It’s no secret women tend to be underrepresented in the executive suite at major corporations–a reality that makes Tara Comonte stand out as the chief financial officer of Getty Images.
The gender gap is so pervasive Comonte acknowledges sitting in “too many meetings,” and not noticing she’s the only woman in the room. Appointed by Getty as its CFO in April 2013, she also recalls once taking part in a CFO research project in which three of the 50 CFO participants were women.
Corporate finance chiefs mostly consist of men. A study from executive recruiter Spencer Stuart cited by the Wall Street Journal’s CFO Journal blog found in 2013, only 57 CFOs–or 11.4%–in the Fortune 500 were women.
“We’re still seeing a lack of gender balance and a lack of women in the C-suite, and whilst it’s getting better and is a topic that’s getting overdue attention–and that’s a great thing–there are a few things we need to do now,” Comonte says. “I want other women in the C-suite to share responsibility for making the path to career success, and the C-suite easier for the next generation of women.”
A native of Scotland, Comonte attributes the trajectory of her career to “hard work, bloody hard work.” She has plenty of thoughts about what it takes to bust through the glass ceiling, and how more female leaders should step up to help other women advance.
Those thoughts are based in part on how she got to where she is at Getty, but also on the example of her mother, a family doctor who worked full-time and left an unshakeable impression about women and careers on her.
“Her patients adored her,” recalls Comonte, who joined Getty after stints at companies like McCann Worldgroup, where she served as global CFO. “I was perhaps naive, but that allowed me to enter the workplace with certain expectations as a woman. It never crossed my mind whether I’d have a career if I wanted one. I didn’t know these statistics. I didn’t know it would be harder as a woman.”
“Oddly enough, I’ve also had a couple of female influences in my life in the workplace who I’ve learned as much from, more from looking at them and seeing what I don’t want to do,” she adds. “The big thing is I learned I can be me. I can be authentic. I can be female. And I can be successful without having to be someone else.”
Comonte started her career in general accounting before later shifts into investment banking and then the advertising world, where she spent more than a decade in a variety of creative businesses and agencies. Among the accolades she picked up along the way, she was chosen in 2012 by the World Economic Forum as a young global leader and was the first CFO inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Achievement.
She says she was attracted to Getty after feeling an affinity for its corporate culture and leadership. It certainly helps that Getty has taken its own interest in changing attitudes and perceptions about women via a partnership it announced earlier in 2014 with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization. The two entities teamed up to offer a collection of images depicting women in more authentic and powerful ways.
Getty’s CFO has no shortage of advice about career advancement and success for other women in business. One of her favorite tips: ask lots of questions. It’s a phrase she warns she’ll repeat constantly, and she makes good on the promise.
“Don’t do it just for the sake of being heard,” she says. “I’ve read other advice that women give, things like have a voice and a seat at the table. Yeah, but not just for the sake of it. Ask a lot of questions, for a purpose. If you really learn about the business, you can assess the risks and opportunities and really have a maximum impact. Ask, ask, ask.”
She says don’t be afraid to have–and put forward–opinions that cut against the conventional wisdom. “Women might not like to rock the boat as much as men do,” Comonte says. “But they can’t be afraid to have a different point of view. Be respectful, be thoughtful with it. But at the end of the day, change and innovation don’t come from mediocrity and consensus. I often remind CEOs–they don’t pay their executive team to be yes men. Or yes women.”
The role of CFO can under some circumstances be as broad or as narrow as the executive filling it wants the role to be, but Comonte says she wasn’t interested in the traditional bean-counter nature of the job.
“You can sit in your office, have the door closed, immerse yourself in spreadsheets, and that can be your role,” she says. “I’ve never done that, but I imagine it can’t be that much fun. I’m fortunate in that I have the ability to operate across the full breadth of the business. It’s the kind of CFO Getty wanted to hire.”
Historically, CFOs were assumed to be very focused on the bottom line–on being the policeman, she explains. ” . . . Don’t get me wrong, I manage costs tightly. But trust me, it’s a lot easier to deliver a very good bottom line by focusing on a strong top line. As CFO, I focus more on top line growth than anything else. I’m helping make sure we’re spending the right amount of money in the right place at the right time to drive short-, mid- and long-term top line growth.”
Something she feels particularly strongly about is the importance of mentorship, and helping pave the way for other women to enjoy career advancement. “We have to make sure we’re mentoring and make sure we’re walking the walk and not just talking the talk,” she adds.
Companies also talk about doing things to help, like flexible work schedules, she adds. “But there’s sometimes a level of discomfort like, oh, people are going to abuse it. My argument is, if people are going to abuse flexible work schedules, then that’s not the kind of people you want in your organization anyway. The focus should be on results. That’s all that really matters.”