The Magic Amalgam – Great CFOs as Profiled by Michael Burwell

michael burwell cfo

What makes a CFO truly great? Is there a metric in the industry that distinguishes exemplary CFOs from the adequate ones? Is greatness a product of pedigree, wherein your DNA, educational credentials, and connections determine your likelihood of rising to elite status in the industry? Or is greatness the byproduct of grit, a moniker that is bestowed upon those who have learned how to master the financial currents that have scuttled many businesses and even more business leaders?

Michael Burwell would never use the word “great” to describe his CFO acumen, but Burwell certainly distinguishes himself as a CFO with the chops to help businesses sustain market share while innovating toward future growth. The CFO of Willis Tower Watson, Michael Burwell deploys nearly 4 decades of experience in his current position, modeling best practices that are consistently emulated by members of his team and others beyond Willis Tower Watson who seek to hone their own financial management skills.

Renaissance Man

In his pithy article on the modern CFO,’s Adam Man-Cheung asserts that today’s CFOs like Michael Burwell must model a number of ideals if their businesses are to be successful. “These ideals are, in no particular order, that of Coach, Pilot, Scientist, and Engineer. As a Coach, the CFO must project strong leadership and mentorship to motivate their troops. As a Pilot, the same CFO must align policies and strategy to navigate turbulent markets. The Scientist within the CFO must guide their organization to the bleeding edge, whilst the Engineer develops feasible solutions across the business to achieve business goals at all horizons. We find, and indeed agree, that the top CFOs must not only rigorously master each ideal, but also diplomatically prioritize between them on a circumstantial basis.”[1]


 For Michael Burwell, coaching is part of leadership. Burwell realizes that effective leadership from the CFO’s chair entails that every member of the finance teach can articulate and execute their share of the overall organizational strategy. Indeed, if an organization knows what they’re doing, they’ve created mission and vision statements that are aspirational, and goals and objectives that feed the mission and vision. As a finance professional, leaders like Burwell support the organization’s mission, vision, goals and objectives by keeping the finance team fed, watered, and engaged in all the above. Everyone is a stakeholder in the company’s overall organizational strategy. The job of the CFO “Coach” is to ensure that everyone who’s not a stakeholder becomes one. If a finance professional is passionate about the business, the products, and the cause, he may already be thinking about ways to improve the “bottom line,” keeping the business model lean, progressive, and sustainable.

Over the years, Michael Burwell has learned that if you want to be at your best as a finance professional and want your department to be positioned to succeed downstream, the team must be able to articulate the organization’s mission, vision, etc. Then, the leader needs to make sure the team that is hired, motivated, and cared for buys-in to the mission and vision as well. When a team has opportunities to invest their passions and skills into the organization’s mission and vision, the team will thrive.


Man-Cheung reminds us that the effective CFO must have the ability to help an organization and the team members that support it weather turbulent economic currents.[2] For Michael Burwell and his team at Willis Tower Watson, this sort of piloting management hinges on building trust. In today’s management environment, managers must build trust or the team will defect when the economic engine is no longer roaring. Consider this: Many of today’s employees are millennials or younger. They were born with HDMI and USB ports hardwired into their arms and brains. Here’s what we know about millennials and their younger sibling… Young adults want to be part of organizations that provide meaning, a flexible work environment, and opportunities to develop relationships. They want to work for people they trust. The same could be said for all generations, really.

For all of those on the financial management side of the house like Michael Burwell, it’s important to cultivate and embody trust. Burwell knows that if the team members do not sense that management is invested in them, then they will move on to organizations they trust. So first and foremost, finance officers from the CFO down the ladder must be trustworthy. Leaders honor the commitments they make to the team. Effective “piloting leaders” praise in public and reprimand in private. Recognizing that the team is watching, leaders model trustworthy management behaviors.

Michael Burwell understands that a huge part of his role as CFO is to build strong relationships with the members of his team. While it’s not Burwell’s job to be a daddy for the people in his office, his teammates desire and thrive on his feedback, advice, and wisdom. Of course, as Burwell notes, this leads to innovation. “Many times, people in our organization have great ideas, so I look to try and make sure they get the proper light and evaluation or see the light of day so they do not stay buried. The next Uber and Airbnb idea and talent exists within our organization, how can I make sure we bring it to life. These digital ninjas are the secret weapons.”[3]

Said another way, the people in every organization want to be understood as unique individuals within the work family that offer gifts and insights, not just “resources” assigned to certain tasks. Effective CFOs leverage this desire for relationship to the organization’s advantage. If the finance department is up to the task, management should facilitate social outings, office parties, and celebrations (birthdays, births, promotions). This shows the team that managers are invested in people as well as the success of the business. Remember, the team – especially Millennials and younger – may be far more interested in the lives of their superiors than vice versa. Truly great CFOs like Michael Burwell are willing to be a bit vulnerable with the team, offering vignettes about family, hobbies, and a vision for life and business. To this end, Burwell notes, “Be a good listener, and build your network. Everyone has something interesting about them, the question is, do you have time to invest to really know what it is? So, I really try to be in the moment when communicating with others and engaging to understand them.”[4] Indeed, when the CFO builds trust, she equips the team to provide service excellence to clients and other constituents.

The pilot understands that Esprit de Corps nourishes service excellence.  A team member who is invested in the organization and trusts the decision makers in the organization will perform at a high level when engaging a customer on a phone call, conversing with a client at a service window, or hunkering down for the ebb and flow of a turbulent economic cycle. When the piloting CFO hires the right people, with the right abilities, and puts them in the right positions, at the right time, she’s laid the ground work for service excellence. Now the CFO or finance manager must go the extra mile. Great finance officers let their team members know that their work is valuable. They provide employees with some projects that align with their values.

Service excellence is also captured and nourished through good training, too. Continuing Education must be a core component of any effective finance office model. This means that great CFOs spend some money on outside professionals. Great CFOs use case studies from within the larger organization to bolster the terms and techniques discussed in training. Great CFOs bring in food, giveaways, etc. to energize the team as you train them in the ways of service excellence. “Be positive,” Burwell asserts, “Be positive, be relentless, everyone will tell you why it will not work. I would always celebrate wins with the team and assess why we won and why we lost….we can always get better. As an example, simply ask what one thing could we have done better?”[5] And – again – CFOs need to model the behavior the desire from the team. If the leader is unwilling to step out of the finance office and get his hands dirty, how can he expect the team to go the extra mile when they take the phone from the irate customer or deal with the hothead down in the sales office?


Great CFOs have a little “mad scientist” within them, that is, a lean toward experimentation and innovation. In   Man-Cheung’s conversations with CFOs, he discovered that the analog world of traditional finance offices and approaches are becoming a remnant of a bygone era. “On the contrary,” Man-Cheung notes, “the Scientists within our research group strongly expressed the importance of IT skills; the Coaches focusing on providing related training across the board.”[6] Michael Burwell, himself endowed with a healthy dose of scientist, believes that technology helps productivity, that is, the bottom line. “My mindset is one how do we do more with less; so, I believe technology makes great people even more productive. So, I constantly share with others one app that helps me more productive and then ask others what app helps you? It is just a small way of increasing my individual productivity.”[7]

For the CFO or other organizational leader who is comfortable wearing the badge of “scientist” from time to time, there must be a willingness to engage the entire team in the scientific process. Consider the methodology used by notable companies like Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg articulates Facebook’s Mission in this way: We exist to give people the power to build community to bring the world closer together. So, the task for every department at Facebook looks something like this: How do we get everybody in our organization engaged in this mission? Their solution? The Hackathon!  Every few months, Facebook’s cadre of engineers, designers – even the cleaning crew –host an innovation all-nighter.  Yes, it sounds a bit like a high school sleepover, but there’s certainly a purpose beyond the junk food, socializing, and bloodshot eyes.  Hackathons are all about giving everyone in the organization a chance to have some “skin in the game.” Gathered on couches with laptops, soft drinks, and takeout Chinese in hand, professional and amateur hackers alike are encouraged to dream the next big thing for the social media platform, transforming the dream into code.  Facebook’s Hackathons only have two rules: 1. Dream outside of your day job, and 2. Hack. Like that “Like Button” on your Facebook page? You can thank a Hackathon for the innovation.

It’s an elegant idea that luminaries like Michael Burwell have translated for use in their own organizations.  Encourage the members of your corporate team or organization to function like in-house entrepreneurs.  Yes, entrepreneurs, as in, business risk-takers. Innovators. Start-ups.  Now for businesses with research and development divisions, the idea of in-house entrepreneurship may seem redundant or even a waste of time. Why would you ever want the kid who who’s crafting spreadsheets for your finance office getting near your design team’s domain?   Well, here’s the thing…the kid inputting all those numbers in the monthly financial reports may be the next Bill Gates, that is, a garage tinkerer. Have you ever thought about the number of digital gurus who made it big without computer science degrees from Harvard, MIT, or Oxford?  Consider this tidbit: Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, like Bill Gates, were college dropouts.

For the professionals on Burwell’s team, the opportunity to drive “outside their lanes” may be alluring and liberating too.  What can an accountant offer a conversation about marketing or product development? CFOs will never know the answer to this query unless they invite the accountant to join the conversation from time to time.  Conversely, how could a marketing professional benefit a discussion on cost centers and accounting practices? Maybe it’s time to find out…

Man-Cheung believes that the science domain of finance is an option when the CFO has optimized the traditional responsibilities of the finance office. ““Information overload,” perhaps one of the severest problems faced by society at large, was first introduced as a concept by the philosopher Denis Diderot in 1755. Nearly three centuries later, our CFO respondents, such as Philippe de Briey (EU CFO, Monsanto), posit that time-consuming, transactional aspects of finance and business in general be automated, freeing up resources for strategizing.”[8] For Michael Burwell, the emerging optimization of finance provides space to imagine the
next big things on the innovation horizon. “Micro-communities,” Burwell notes, “will continue to grow and the technology to support them will be key.” “I believe the platform will continue to evolve because like-minded people want to connect and advertisers want to reach them. Watch this space!”[9]


Michael Burwell and other great CFOs know that effective leaders help organizations work through the problems associated with fluctuating economic cycles and consumer demands through strong leadership. What does it take to be strong leader? Are leaders born, their DNA endowing them with charisma and vision from day one? Do leaders emerge from experience, the trials of life shaping their skills as they are thrust into greater and greater responsibility? Perhaps many factors converge in the formation of leadership and leaders, meaning all have the potential to “move the needle.” Inspiration is a key component of leadership. The ability to marshal a community to adopt a plan of action often requires the leader to inspire those within the sound of her voice.  This is where the servanthood comes into play. People listen to great leaders – and are inspired by them – if they’ve seen the leader in the trenches and know that leader will be there again if a crisis arises. Engineers are in the trenches.

Effective finance professionals recognize that inspiration is the catalyst of everything from making a sale to convincing the fainthearted that they can finish the race. Are the most effective leaders always the most well-spoken in a room? Of course not. They are often the ones who “take the hits,” that is, endure some hardship for the good of the team. Said another way, an effective leader – a great CFO – is more concerned about the well-being of the team than the leader’s well-being. This is especially important for the effective finance professional. I’ve said it before, if the team does not feel heard or valued by the manager running the finance office, how will they feel inspired to move the organization forward?  Those seeking excellence are “engineers” of their lives and their organizations. Great CFOs draw-up plans for the team, collaborate with other “builders” (such as strategic partners) and supervise the work.

Final Thoughts

Michael Burwell’s daughter once offered him some of the best leadership advice he’s ever heard. “There is only one place to look for leadership and that is in the mirror.”[10] Similarly, in his reflections on the highly specialized field of organizational finance, Adam Man-Cheung believes that the great CFOs like Michael Burwell, have a toolbox of personal assets that enable greatness. “Multinational behemoths benefit from high caliber CFOs just as much as garage startups. Said high caliber CFOs must now amalgamate competence and experience in technical finance, management and leadership, systems and controls, risk management, technology, and strategy, to name a few.”[11] Burwell fits the description.



[1] Extracted from:, 2018

[2] Ibid.

[3] Extracted from:, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Extracted from:, 2018

[7] Extracted from:, 2017.

[8] Extracted from:, 2018

[9] Extracted from:, 2017.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Extracted from:, 2018

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