Leigh Anne Whyte is Proskauer’s chief financial officer.
Read below for excerpts transcribed from our in-person interview with Leigh Anne Whyte.
What are some of the biggest factors that you believe have enabled your career to flourish?
Leigh Anne Whyte: I didn’t come from a wealthy background, so at a young age I felt I had to overcompensate and put 150% into everything - and when I say that, I mean everything: academically, financially, socially, and early on, professionally. I was one of only two students from my high school that went to on university. I worked three jobs while studying to pay for my education, and I was the only associate from my KPMG class year that didn’t have a private school education. Diligence, commitment and perseverance were ingrained from quite a young age.
I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve lived and worked in a lot of different cities around the world, which means I had to learn new cultures and languages. That kind of constant change makes you very flexible and adaptable. I think that mindset definitely helps in a professional sense, always wanting to do better and to be better.
What do you love most about your career?
Leigh Anne Whyte: This is going to sound horribly nerdy, but I love being able to tell a story through numbers. I love making numbers accessible and understandable, and it also helps in being creative. Even though I am a chartered accountant, I am all about the creativity and telling the story.
Also my team – they are my American family here and I would do anything for them. They’re the most hard-working, diligent, and committed individuals that I have ever worked with, and I absolutely love them. The biggest reward for any leader is being told that you have made a difference in someone’s career or their life. That’s priceless.
What is the most powerful advice that you have ever been given?
Leigh Anne Whyte: I can certainly tell you the most unhelpful advice that I have ever been given, ‘You can only do your best’, which my mother would tell me all the time when I was growing up. For someone like me, with extreme perfectionist tendencies, there’s no such thing as ‘your best’ because it feels like there’s always more you could have done.
On the other hand, one of the most powerful pieces of advice that I have been given and it actually still guides me frequently, is something that my grandfather said towards the end of his life. He said, ‘One day when you are my age, what are you going to look back on in your life and be proud of, and what are you going to regret? You need to live your life so that that first bucket is as full as possible, and the second bucket is as empty as you can make it’. A lot of times when I am trying to make decisions, I think about that, and I say to myself ‘What category is that going to be in?’ He always said the thing that he regretted the most was not taking more risks.
Another piece of advice I was given early in my career is that 'you are responsible for your life, your career and your destiny.' Even though I do think that finding a mentor or committed leader is really important and can make a huge difference, I believe that the quicker you can take control and ownership of your own career, the further you are going to get.
What unique perspective do you think you bring to the table as a CFO?
Leigh Anne Whyte: I think trying to walk that fine line between risk aversion and a responsibility to safeguard the firm’s finances, but also being a proponent of change, of measured risk-taking and of progression. At the end of the day, almost every important decision in any organization has some kind of financial implication or consequence. Being able to identify that, quantify it and then articulate it in a helpful and thoughtful way is really critical.
A lot of times finance people are seen as the ‘No People’. The people who say, ‘You can’t do that because it’s too risky’, or ‘You can’t do that because it’s too expensive’. Sometimes there may be an element of that, but it's trying to make sure that we’re investing in the right way, with the right kind of risk.
So maybe that goes back a little to the advice of your grandfather being open and taking some risks in life. How would you encourage young women thinking about getting into finance but are scared of the challenges that lie ahead?
Leigh Anne Whyte: Don’t be! Believe in yourself, and if you don’t, find someone who does until you can get there. There is absolutely nothing that a man can do that a woman can't. If you can find a strong, successful woman to mentor you, either formally or informally, that can be a really powerful tool. Don’t be scared of showing strength. I'd like to think that the days of strong women being seen as pushy or aggressive are almost behind us.
In what ways do you pay it forward and how do you mentor the next generation?
Leigh Anne Whyte: Remembering what it was like at that point in my career, encouraging and recognizing initiative and hard work, and allowing space and security to be able to make mistakes. I think a big opportunity for leaders, and not many people feel comfortable doing this, is being vulnerable. Sharing your own experiences – particularly difficult ones and the lessons that you learned. I really do personally invest in my team, especially with those who demonstrate potential and commitment. I do everything in my power to help them advance. We need to recognize that everybody brings something different to the table. We need to celebrate each person and what they bring with them.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?
Leigh Anne Whyte: I can't say that I would tell myself to do anything differently, but I'd certainly tell myself to chill out! I probably wouldn't have listened to myself though because I'm so Type A, but I would tell myself to bloody-well relax – it will be okay!
Do you have a life mantra?
Leigh Anne Whyte: Focus on what you can change, and to let the other stuff go. It's easier said than done, but I do try to listen to the voice in the back of my head that says, ‘let it go, let it go, let it go!’
What are you hopeful for?
Leigh Anne Whyte: I love the fact that everybody's been forced to take a step back, get out of the office, spend more time with their families, their dogs … spend more time cooking…all that kind of stuff that was maybe less of a focus before the pandemic. I hope that people can take that forward with the lessons learned about really what's important to them. For me, the focus on well-being and mental health is so welcome. So many people have struggles that other people don't necessarily see or understand. Acknowledging and openly talking about things like stress, depression and anxiety - particularly since the onset of COVID - can only lead to broader understanding and acceptance.