Sonia Webb: “We are finance professionals, not emergency room doctors”

Getting to the C-suite is both a tremendous responsibility and privilege. I was quite aware of the level of responsibility I was assuming when I became Avanade CFO, but I hadn’t thought about the privilege that comes with that responsibility until I participated in a recent Women in Tech panel with fellow women executives. We […]

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Getting to the C-suite is both a tremendous responsibility and privilege. I was quite aware of the level of responsibility I was assuming when I became Avanade CFO, but I hadn’t thought about the privilege that comes with that responsibility until I participated in a recent Women in Tech panel with fellow women executives. We discussed the importance of the “privilege of leadership” and how important it is that your leadership style inspires your team to do great things.

As a part of our series about powerful women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonia Webb, Chief Financial Officer at Avanade. As Chief Financial Officer at Avanade, Sonia Webb is responsible for Avanade’s global investment strategy and management, as well as its financial operations, including accounting, budgeting, tax, internal audit, financial planning, and treasury.

Sonia joined Avanade in July 2019 as Global Finance Lead, bringing 25+ years of experience, including 22 years with Accenture. At Accenture, she most recently had served as Finance Director, North America, where she drove strategic financial priorities across the company’s largest market. Previously she was Finance Director for Accenture’s Communications, Media & Technology business in North America and earlier, a member of the Corporate Development Transaction Services team, where she provided critical financial deal shaping guidance across a variety of industries and offerings.

Sonia holds an MBA in finance and accounting and a degree in economics. An avid horseback rider, when she isn’t working, you’ll find her out in nature with her family.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

You know, when I was growing up, my family had very little money. I worked through high school and college. I was a waitress, I tutored calculus. I was a resident advisor, I worked in the library. I hustled all through college!

Because I was so busy working, I chose my college major based on the subject that came easiest to me, economics. Still, I wrote my senior honors thesis on participatory democracy and women in the workforce, and I planned to attend Cornell University to pursue a masters’ degree in industrial labor relations.

Fate, however, had different plans for me. About a month before graduating, one of my friends said, “A bunch of us are going to New York to interview with several finance firms. Would you like to come along?” As I had never been to New York and this was an offer of a free ride, I whipped up a quick resume and joined them.

I sailed through a series of interviews and to this day believe that the fact that I didn’t actually want any of the jobs eliminated any nerves and helped boost my confidence. I received four job offers! Suddenly I had to make a decision: continue on to Cornell to pursue a master’s degree, but also add to my student debt, or grab what seemed like a chance of a lifetime and start a career on Wall Street. Much to my adviser’s disappointment, I chose Wall Street and worked there for four years before joining Accenture. During those years, I also completed my MBA at NYU Stern School of Business.

In retrospect, I have no regrets about the path I chose. I think the combination of my academic focus and hustle helped get me where I am today. Because I have incorporated both of my academic interests into my work as a finance leader, I consider myself a CFO with Human Resources DNA. There are times when my academic background has allowed me to focus on the human side of things, giving me a more well-rounded perspective. As I tell our board, if we do the right thing for our people, they will do the right thing for our clients. If we do the right thing for our clients, we won’t have to worry about revenue or growth, because we will have more business. It’s circular. Our financials start with our people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I came to Avanade from Accenture in July 2019 with the plan that I would settle in a bit before moving to the CFO role in 2020. My intention was to visit as many of the countries where we do business as possible, to meet the finance team and the leadership in each country. On my first trip, I traveled to six cities in nine days! It was crazy, but so much fun. I made it through Europe and set out on a trip to Asia in February of this year.

I went first to India to meet the Avanade finance team and visit our innovation center there and then was scheduled to go to Singapore, Tokyo and Australia before heading home. It was while I was in India that I got the call telling me not to come to Singapore, that the Covid-19 situation there was worsening. I had to cancel the rest of the trip and return home. I was named CFO of Avanade on March 1 and, of course, like the rest of the world, our focus since then has been on the health and well-being of our employees. I don’t know when but I still look forward to meeting the rest of the team in person one day.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ll be honest: funny things happen to me if I speak before thinking things all the way through. Years ago, I was interviewing for a senior finance position at Accenture. I had done my research ahead of time and saw that the bio of the executive I would be meeting said “horse enthusiast.” I have a horse and I ride, so I thought this would be something we would have in common. The interview went well, and in closing, I told the executive that I noticed his bio said he is a horse enthusiast. “My wife rides,” he said. “What kind of riding?” I asked. “Dressage,” he said. At which time I blurted out, “Oh my gosh, that’s so boring!”

Luckily, he burst out laughing. I got the job and then every time we were in a meeting together, he and the team would tease me about it. (A side note for any non-horse-riding readers: dressage is incredibly beautiful to watch and requires an intensity of patience I don’t have, which is what I should have said instead of saying it was boring!)

The obvious lesson: think before you speak.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of executive that most attracted you to it?

Over the course of my career, I never really set a goal to become a CFO. I never consciously sought out any executive position. In each of my roles, over my years in finance, my philosophy has always been to do the best I can and to look for ways to make my boss’s job easier. When they asked for something, I tried to think what their next three requests might be, so I would be prepared.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

In many ways, I would say it is the same. Of course, there is the potential to make a larger impact, but you also carry a larger responsibility. The buck stops with you.

It’s true that the higher you go in an organization, the more people watch what you do and say. We all are role models to the people in our lives; those of us in executive positions have the added responsibility to “walk the walk,” to act and operate according to our companies values so that we set a good example for others. As a female leader in the technology industry, I also feel it’s important to make sure that we are attracting and retaining more females into STEM careers, so sharing my experiences and mentoring others is something that I like to do to “pay it forward.”

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I enjoy changing things for the better and feeling like I’m making a real difference in my work life. I also really enjoy working with our leadership team to accomplish Avanade’s purpose, which is to have a genuine human impact on our people, our clients, and the communities we operate in. I am inspired every day by the stories of Avanade’s people accomplishing amazing things that are making the world — and their own communities — a better place.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Being an executive is an incredible privilege and it comes with an enormous amount of responsibility. You know it on paper, but the weight of that responsibility is with you 24/7. It’s not just making numbers for the street. It’s the families, the children, the many people, the communities who could be impacted by your decisions.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I think one of the biggest myths is that you can do what you want. No matter how high you go in an organization, you still have a boss. Your boss might be the CEO or the board of directors, but just like everyone else you still must convince others that your ideas are the ones to adopt. That’s why I think collaboration becomes even more important at the leadership level. None of us is running a dictatorship.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I am very lucky. I’ve never explicitly felt that I was being treated differently. One thing that comes to mind — and it may be more exaggerated now that we are all on Microsoft Teams or Zoom calls — is that men don’t seem to care as much how they look on a video conference call. I think that is because women are still too often judged by how they look. Years ago, after an insightful and thorough presentation by a woman colleague, I heard someone say, “She’s so cold-looking.” Judging women on a perception of how they look still carries weight.

Earlier I said that I felt I had performed well in my first finance interviews because I felt confident. We know and studies have shown that too often women don’t put themselves forward for a job or a promotion because they think they may not have 100% of the requirements listed for the role. Men tend to assume they meet enough of the qualifications to give it a try. That’s a difference Avanade is working actively to change.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I would say the most striking difference is how crazy my calendar is! We operate in 25 countries and I am managing teams around the world, in many different time zones, so time management can be challenging. I typically manage my own calendar and, I admit, I have a hard time saying “no.” If someone needs to speak with me or is seeking my advice, I really want to make time for them. I’ve gotten better, and now I block out time on my calendar when I’m facing a deadline.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

Curiosity, collaboration, a desire to continuously learn, the ability to be a team player: these are all attributes of a successful leader. I would urge those who get the most satisfaction from being an individual performer to find ways to shine in areas where individual accomplishments are rewarded.

Avanade is a technology company, and we have actually acknowledged this in our performance management system. We have separate but equal career paths to executive leadership for those who want to climb the standard corporate ladder and individual contributors, often brilliant technologists.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I would encourage them to set three goals for their team. Make it fun and hold one another accountable:

  • Schedule conversations with a wide variety of people from many levels and groups across your company. We all tend to speak with the same people and trade ideas with the same groups throughout our workday. I learn so much when I reach out to talk with someone I wouldn’t ordinarily run across, perhaps a member of the sales organization or a junior technologist who has recently joined the company. I almost always come away with new ideas. I have found these conversations to be so helpful that I now make them a routine part of my schedule.
  • Encourage mentoring, coaching, and career-long learning. We all can learn from the experts in our field and we benefit from having champions who will talk through the challenges we face and, when appropriate, help open doors.
  • Practice giving and receiving feedback gracefully. Not only is this a skill that will help your team thrive, but it will also benefit individual team members throughout their entire careers.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many I could choose from. I’ve had a lot of help along the way! But, if I had to choose one person I am particularly grateful for early in my career, it would be a gentleman by the name of Steve Hundley, who hired me to work at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) in 1997. He was heading up a fast-growing team of finance professionals to focus on financial deal shaping for the largest, most complex transactions. Steve is a larger-than-life leader, incredibly passionate about both his people and driving the business. What made Steve such an incredible influence on my early career was his ability to see more in me than I saw in myself. Steve didn’t hesitate to send me into the hairiest, most complex deals there were! Often I was the most junior person in the room, by far, getting the opportunity to negotiate both internally and with clients which were a testament to his confidence in me. In turn, my confidence in myself grew and inspired me to always step up my game. What also helped was that I knew Steve always had my back if I needed to escalate an issue. He had a great saying that I still reflect on from time to time when things are particularly stressful: “We are finance professionals, not emergency room doctors.” It really helps to put things in perspective.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

At Avanade, we work directly with people and organizations to make a genuine human impact. We support clients who are on the front lines of health care, medical research, and more, so they can operate more efficiently, help more people, and have access to the equipment they need in these unprecedented times. Internally, I’m proud to say we have also stepped up. Every Avanade employee has eight paid hours a year they can use to volunteer for an organization or cause of their choosing. Since Covid-19, we have eliminated the cap of eight hours so people can chip in and help their communities when they have the time.

But I also think it is important for executives to contribute on a personal level. In the past, I have participated in the Covenant House DC Sleep Out, part of the Sleep Out movement across the U.S. and Canada. You sleep outside — in my case in November, in freezing rain — to show respect for the difficulties homeless youth face and to raise money for Covenant House programs that offer them a chance for a life off the streets and out of harm’s way.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’m going to answer the first three going back to what I wish someone told me before I started working and the last two what I wish someone told me before I took the CFO role.

  1. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. I can guarantee if something doesn’t make sense to you, there is at least one other person on the phone or in the room who doesn’t get it either. And if you don’t get a satisfactory answer, keep pushing! I didn’t do this well at the beginning of my career. I thought that by asking a question I would expose my own lack of understanding when, in fact, it is quite the opposite.
  2. Learn how to give and take coaching gracefully. Both are equally important. I have many unfortunate examples throughout my career where I’ve worked with people who didn’t have strong coaches, didn’t ask for feedback and their career stalled. In most of the cases, the issue was minor and easily addressed with a candid conversation and some follow-up coaching. One of my biggest pet peeves is sitting on a performance review call and hearing development issues being called out and then finding out that no one had the tough conversation with the individual to make them aware of where they needed to improve so that the issues could be addressed.
  3. You may be starting your career in finance but your liberal arts degree is going to serve you quite well when it comes to your communication style. Communication, both written and verbal, is so incredibly important throughout your career. Hone your style and remember, grammar counts!
  4. Getting to the C-suite is both a tremendous responsibility and privilege. I was quite aware of the level of responsibility I was assuming when I became Avanade CFO, but I hadn’t thought about the privilege that comes with that responsibility until I participated in a recent Women in Tech panel with fellow women executives. We discussed the importance of the “privilege of leadership” and how important it is that your leadership style inspires your team to do great things.
  5. As we talked about before, the higher up in an organization you are, the less control you have over your calendar. Make sure you schedule time to reflect, think, and/or decompress between meetings. I re-learned this lesson the hard way recently, after finding myself over-booked leading up to an Avanade board meeting.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I believe we need to incorporate sound financial training early in a child’s education, teaching basic financial literacy the same way we do other necessary life skills. Some say that this should be taught in the home, but statistics show that too many families lack these skills themselves.

To do this, I would:

  • Add a Budgeting 101 course early, by middle-school at the latest, that introduces personal finance best practices with examples appropriate for that age group. My 15-year-old son is growing up learning how to budget his allowance, earn more through chores and we even practice the concept of credit. If he wants to spend more than he has today, I charge him the family interest rate!
  • Continue that education at the high school level, introducing personal finance best practices and concepts with real-world examples to incentivize savings and show how compound interest works. For example, you can’t just say it’s good to save money. You must demonstrate the benefits with real-world examples that catch students’ attention.
  • Teach how to avoid predatory lending. At some point in our lives, many of us have been susceptible to get-rich-quick schemes, no-money-down scams and lending rip-offs. Learning early about unscrupulous schemes and how to spot someone who is trying to take advantage of you is something that could benefit many students in the long run.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” — Dr. Seuss

Our world is facing an unprecedented set of challenges simultaneously: the pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty and the extremely urgent need to address systemic racism. It can seem overwhelming. It is overwhelming. But I think each of us can have a profound impact and it starts with caring.

That’s why I am so proud that our company has committed to making a genuine human impact. Earlier this year, we told the story of how we are working with Answer ALS to support a worldwide open-source medical research initiative that is pioneering a new way to search for treatment options for ALS patients. We provide full scholarships for women scholars entering STEM careers and have already hired some of our first graduates. As a signature partner with Junior Achievement, we help students get the digital skills they will need as they enter the workforce. Each of these is a chance for us to “care a whole awful lot” and do something about it.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Beyoncé. To start, I love her music. She is incredibly talented, but there are plenty of talented musicians I could have chosen. What I admire most about her is how she uses her platform to advocate for female empowerment, police reform, gun control laws, and a variety of philanthropic initiatives.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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