Sara Mathew – President and Chief Operating Officer, Dun & Bradstreet

Sara Matthew

From Shopaholic to C-Suite: Worried about the economy? Sara Mathew of Dun & Bradstreet tells how to strengthen your finances to ride out the storm.

By Taylor Mallory

“The most important area to focus on is liquidity – i.e., cash in hand and access to the short-term capital you need to run your business. You have to go back to good old-fashioned budgeting to meet your capital requirements,” says Sara Mathew, president and chief operating officer of Dun & Bradstreet, the renowned business information firm.

Born in India, Mathew moved to the U.S. straight out of college. With no American degree and no work experience, she joined Procter & Gamble as a clerk, “because I needed a job, so I could shop.” She left the company 18 years later to achieve her goal of becoming a CFO by age 45. (Since her boss was only five years older, she had to leave to do it.) After a 45-minute interview, she won the CFO position at D&B. Since Mathew came on board seven years ago, the company’s stock return has beaten the market average every single year. Of the top 1,000 companies in the U.S., only 20 have accomplished that feat.

Mathew talks to PINK about the economy, her unorthodox career path and how she keeps her team motivated.

PINK: What is the best advice you have for women struggling in this economy?
Sara Mathew: If you’re out of work, you may have to consider taking a job you are overqualified for. You also need to brace yourself and learn to handle rejection. Stay positive while being a realist. If you are rejected, don’t take it too personally. It’s not that you’re “bad”; you’re facing the toughest economic environment in a long time. Connect with the interviewers and find out why they did not hire you. Learn from that feedback and leverage it in your next interview. Don’t let rejection set you back. Learn from it.

If you’re employed, take care of your current customers first. Retaining them is far more valuable than acquiring new customers. If you’re a small business owner, the only thing that really matters is cash in the till. Try to negotiate more favorable payment terms from your suppliers and push for more cash sales.

PINK: How did you get your start?
S.M.: After I got married and moved to America, I got a job at Procter & Gamble, where my husband was employed. I was so naïve; I didn’t know the difference between being a clerk and a manager. Looking back, I realize that it is so important to know exactly what you want. After I accepted the job, I realized that at Procter, if you’re hired as a clerk you retire as a clerk. I was lucky that Procter, which promotes from within, is a true meritocracy, so the good news is that in two and a half years, I was ahead of my peers.

PINK: What is the biggest career mistake you’ve made?
S.M.: I’ve made so many that we could talk all day. If you haven’t made a mistake and failed at something, you haven’t lived yet. Here’s one example: When I came to D&B, I decided to outsource our finance back-office operations to India. Huge mistake. I had to bring half of it back immediately; the rest came back a year later. We had to call folks we’d laid off and ask them to return. All but one came back – because we acknowledged our mistake and had handled the original layoff with respect. Mistakes are inevitable, and they teach you much more than success ever will. I’ve also learned that if you own your mistakes, you will find the solution and fix the problem.

PINK: How do you motivate your team?
S.M.: Communicate, communicate, communicate. Be open and honest about the way things are. I believe the role of a leader is to stay rooted in reality while also inspiring hope. At D&B, we have very high expectations of our people, so we are very supportive in times of need. As an example, I have a very talented individual who wants to be in a certain city until her son finishes high school, while also continuing her career progress at D&B. We will accommodate this need. While we can’t do that for all 5,000 people, we will where we can, and we definitely will for our high-potential team members. On reflection, this is something D&B does better than most other companies. They did this for me, when I had to balance a personal family matter, and this has certainly raised my sensitivity to the need to provide personal support to drive team engagement and motivation.

PINK: How do you define “success”?
S.M.: My definition of success has evolved over the past seven years. Today I define success along two dimensions. The first is personal growth – i.e., finding the inner strength to push beyond my own perceived personal limitations – and the second is contributing to other people’s success. There is nothing more rewarding than getting letters from people who worked for me years ago, thanking me for something they learned that helped them achieve success later in life.

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