Mark Neilson 27 February 2023 / 3 minutes read

CFO: “Knower of all Answers” or “Asker of Great Questions?”

  • #CFO
  • Curiosity in Business
  • Great Questions
  • The first part of my finance and accounting career was all about being SMART – having the right answers.  Knowing the rules (IRS and GAAP). Like many in technical professions, my sense of self-worth was ANCHORED in knowing the answers and making sure others knew who to come to FOR those answers.  SMARTNESS got me through school and helped me advance in the early stages of my evolving career.  That is likely true for most professionals.

    Then one day, I got a wake-up call.  One of the co-founders at my first post-auditor-career employer – where I was a “big shot” public company controller – pulled me aside and pointed out the shortcomings that stood in my way of becoming a well-rounded BUSINESS PERSON.  He told me my need to be “the smartest guy in the room” (with all the answers) was dramatically hindering my career trajectory.  He even suggested it was perhaps time for me to leave the company.  As you might imagine, I was really taken back by this wake-up call.

    He told me that if I really wanted to advance and make a difference in the company, I needed to stop being the “answer man” and learn to be the “guy with great questions”.

    He pulled me OUT of the corporate HQ “press box” and onto the “field” where he guided me towards what really made a difference – ASKING THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS. Over time, I let go of my hard-wired need to answer everyone’s questions and became a student of the business and with it, a trusted person at the sales and operations level of the business.  

    About a year later, the same co-founder who woke me up to my true role in the company nominated me to the board of that soon-to-be $1B public company. Since then, I have served on 15  (paid) company boards for 35 years and found more satisfaction in board work than I ever had in 25 years of “CFOing”. (Thanks Murph!) 


    CURIOSITY became my new identity, not “SMARTNESS”.  All because someone helped me see the light that being the “asker of great questions” was far more valuable to the organization than being the “knower of all answers”!   Perhaps this is a transition other Financial Executives still need to make. 

    Mark Neilson Partner & Forum Leader REF