Corner Office: An Interview with Macy’s CFO Karen Hoguet

DBJ sat down with Karen Hoguet, the chief financial officer of Macy’s since 1997. She joined the company in 1982 as a senior planning consultant. Since then, Hoguet has served in a range of positions including treasurer and senior vice president for planning. Hoguet also sits as a board member of Nielsen Holdings NV and The Chubb Corporation. She is a graduate of Brown University and received a master’s degree in Business Administration from Harvard University in 1980.

Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): What lessons did you learn from your education that impacted your leadership skills?

Karen Hoguet (KH): In business school, the most valuable lesson I learned was how to work with people of all different backgrounds and perspectives. It was my first exposure to group collaboration. In college and high school, there were far fewer group projects than there are today. I learned that in a team, you can get a lot more accomplished than working by yourself.

DBJ: What did you learn during your summers in college?

KH: After my freshman year of college, I worked for my grandfather at Leshner Corporation by processing invoices in the accounting department. I learned a lot from my grandfather. By working for my grandfather, I observed his sincere care for the people who worked for him. His relationships were not artificial or aristocratic. He treated people fairly and with concern, and his employees in return were very loyal.

My grandfather and father were my business role models. They taught me that business is all about people and if you don’t genuinely like being with all kinds of people and don’t genuinely care about others, business might not be the right career. This has impacted my leadership style to this day.

After my sophomore, junior, and senior year, I worked for my representative in Congress, Bill Gradison. My main job was to compute all of the electoral statistics for the campaign, and I loved the statistical work, but was less interested by the policy side.

DBJ: Did you receive any feedback about your management style over the years that led you to make an adjustment?

KH: In 1987, I was identified as a “high potential” candidate at Federated Department Stores (the former name for Macy’s Inc.). A “high potential” candidate was somebody that senior management believed would rise to senior levels in the company. I was assessed for my intellect, leadership skills and ability to work with people through a combination of interviews and tests. Throughout this process I got a lot of advice that I use to this day. I remember being criticized for not being patient with people who might not have been as quick as me, and that I needed to learn how to tolerate this through patience. Over the years, I have grown to appreciate people who are not book-smart, but talented in any other ways, and who can do things I could never do. I have not completely fixed the problem, and I should still be a little more patient, but it has been one of the most important lessons I have learned, and one that I think about every day.

A lot of my learning has been through observing people that I respect. There is not one successful leadership style; everybody is different. You need to have a style that works for you.

DBJ: What are the most important qualities of a highly effective leader?

KH: Integrity, confidence, sensitivity, and communication. A good leader cannot do a good job without being highly capable. However, capability by itself is not sufficient. You have to be able to communicate effectively to peers, superiors, and inferiors. Modification and simplicity is important. There is a common saying that “the boss gets what the boss wants”, but you have to be very clear about what you want.

DBJ: When you speak to college students, what career advice to you give them?

KH: One important thing is to always work hard. Younger generations always think of careers as being fun, but if it was all fun companies wouldn’t pay you. It is also important to know yourself. Just because investment banking is prestigious, it doesn’t mean it is the right career for you. When I left consulting, I took a significant pay cut but I haven’t looked back since. Patience is also a very important virtue. Everybody thinks they are ready to get promoted before it happens, and sometimes you might have to wait a few years. It is important to bloom where you are planted. Too many people are constantly looking for the next job or promotion, but if you focus on excelling at your current job, you will most likely end up being recognized for your effort.

Lastly, look for careers where you will be able to have fun. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, that is a problem.

DBJ: How has your leadership changed throughout your career?

KH: Becoming a mother has made me a better worker and a better leader. You realize that you cannot control everything and you need to deal efficiently with time management – being a parent is a very humbling task. As a result, I have become more tolerant and patient, and I recognize that there are some things you can’t control. As a mother, you want your kids to achieve the most they can achieve and to be happy. This is analogous to leading a team, where you want to help your team achieve its full potential.

DBJ: How do you hire? What questions do you ask?

KH: I try to spend time getting to know the person I am interviewing, and do not have a list of set questions. I like to hire people with passion and commitment. It is important to find out what interests them, and how they have made decisions over the years.