Booz Allen CFO Lloyd Howell: Why It Pays to Ask for Help

Mar 6, 2019 3:25 PM ET

When Lloyd Howell was promoted from more than 30 years of client-facing work at Booz Allen to apply his skills to the position of chief financial officer in 2016, he chose not to tackle the challenge alone. Instead, he sought advice from other CFOs—and recently shared highlights from his leadership journey at the high-performing consulting and technology firm with The Wall Street Journal.

“I think the best education and learning process is to learn from others,” said Howell. “Finance is a language. To be good, I think you need to understand and learn the language.”

Crowdsourcing the learning curve

Even with decades of experience, a Harvard MBA and the support of a strong professional finance team, to serve as the CFO of a global, publicly traded corporation on a strong growth trajectory was a daunting prospect, with great challenges and responsibilities, he said.

“You are really in control of a small percentage of what happens and yet you are held accountable for 100 percent of what happens or doesn’t happen,” Howell told The Wall Street Journal. “I didn’t want to fail or let my colleagues down, so I needed to learn a lot, I needed to get up that learning curve.”

To do so, he enlisted colleagues to help him reach out to other CFOs, creating his own informal group of advisors and tutors.

“I’ve always reached out to colleagues, mentors and coaches for advice and counsel,” Howell said. “This was very much in keeping with what I had always done. I think the best education and learning process is to learn from others. And I, with the help of colleagues, got in touch with other CFOs. I’d say it was a core of five individuals who are representative of three to four different industries.”

Seeking help is a strength, not a weakness

“Observing folks over the years who try to fake it until they make it—eventually they are found out. I think there’s nothing wrong with admitting when you don’t know something. If more people admitted that they didn’t know something, we probably would be much better off,” Howell said to the newspaper.  “More times than not, folks are very open and helpful.

Business experience makes a better financial leader

“I definitely feel like (decades running parts of Booz Allen’s client-facing business) has made me effective in this (CFO) role, in large part because I can communicate and articulate needs as I would have wanted to hear it in my previous roles. I’ve been in the shoes of my internal clients for a long time and appreciate the pressures they are under and the performance they are trying to achieve and how to help them as best I can to achieve that performance,” Howell said in the interview.

“I think the expectations on people who were in the CFO role (were) probably more financial than anything else. What I have experienced and then also what I’ve seen others in different industries is more a blend of business strategy and its ramifications on the financial strategy. I think today that is a pretty important requirement for CFOs. I haven’t met many CFOs who are so narrow on just cranking the numbers.”

Read more of Howell’s insights and experiences in the full Wall Street Journal interview.