CFO leadership development: Stantec’s Theresa Jang on being an effective business partner
Financial Officers

CFO leadership development: Stantec’s Theresa Jang on being an effective business partner

Theresa Jang offers advice for aspiring CFOs and shares what she believes leaders are doing well to accelerate the progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organizations.
Listen to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast on Apple Podcasts Listen to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast on Spotify

In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Sean McLean speaks to Theresa Jang, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Stantec, an award-winning international engineering and design company based in Canada and listed on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges. Jang shares her career journey and what it was like taking on a CFO role in a new industry and offers advice for aspiring CFOs. She also discusses the leadership lessons she learned while serving as both an executive and a board member through periods of adversity and rapid change, what she believes leaders are doing well to accelerate the progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organizations, and what business partnership means to her as a CFO.

Some key questions answered in this podcast include:

  • (8:57) You've now been CFO of two leading Canadian public companies. Do you have any advice or experiences that you'd share with aspiring CFOs?
  • (9:38) What was taking on a C-suite role in an industry that was new to you like? How did you approach that?
  • (11:34) What does business partnership mean to you? Are there particular capabilities that are pivotal to being viewed as a business partner?
  • (13:36) You've served as both an executive and board director through periods of adversity and rapid change. What are some of the key lessons you have learned through these experiences?
  • (16:12) What are leaders doing well right now to accelerate the efforts and results of DE&I within their organizations, and what more must be done?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Sean McLean: Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. I'm Sean McLean, partner at Heidrick & Struggles and member of the global Industrial and Financial Officers practices. In today's podcast, I'm excited to speak with Theresa Jang. Theresa is the executive vice president and chief financial officer at Stantec, an award-winning international engineering and design company based in Canada and listed on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges. We’re excited to hear Theresa's views on what organizations and leaders are thinking about to stay competitive, both in Canada and on the global stage. Thanks for joining us today, Theresa.

Theresa Jang: I'm happy to be here.

Sean McLean: Theresa, we've known each other for a long time, but our listeners will be curious to hear about your career story. Please share how the journey unfolded.

Theresa Jang: I'd be happy to. I'm just delighted to be talking to you today, Sean. As you know, my career has spanned over 30 years, so it's been a long journey and it's really a collection of experiences that have shaped me and brought me to where I am today.

I'm a chartered accountant by training. After getting those two little letters behind my name, I joined a large, publicly traded company and spent a number of years honing my skills in technical accounting and financial reporting. And, this might sound like an oxymoron, but I got to do some very interesting accounting work in that time, because the company I was with did a lot of groundbreaking transactions that resulted in some pretty complex accounting. I just loved trying to figure out what the answers were in an area where there was very little guidance in the accounting standards. I know that sounds very nerdy, but I just loved that stuff. And so, I also developed real curiosity, and I wanted to understand the bigger picture associated with public companies and corporations, and how they worked.

After a few years in pure accounting roles, I set out to broaden my experience while still leveraging my core accounting expertise. This led to an opportunity to be involved with the IPO of a new entity. It was a US-sponsored vehicle—still within the umbrella of this parent company, but also its own publicly traded entity. And, to this day, this was the best job I ever had—except for my job at Stantec. I was the only person from the parent company that was fully dedicated to this entity, while other groups provided support as part of their broader roles in the company. That made me the single point of contact for anything related to this entity, both internally and externally. So, I participated in the IPO and the development of security SPS. I did all the accounting then drafted the quarterly SEC financial filings, wrote earnings releases and letters to shareholders, and really all of the investor relations. 

But I’ll admit: early on, there were a lot of days where I felt completely out of my depth. I had no idea what I was doing, but a lot of these elements were new, too. But it gave me such an understanding of the mechanics behind being an SEC registrant. It helped me sharpen my written and verbal communication skills and it pushed me to really develop a solid understanding of the underlying business so that I could respond competently to investors and analysts.

So, out of necessity and through some really hard work, I figured it out. The key was knowing who to turn to for advice. And the experience I gained from this role was absolutely invaluable. But, after a few years, things got a bit repetitive, and I felt like I was starting to stagnate. I returned to a role in the parent company, but I found that I really missed having the breadth of scope that I had in this sponsored vehicle, so I moved to a new company. It was a much smaller public company, and my title was controller. And I think this is when I met you, Sean. But because the company was so small, I was given responsibility for a number of areas that typically would be beyond a controller's responsibilities—treasury, foreign currency management, systems implementation, long-range planning, insurance, HR, compensation. I was given responsibility for all of these things that I really didn't know how to do, because in a small company you often have to wear many hats. And I also continued to do the written part of investor relations that I'd done previously. I took as much as they could throw at me. I did it, whether I had the background in it or not. And it was a lot of work. It was like the work never stopped. It felt sometimes like the more I proved myself, the more they piled onto my plate because they knew that I'd get it done and I'd get it done well. But along the way, I was learning an awful lot. 

So, after a few years of slogging it out, our CFO left abruptly, as you'll recall, Sean, and I was asked to step in temporarily as the interim CFO while they conducted a search for a new permanent CFO. I was told explicitly at the time to not to bother applying for the CFO role. The words were something like, “Well, you know, Theresa, you're an excellent controller, but you'll never be a CFO because you don't know the capital markets. We have a lot of big financing needs coming up and we need a gray-haired guy to lead that.” It was a bit of stunned silence from me. I wish I could say that I stood up for myself at that point, and I'm sure that the today me would have stood up for myself. But back then, I really didn't feel empowered to push back or to make a case that I was the best candidate. And so, I was a good soldier; I took on the interim CFO role. The external search took a lot longer than anticipated, but our financing needs couldn't wait. And so, despite my perceived lack of capital markets experience, I led the process with rating agencies and came away with two investment-grade ratings. I led our first-ever public bond offering and a few other goodies along the way. And so, you know, it turned out not to be rocket science. 

Following that experience, I chose to stay with the company and really focused my efforts on continuing to build my capital markets and M&A experience. And, fortunately, the new CFO was open to my involvement and appreciated that I could draw on my extensive knowledge of the business to advance these efforts. So, when the CFO role opened up again, a couple of years later, I was again asked to step in as interim CFO while they conducted a search. It was a bit like being in a time warp, with those familiar comments being made to the new CEO about me, that perhaps I did not know the capital markets despite being a good controller, that maybe I didn't have the gravitas to pull off the CFO role. Only, this time, I felt much, much better equipped to make my case. And I was confident that I could be a very credible candidate. So, during the five-month period that I was in the interim CFO role, I worked closely with our new CEO. We started to rework the corporate strategy. I actually did an equity offering in the capital markets—again, not rocket science. And I asked the CEO to consider what a new CFO from outside the organization would bring to the table that I was not already doing. And I guess I got my answer when the search process came to an end, and I was appointed to the CFO role. 

Over the next couple of years, the company grew dramatically, driving a lot of finance activity. We created tremendous value for our shareholders, and this culminated vision was acquired at a very nice premium by a larger company at the end of 2017. At that point, I decided to retire from executive life. I felt like over a hundred quarter ends in my career were enough. And, as you know, Sean, because you were involved in the process, I was appointed to the board of a public company here in Calgary. And that was really great experience, but ultimately, I found that I missed being in the driver's seat and leading strategy development and execution. And as I began exploring new opportunities to reenter that world, there were a number of CFO opportunities available within the energy sector. But I thought that if I was going to go back to work, I wanted to learn something new. And so, when the Stantec role came along in a sector I'd never worked in before, I sort of jumped in. 

Sean McLean: Theresa, thank you so much for sharing the unvarnished version of the resistant and even outright biases that you faced during your career. It speaks to resilience, the importance of stepping outside of your comfort zone, and of overcoming being typecast. As we sit here today, you've now been CFO of two leading Canadian public companies. I'm curious, any advice or experiences that you'd share with aspiring CFOs? 

Theresa Jang: The best advice I can give is to find ways to broaden your experience as much as possible. Often this can mean moving laterally, which sometimes we get hung up on because, you know, we feel like we shouldn't take on a new role unless we're constantly moving upward. But I truly believe that taking lateral moves and deliberately pursuing roles that have challenged me have allowed me to develop new skills and have really been critical to the success that I've achieved. 

Sean McLean: And I was so fascinated when you took on a C-suite role in an industry that was new to you, what was that like? How did you approach that? 

Theresa Jang: There were a lot of days early where I asked myself, “What made you think this was a good idea?” Because there really was a steep learning curve. Though moving to a new industry was actually the least stressful part of all of this, because there's a lot of information in the public domain. So I just had to do my homework, I had to read and absorb as much as I could. On the other hand, joining a then 22,000-person global company as the CFO was harder because I could imagine my new colleagues and my new team members saying, “So, this person has never worked in our industry and doesn't know anything about us as a company. What value could she possibly bring?” So I decided early on that I wanted to project two key qualities when I joined Stantec. The first was humility. Humility to say, “Many of you have been in this business for decades and I'm on day two. I'll probably never know this business, or even this company, the way that you know it. So, I'm looking for you to help me get up the learning curve. And, besides, my objective is not to know more about the company or this industry than you. My job is to lead and to bring my leadership skills to bear so that I can facilitate, challenge, guide, and provide the resources you need to move the needle on the achievement of our corporate strategy.” So, humility goes a long way. 

The second quality I wanted to project—and this was really important and learned over the course of my career—was confidence. I knew how to be a CFO. And I knew that I could be a good leader. And so, conducting myself, carrying myself in a way that projected confidence was really foundational in establishing my relationships in the company and in the investment community.

Sean McLean: Theresa, as you know, I lead the Canadian Financial Officer's Practice. In this and our other functional practices, our clients consistently ask for business partnership when describing how they'd like to see their functions operate. What does business partnership mean to you? Are there particular capabilities that are pivotal to being viewed as a business partner?

Theresa Jang: I think that in truly great companies, they've found a way to leverage that partnership between the business and the functional services, but it takes real intentionality by everyone around the table to drive toward that partnership. In some organizations, functional services like finance and accounting can be seen as inhibitors rather than partners.

You know, someone once referred to my team as journalists and I was really offended by this idea that someone saw us as just a group that keeps track of stuff. It told me, though, that we were a long way from being viewed as business partners, and it spurred me and my leadership team to envision what business partnership looks like and how we could shift the perception of finance from being merely journalists to thought partners and advisors. The big shift for us was in the way we communicate with the business. It's less about “here are the rules and you have to follow them” and more about “here's the reason we're asking you to do this and here's why it matters” and “here's what we're seeing when we analyze your financial results and here’s how we think you can improve your performance.” So, by engaging with the business in a way that demonstrates we can help them understand and elevate their financial performance, we've begun to build that collaborative relationship. And we're showing that we can provide sound, pragmatic advice while still complying with the accounting rules. And we've found that by providing the context and helping business to understand the value that we can bring through our financial insights, we have truly moved the needle on how the business works with us. 

Sean McLean: That's great advice. And indeed, even a playbook for functional leaders to emulate. 

You've served as both an executive and board director through periods of adversity and rapid change. Many leaders believe they learn the most valuable leadership lessons at precisely those moments. What are some of the key lessons you have learned through these experiences? 

Theresa Jang: Well, I think the biggest lesson I've learned is that good leaders have to be present every day. That means you have to be constantly investing and working on building trust with your team, empowering them and driving engagement, because when adversity or rapid change hits, you need to rely on the goodwill you've built with your team to push them into overdrive. And when your employees trust you and they feel well recognized and rewarded for the work they do, they will do extraordinary things in times of disruption because they know that you have their backs. 

The best example I can give you of this is what unfolded when my previous company was being acquired. We had always prided ourselves on having a great corporate culture where our employees had a high level of engagement and trust in leadership. So, it was a really tough day when we announced to our employees that we had agreed to be acquired. People were so sad at the thought that our company had run its course and was going to be absorbed into another company, and people were also understandably nervous and scared about whether they were going to lose their jobs. And we, the leadership team, knew that it was going to take several months to close the deal and that it was imperative that we didn't allow ourselves to be distracted from the safe operations of our facilities, or in the financial governance of the company. We needed our people to stay focused and keep running the business until the deal closed. So, we really leaned into our commitment to each other, and we made the point of overcommunicating with our staff during this period, so they'd know how the deal was progressing. And we pledged to do our very best to find roles for them. In the new company, we ran resume writing clinics. We did mock job interviews. And because we'd built a very people-centric culture before the takeover bid was launched. our people trusted us and continued to perform at a high standard. And so, in the end, we did not have any safety incidents. And I don't believe we had many, if any, employees leave us prematurely. And, on close, we handed over a healthy, well-run company, and we were able to transition actually quite a large majority of our staff to the new owners.

Sean McLean: Having worked with you over the years, I've always observed your focus on fixing the roof while the sun is shining, and it has definitely served you well. It's sage advice, to be certain.

Theresa, I know you and I agree that the Canadian industrial sector has much room for improvement on DE&I. Recent research we've conducted shows that companies with clear definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, clear links between DE&I and business strategy, and an enterprise-wide structural commitment to DE&I perform best. Does that reflect your experience? And, in your opinion, what are leaders doing well right now to accelerate the efforts and results of DE&I within their organizations, and what more must be done?

Theresa Jang: Well, I can tell you that there is a very strong culture of valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion at Stantec, and that has existed for many years. It's part of the conversation at the board level, where updates to our DE&I programs are a regular agenda item at their quarterly board meetings. And, at the C-suite level, we have DE&I measures on our performance scorecard. So, we've been very intentional about building this culture. We offer unconscious bias training, and we emphasize participation in it from all of our leaders. We have a number of employee resource groups that operate around the world—so women at Stantec, indigenous connections, pride at Stantec, a number of ERGs for several BIPOC groups, for military veteran employees. In the United Kingdom, we recently launched a neurodiversity ERG to support neurodivergent employees and their families.

All of these areas where employees can feel connected to people that they feel understand them and where they can feel included are really key to building that sense of community. And, our leaders, our senior leaders, support and engage regularly with all of these ERGs. But we also know that we have to increase our focus on building the future talent pipeline and to find more ways to support underrepresented populations in our industry. A couple years ago, we created the Stantec equity and diversity scholarship to provide a platform to support the next generation of leaders within the steam fields. In 2022, scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 were awarded to 43 students from around the world. And we also offered 10 paid internships to the group of applicants. And this is something our CEO engages in. He talks to these applicants; he talks to the scholarship winner. It really is something that flows from the top of our organization throughout all of our staff. And these are just some of the ways that Stantec is advancing DE&I efforts. And I think they are things that other organizations might want to consider.

Sean McLean: Well, in my opinion, any organization looking to make strides in DE&I should examine some of the initiatives that Stantec has undertaken. It's fantastic to see your leaders in this area. Theresa, one final question, and it's the toughest one, because it involves predicting the future. Looking ahead, what specific leadership skill sets and capabilities will be most important for your company to meet at strategic goals? 

Theresa Jang: I love looking into the future because there's always a good chance that I'll be wrong and I'll learn something from that. But in this respect, Stantec is a people company. We create value through our 25,000 employees. So, we, as leaders, are only going to succeed if we can win and keep the hearts and minds of our employees. So I think it will continue to be about our ability as leaders to create a compelling, strategic vision and to engage our employees to share in that vision. Our employees, particularly our younger professionals, want their place of work to be more than just a place to collect their paycheck. They want to know what the place stands for and how it makes a difference. They want to know how they personally contribute to making that difference? And so, I believe our ability to meet our strategic goals hinges on successfully engaging our employees and by creating a culture that demonstrates that it genuinely values a diverse and inclusive workforce. And I think that by bringing all of our talents to bear, we can really propel our organizations to achieve great things. 

Sean McLean: Theresa, let's end on those compelling and inspirational words. Thank you so much for your time today. 

Theresa Jang: Thanks for having me.

Sean McLean: And thank you to our audience for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Sean McLean ( is the partner in charge of Heidrick & Struggles’ Calgary office and a member of the global Industrial and Financial Officers practices.


Stay connected

Stay connected to our expert insights, thought leadership, and event information.

Leadership Podcast

Explore the latest episodes of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast