CFO insights: Diversity, sustainability, and talent development
Financial Services

CFO insights: Diversity, sustainability, and talent development

Cécile Cabanis, board member and former CFO of Danone, offers leadership advice to women aspiring to a career in finance and discusses how Danone will meet the challenges of the next five years.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Axel de Schietere speaks with Cécile Cabanis, board member and former executive vice president and chief financial officer of Danone, the multinational food products corporation. Cabanis talks about the path her career has taken, the coincidence and dedication that led her to where she is today. She offers leadership advice to women aspiring to a career in finance and stresses the importance of focusing on one’s strengths rather than weaknesses, as well as to always stay true to oneself. She also discusses the balance needed between short- and long-term goals and Danone’s commitments to ESG, specifically concentrating on localization, health, and overall governance.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:15) Can you tell us about your career journey and what helped you succeed and get you where you are today?
  • (7:52) You said that you put a lot of pressure on yourself when you became the CFO of a publicly listed company—what were the biggest personal and technical challenges?
  • (12:44) Leaders who were able to flex and adapt have navigated the pandemic with relative ease. What leadership skills have been essential for you and your team in order to thrive in that context?
  • (16:29) The finance function is much friendlier to women than it was 15 years ago. Is there specific advice you have to offer to young women who want careers in finance?
  • (20:00) What challenges do you foresee for the industry in the next five years, and how is Danone preparing for them?

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

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Axel de Schietere: Hello, I’m Axel de Schietere, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles in the Paris office and member of the Corporate Offices Practice. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking to Cécile Cabanis, board member and former executive vice president and chief financial officer in technology, data, cycles, and procurement of Danone, the multinational food products corporation. Cécile joined Danone in 2004 and served in a range of key positions in finance, until she decided to step down as CFO in February 2021. Cécile sits on the boards of both Danone and Schneider Electric. Cécile, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Cécile Cabanis: My pleasure.

Axel de Schietere: So, Cécile, you have grown within Danone. Can you tell us about your career journey and what helped you succeed and get you where you are today?

Cécile Cabanis: I started a bit by chance. I graduated as an engineer of agronomy and then followed my husband to South Africa. Being there, I didn’t really know what to do, and I didn’t want to read a newspaper about the violence that came every day. It was 1995, just at the end of the apartheid, so I was willing to take any job, and there was an option in L’Oreal to replace someone who was going on maternity leave. So, I started there and after that, they hired me to do logistics in the factory, so that’s how I started. I spent four years in South Africa and then I said to myself, “Let’s go back to France and I can probably learn from a bigger corporation and discipline.” I went to internal audit for L’Oreal—at L’Oreal it was a group of young talent, and I had the opportunity to do an audit in China—six weeks in China, then in Italy. But I didn’t feel like being young, inexperienced as I felt I was. I could really be a good auditor but I didn’t feel [like I had] the right to tell big senior guys how they should conduct the business. And, as I am a doer, I [started] looking for something else. It was [during] the big internet and mobile revolution; France Telecom was just acquiring Orange and they were looking for talent in finance. So, I went there as a business controller. But it was summer, and in France, summer—August—no one is there except the newcomers, and they were preparing the public offering of Orange. They saw me in the corridor, they said, “Come help us,” and that’s how I started M&A, really by chance.

I never wanted to be an M&A person, but I really loved it. And it was always in the back of my mind. I’m not fully able to explain it because part of it was rational but part of it was just inspiration from the leaders, the willingness to join Danone. I really liked the way the leaders were different, the vision for the business, and there was this process of hiring a new head of mergers and acquisition. The head-hunter said, “You’re young, you’re a woman, you’re external, so you don’t have a lot of luck, but you did so many deals, so let’s try.”

That’s how I joined Danone. My biggest memory is of when I went for an interview with Franck Riboud, who was the head of Danone at that time, and he said to me, “Well, I'm not sure that is your job, but we’ll find a table and a chair and we will be able to use you.” And that's really been the kind of fil rouge [common thread] of my career: the need to be useful, the need to have some impact, and the need to be surrounded with people who would acknowledge both my strength and how I could grow. And where I was really lucky—honored, I don't know, because I think we should all manage talent like that—was in that people really built on my strengths; they took some risk, they made a shortcut, because they believed in me and they saw in me something bigger that even I see in myself.

Axel de Schietere: And when you say people, you mean Emmanuel Faber and the CHRO, the leaders of Danone?

Cécile Cabanis: Yes. If I followed the (kind of) HR process, I guess I would be an accountant somewhere in a city of France. I think you really need leaders who understand and see in you the kind of thing they can build with you. I had boss a very long time ago at Danone who said to me, “Cécile, people will tell you to develop [the things that] are your weaknesses, but you shouldn't listen to that. You should really push on your strengths because if you are really busy working on your weaknesses, you will weaken your strengths and then you will become average.” That was a huge lesson for me. I think nobody’s perfect, but everyone has a talent, and I think it’s really by respecting and pushing everyone to the best of their talents that you can build the strongest teams.

I did many finance jobs after five years of M&A, and when Emmanuel was named the CEO, he asked me to join him as the CFO. At the beginning, I put huge pressure on myself because it was something big, so I was really very keen to succeed, to not let people down, to be useful, to bring what I could. And, at Danone, it’s not like it is in some companies where you get media training and people are surrounding you; you get into the pool and you learn how to swim. But that’s what is absolutely key in growing experience, learning how to fall and get up again. And then, after two years, [Emmanuel] asked me to take on the full procurement and, to some extent, sustainability—at least on the key strategic resources of Danone. I think it was very smart because it forced me to have a tension between looking at short-term performance and making sure to also keep in mind the mid- and long-term. I think that’s where Danone built a very big differentiation; it forced every one of us to really make sure that we had this two-dimensional thinking (which sometimes makes you feel crazy) that I think is really key went you want to progress.

Axel de Schietere: So, first of all, how did you use your CFO role to have this impact? And second, you said that you put a lot of pressure on yourself when you became the CFO of a publicly listed company—what were the biggest personal and technical challenges, as such?

Cécile Cabanis: To your first question, I think you can have impact in any type of function. It’s really down to the willingness to develop teams, to impact teams, and, in the finance role of Danone, you have to have the strategy part, you have the M&A part. So, there are a lot of things that you oversee and can impact. Finance is a great function because, at the end of the day, [everything] always comes to finance with some numbers in terms of decisions, so you’re really at the crossroads of everything and nothing will happen without you. I think it’s a function where you can really make a difference and where it’s easy to be a kind of guardian. It’s more difficult to be really at the service of the business, the enabler, the manager of the tension, but that’s what makes it unique in terms of job and impact. It’s a really important function.

I took the sponsorship of diversity and inclusive diversity because I fundamentally believe in that, and I think that, in order to succeed, you also need to take on things that you are really convinced of. I think you also make your impact above and beyond your function.

And then, on the difficulties [part of your question], I think that the biggest one for me was around external communication. I am not someone who likes to shine in the light—I am very enthusiastic, very energetic, and I like to talk with the teams internally, but I’m always more reluctant to put myself on the front scene, so it was totally new. At the beginning, I worked a lot on my script, working hours and hours, and at the end, what’s funny (and is why I think you can learn mostly everything by experience) is that I was much stronger when I was talking with my conviction without the script. But that was a big learning curve and the one part I was not as comfortable with.

The advice I would give is to not hesitate to say no at some opportunities if you really believe in what you say yes to. It happened for me several times, I said no and it was the right thing to do. I think especially we women tend to go where people ask us to, and so on. But I think at some point, if you are not fully convinced that something is right for you, or you feel that this is not where your talents will be fully expressed, you need to be able to say no.

Axel de Schietere: Is this what happened when you decided to step down from your CFO role, for instance?

Cécile Cabanis: No, it was much earlier in my career. The reason I stepped down from my CFO role is very simple: 16 years at Danone was a great experience; it’s honestly a company I would recommend to anyone because it’s a project more than a company. People are fully engaged, and there is a level of energy which is really great. But, after 16 years, having done a lot of things, I found myself in a situation where I started to feel like it was too routine. At Danone, there is never routine because there are always things that are happening. So, I was willing to really go for something different and have different impact and learn from something new, and I think it’s also good to leave a place to new talents. I had built my team in finance, which was really a great team, and my successor is coming from my team. I think, at some point, you also need fresh blood for new transformation, and I believe it was the right thing to do. But, because I love Danone, I’m staying on the board and I'm really happy to support them differently.

Axel de Schietere: Going back to 2020 and to the current crisis, leaders who were able to flex and adapt have navigated the pandemic with relative ease. What leadership skills have been essential for you and your team in order to thrive in that context?

Cécile Cabanis: I think what the crisis revealed and what was really great for me in terms of leadership and my team was that it was a catalyst of both initiative and care. Often in a company, you meet people in the morning, you ask each other, how are you, and a person is probably at the end of the corridor before they can answer. During the crisis, there was a real care for each other that was meaningful. At the same time, I saw teams able to really build solidarity, to be very agile and a bit away from usual processes, having the classic kind of three-step decision process and routine. I think they demonstrated a huge ability to take initiative and make decisions.

It seems that we need to keep moving forward. The first lockdown was a discovery of the way teams were able to manage from a distance, sometimes in conditions that were really tough, having the kids at home and so on. The way that they cared for each other and managed to take on new initiatives to interact, even informally because the coffee machine didn't exist anymore. At Danone, we have a very informal culture, so that was part of our energy. In that, I think it was very positive. But it’s true that it was very tiring. When you’re at home doing visual, doing several hours, the management of energy was more complex. I spent the first lockdown alone in Paris. Sometimes you just lose time and space because you’re working all the time and, you know, you have two feet between your bed and your office and your kitchen, so it’s very strange. I think we really need to build on what was positive in this period and really try to remove the kind of pain and tiredness that everyone is living with now, after the third lockdown.

Axel de Schietere: How have last year’s challenges supported the refocusing of your priorities as a CFO from a professional standpoint?

Cécile Cabanis: It was really clear at the beginning of the crisis that we needed fewer priorities and that these priorities should be people’s safety, making sure that we would not have to break the supply chain or close any factory, cash management, and support to the ecosystem. Because, at the end of the day, if you don't support your ecosystem and your suppliers and all the chain, it can stop at any point. During a few months we were fully focused on those priorities.

Axel de Schietere: Today, the finance function and the industry as a whole are much friendlier to women than they were 15 years ago. Nonetheless, is there specific advice you have to offer to young women who want careers in finance?

Cécile Cabanis: My start was tough, being external and being a woman, but it was many years ago. I think that in order to really build the way forward we need to make sure that we are women and we endorse the fact that we are women. We don't need to [act as] men to travel in this corporate world. Franck Riboud had a very nice way to say it. He said, “I want women who are women and not women who are trying to resemble to the rest of the organization.” So, I would say to stay true to yourself, push your limits, push your talents. I think [we are in] a period that is very favorable for diversity and the inclusion of all. I’m a great supporter of it. I think some companies are really advanced and some need to work, but there have been a lot of measures to really enable diversity. We are still missing women talent at the right level, though, and we need also to make sure that as leaders we take risks on women the same way we take risks on men and that we really understand that diversity is what will make you successful.

Axel de Schietere: You’re no longer the CFO but you still sit on the board of Danone. Looking ahead, what is Danone’s future strategy?

Cécile Cabanis: Well, I don't think the strategy is changing. I think the vision and everything we put into our objectives and being the first “enterprise a mission” is absolutely key. I did a lot in trying to really build things and to be pioneer in finance—sustainable finance—and how we could really make it as a process. So, for me, it’s not a change in strategy; it’s executing. I think it’s not specific to Danone but to everyone: being a listed company, people ask you to do everything at the same time, to be great in sustainability and perform well financially. I think the key stake for many others is really to maintain this tension, to make it possible to deliver performance and continue to do the job in terms of sustainability, whether it’s in terms of environment, social issues, or health—because Danone has very strong objectives in regard to health—and then overall governance.

Axel de Schietere: What challenges do you foresee for the industry in the next five years, and how is Danone preparing for them?

Cécile Cabanis: Well, I think that there’s been quite a lot of disruption. Before the crisis, there was a huge trend in localization and more transability. There were many, many small brands that took on a lot of leadership in the industry, with a lot of innovations being closer to what people were expecting. And, with the crisis, people really came back to the bigger brand, to the trust element of what the more established brand brings, and I think going forward it’s really going to be a mix of both.

We must make sure that brands are committed to positive impact with the right ingredients when it comes to natural food, but also the test, because let’s be clear that we’re talking about food. And then, around locality, around having a local supply chain, around being clear that food is a local business, you need to make sure that you are answering to the local citizens’ needs. At the end of the day, it’s really a power that people have—when they choose their food, they vote for which world they want to live in.

We also need to make sure that we understand there are still contradictions between citizens and consumers, and that we need to build on both to create the right brands that engage, that are fun, that people want to buy, and that have the right positive impact. Everyone is really clear now that we need to move very quickly to change the food system that we’ve built over the past centuries.

Axel de Schietere: Well, thank you, Cécile. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Cécile Cabanis: Yes. I think, especially in those times where everything seems to be complex and painful, it’s important to not forget to have fun. The best way to do a great job is when you wake up in the morning and you are happy to do what you do. I think it’s important to really keep some time for fun, keep some time to meet people and be balanced in everything you do. You can spend hours at work, and it can be very painful or it can be something great. So, I think it’s really important to be your true self. I think no one is entitled to stop you from being your true self. If you have great leaders, they will take you for your talents and who you are. Raise your voice.

Axel de Schietere: Great. Well Cécile, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Cécile Cabanis: Thank you for inviting me.

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