In a volatile and uncertain world, “the only constant is change.” To succeed, a finance leader needs to facilitate agility and adaptability within the organization. I recently spoke with Bolanle Williams-Olley, CFO and co-owner at design and architecture firm Mancini Duffy, on both these change management and personal upskilling. Bolanle’s story – she comes from an unconventional career background for a CFO – was the basis of a book on career development that she wrote, and she was kind enough to share her unique worldview on upping the game for both your company and yourself as a leader .
Jeff Thomson: Mancini Duffy has a long legacy as a design and architecture firm going back more than a century. As CFO as well as Co-owner, what do you do to ensure your firm stays up to date and relevant in this competitive industry? What role does technology play in achieving that goal? How do you deploy technology within the finance function to achieve greater efficiencies?
Bolanle Williams-Olley: We transformed and revitalized our century-old design firm by leading with a start-up mentality. Historically, Mancini focused on corporate interior projects. For the past decade, we have intentionally diversified into new market sectors like hospitality, aviation, healthcare and multi-family residential to expand our footprint. We overhauled Mancini’s company culture by putting our people first. We decided to create a mixed leadership team beyond the owners and principals to hear from people across all levels at the firm. Putting our people first and engaging them in company decisions and policies allowed us to understand what is important to our team – what our team prioritises. Because we’ve overhauled our culture, we’ve made Mancini a place [where] folks want to work. Although we had a century of roots, my partners and I knew we needed to propel the firm forward by infusing technology into our design process.
Technology is infused into every aspect of our design process at Mancini. We started by developing our Design Lab, an innovative hub for our company’s research and development programs. Our tech-first approach to solving and providing design solutions led to the invention of our patent-pending software called The Toolbelt. The Toolbelt allows our clients to experience their projects firsthand by experiencing their designs using our virtual reality technology.
It plays a significant role in our finance department. We can produce real-time information using our accounting ERP software, which helps us run our business more successfully and efficiently. In our design world, knowing the ebbs and flows of how things change on projects, we must be proactive in analyzing the changes happening. We can run our billing process through this same ERP system, getting invoices out to our clients more efficiently. It helps us have data at the tips of our hands to make better business decisions.
Thomson: You authored a book called “Build Boldly: Chart your unique career path and lead with courage.” How did your career as a finance professional inform that book and its key messages? What are the core insights for aspiring CFOs who are currently working their way up in finance or those who aspire to enter the finance field?
Williams-Olley: My career path to CFO is as non-traditional as it gets. My educational background was not in accounting or finance; however, finding myself in the finance sector of my industry at the start of my career, I quickly realized I would have to open myself to opportunities that would help improve my skillset and expertise. Beyond that, I also focused on how I could stay curious, develop solid relationships and make courageous, bold decisions that essentially made way for me to be in a position of leadership today. Career-defining moments happened for me when I intentionally showed up as myself both as an employee and now as a firm leader. Reflecting on my unique path and looking at the themes that came up over my 15+ year journey, it was important to write Build Boldly to ignite any individual or leader to intentionally chart their own unique path and craft their own BOLD career playbooks for success.
In my book Build Boldly, I provide some core insights for those who aspire to be a CFO. I intentionally operated in a higher position in any of the roles I held. Begin to think as a CFO and leader even before you get into that role. For example, act as a true partner to the leadership team before joining the C-suite. Also, consider your value-add as both a professional and a leader.
When you see yourself as a true partner – beyond just being the person who oversees the numbers – a key is to focus on building internal relationships with your team and firm and external relationships with vendors and clients. Really push into leading boldly and being a leader who lifts and develops other leaders.
In addition, understanding and immersing yourself in whatever industry you are in makes you a better financial team member. Plug into networks of folks who may be in other industries to access mentorship and meet your peers. Peers within your industry will also understand and relate to the problems you’re trying to solve.
Thomson: The importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) has long been underappreciated in the finance function, but leaders today are increasingly concerned with ensuring a diverse talent pipeline. As a woman, a mother and a person of color, what obstacles have you faced in your career that you’ve overcome? How would you advise leaders and organizations to address those obstacles going forward? What does Mancini Duffy specifically do to further the goals of DE&I?
Williams-Olley: The two obstacles I faced were around flexibility and isolation. As a new mom early on in my career, I did not have much flexibility when I reentered the workforce. It also felt isolating at times to be one of the only mothers or black women on the team. Sometimes people might not understand how you feel or the issues you may face, even though they might be subtle. Obstacles like these made me be very intentional about my next career move. When I interviewed at Mancini, I was careful to ensure there was value alignment with the company.
The first step is acknowledgment that obstacles can and will exist. Next, review and understand your organization’s shortcomings by garnering open and honest feedback from your team to understand the obstacles and chart a new path forward. Secondly, run a more flexible workplace to help your employees feel supported to perform their jobs around the confines of their lifestyles. Finally, evaluate your company’s internal policies to ensure you have procedures in place that help support women, mothers and people of color in your company.
We’re constantly reviewing our internal data because we know what you don’t measure, you can’t change. For example, we are proud to say that Mancini is currently 60% female, more than twice the average in the architecture industry. However, even with this high percentage, we are constantly challenging our hiring team to make the talent pool even more diversified. We also do internal training to ensure our team understands the importance of an inclusive workforce. We know that a diverse firm allows us to have a wide range of thoughts and ideas, which leads to more successful projects for our clients.