my children up for college, and for their lives beyond that. Being a good role model is probably the best thing I can do for them.
That motivates me. That anchors me, but that’s a macro thing.
What motivates me day to day is the people I work with everyday. My work family. Relationships. I get excited when I see my team succeed and grow. I still get excited when I delight my boss. When I show him something that he didn’t know, it’s the energy and thrill of that that keeps me going. Maybe that’s the people pleaser part of me but I’m always thinking “how can I do this better?”
In terms of being a CFO, I don’t want to just be any generic CFO, I want to do it better than anyone else. The bar is incredibly high. There are a lot of amazing CFO’s out there. But striving for that drives me. I don’t know all the pieces of the puzzle to make that happen, but I’m trying to figure that out.
I definitely want people that work for me to feel like, “Wow, that was special.” I feel like I left that at Salesforce. So I hope whenever I leave Zendesk, whenever that is, people are thinking, “Wow, I got to work for her!” That’s what I say about Sarah [Friar] by the way. I got to work for Sarah at Salesforce for a year (she is now the CFO at Square). I still say that about her and I will always say that about her.
And the people who work for you will, too.
I hope so.
Wonderful, thank you so much.
Featured Image: Zendesk