While Dana Laidhold, treasurer at leading alternative asset company The Carlyle Group, began her career as a staff auditor at Coopers & Lybrand, she quickly realized she wanted to get more involved in business strategy. After four years at the auditing firm, she left to get her MBA with a focus on finance, and then joined a management training program at US Airways.
“In the accounting world you talk about what and how, i.e., what happened and how to report it,” Laidhold said. “I was more curious about what is the right thing to do for a business, why is that the right thing, and then how do you go about executing.”
The training program at the airline took her through six-month rotations in finance, including financial planning and analysis, and treasury. What attracted her to the program was the chance to see different areas of the organization. “I experienced breadth across the company, but with enough time spent in each group to deeply learn that discipline,” Laidhold said. “In particular, I was able to see the relationships among various business departments and focus on collaboration, seeing outside of my own box.”
Laidhold emerged into a role with financial planning as a financial controller for several business units, with responsibility for budget preparation and tracking actual results against budget. “This was very helpful from a development perspective,” Laidhold said. “I had to learn the details of the business to understand what was driving the financials. It wasn’t just about the numbers. It was about how does the way we operate affect the bottom line.”
Laidhold moved to Carlyle 11 years ago when it was a much smaller organization. Her first role was evolving a program that allows employees and affiliates to invest in the company’s investment funds. “There was a lot of opportunity,” she said. “I liked the excitement, and the dynamic aspects of being able to have impact on a growing organization.”
Like many small and fast growing companies, initially Carlyle didn’t have a standalone treasury group. The controller handled FP&A, treasury and accounting. But as the company grew it became clear it needed to set up separate finance functions. “We had grown to a point where it was impossible for one person to oversee the daily operations of all the accounting and finance functions,” she said.
The CFO asked Laidhold to lead the development of the treasury group. “We built it from scratch,” she said. Including Laidhold, the treasury department now has a staff of nine.
Transition to managing
Laidhold began her managerial career with some light managerial responsibilities at US Airways, but most of her development happened on the job at Carlyle. At the start, as is the case today, her staff wasn’t large. “For years it was me and one person, or me partnering with people from other departments,” she recalled.
As treasury evolved in complexity and scope, Laidhold had to wear more hats and build a long-term organizational chart. “I am now responsible for developing people through that chart,” she said.
Her management style evolved over time. “I learned a lot of lessons along the way and as a result I’ve grown in my own personal development as a leader. When I was younger and eager to climb up the ranks I was much more narrowly, focused on operational execution, continuously delivering what was being asked from me. Now in a leadership role, I have the ability to step back and look in a larger sense at what I think we need to be doing and delivering. I spend much more of my time working across the organization. It’s no longer just a technical or operational role. It’s about how to make processes more efficient, involve the right stakeholders, and find ways to support the growth of our firm.”
As a result, Laidhold spends a lot more time managing her team. It is important to her to ensure a healthy life/work balance. “The treasury department will do our best and be most efficient and productive when the team is happy,” she said. “I spend a lot of time looking at the individual needs of each person, i.e., What are their career interests? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What motivates them? Cross-training has been a fundamental component to ensure ing we don’t have a single point of failure and ensuring people can take time off. The cross training also helps build a collaborative team culture. Everyone is keenly aware of each other’s workload peaks and valleys and we support each other. Though, we all work hard and put in a lot of hours.”
To instill team spirit, she said, “we partner with each other to determine the best work flow and how to best support each other in terms of work/life balance.”
Laidhold focuses on the social aspects of team building, such as team lunches and other outings. “We try to go out and really talk to each other, ideally not about work,” she said. “For a long time I was singularly focused on completing tasks. Now, with a larger team, when you can find these opportunities to make people happy and comfortable in their job and with their peers, there is an increase in team productivity, attitude, and tenure.”
In addition, she’s been a strong proponent of mentoring, sponsorship and coaching. She worked with her own coach for 18 months and continues to reach out on an occasional basis. She counts former Carlyle CFO Adena Friedman as her most impactful mentor. Friedman left to become the co-president of NASDAQ in June. “Adena was one of my more transformational role models. I channel her spirit, specifically how she can look at a complex situation, distill it to its essence and ask the right questions,” she said.
Laidhold encourages others to seek out mentors and coaches. “At some point in your career you come out of the weeds and transition from an operational role to a more strategic one,” she said. “It’s helpful to be able to have someone to consult with, either a mentor, a more formalized personal arrangement, or group managerial and leadership training classes.”
It’s also worthwhile to perform a 360-degree evaluation every three or four years, she believes. That helps managers to step back and discover how the world sees them versus how they see themselves. The key, she said, is to keep an open mind and digest the information so it can be a transformative experience.
Of course, over her career Laidhold also worked with people whose management style she doesn’t want to emulate. “I’ve seen people in senior roles who were afraid to ask for help,” she said. “They didn’t want to admit they got out in front of their skis and rely on their team to educate them on a specific topic. I am no longer afraid to walk into a room and say, ‘I don’t know what we’re talking about. Let’s take a step back.”
She’s also worked with senior managers who are technically astute but don’t know how to train, teach, or empower their staff. “That can be very demoralizing,” she said.
Finally, Laidhold believes it’s very important that everyone on the team gets credit for the work that they do. Staff members who worked on a specific project or model participate in the associated presentations. “They may not always present but their name is on it and they receive the recognition, face time, and opportunity to answer questions,” she said. She also takes opportunities to market her team and individual performances; for example, Carlyle has an award program intended to reward individuals who best exemplify the “One Carlyle” spirit. “Each year, I nominate the person from my team who is most deserving of that award” she said.
Laidhold’s growth into her current position is not a function of one specific role but her multiple experiences, both at the US Airways training program, and as she built the Carlyle treasury group over time. “There are aspects of having been in FP&A and in treasury that feed into that,” she said. “It’s also very useful to understand accounting. Having seen so many different areas of the business helps me think holistically about the organization. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve had successes. I’ve learned from both.”