Thrive Global: One On One With Dean Hallett, Former CFO of Twentieth Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios
I spoke to Dean Hallett, former Chief Financial Officer of Twentieth Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios, about his journey and his best advice
Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first though. I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Dean: I am a passionate skier. I have skied every year since the age of five, and I added annual heli-skiing trips 10 years ago. Skiing in unmarked terrain is so exhilarating and gives me an amazing sense of freedom!
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Dean: I started as an auditor for Ernst in 1981, but I realized I wanted to be more forward-looking. I joined Anthony Industries in 1988 as a controller and wore many different hats. With its small management team, I learned how to synthesize the moving parts of a company and plan ahead.
When I later jumped to Disney, I was confident in my ability to be versatile and add value in many ways. I worked my way up and was named Studio CFO in 2000. There I began to really focus on how critical culture can be to a company’s success. Disney’s culture then was tightly controlled from the top, resulting in protective and siloed businesses that formed huge barriers to collaboration.
Fox soon came knocking with its entrepreneurial roll-up-your-sleeves style, and I was all ears. I focused on areas where I could drive scale and efficiency across the businesses, like establishing a brand group and designing and building a digital supply chain. For these efforts to succeed, I knew we had to drive cultural change. This was a pivotal moment for me as I expanded well beyond the typical CFO role into operations and drove a more open and collaborative culture, one where I knew both the organization and I could thrive.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Dean: I believe the most important qualities of an effective leader are authenticity and self-awareness.
It takes an authentic leader to make a real impact in today’s world. With today’s increasing rate of change and disruption, organizations need to be extremely agile, which can be greatly facilitated by having an open and collaborative culture. Authentic leaders build trust and loyalty in their teams, which are essential to establishing and maintaining such a culture.
Self-awareness is critical because leaders need to know their own strengths and weaknesses in order to build the best overall teams. If I surround myself with talents complementary to my own and rely on others’ expertise, I am likely to see opportunities and solutions to challenges that I might otherwise miss.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Dean: First, hire people better than yourself. Don’t be intimidated, or worry about who will get the credit. The better the people you hire, the better the organization performs, and then everyone wins!
Second, invest in and develop your people. Far too often, organizations assume members of their team will pick up leadership and management skills through osmosis. Train them and give them enough autonomy to develop their own instincts. This will dramatically increase your organization’s agility and free you up to focus on how to maintain and increase your competitive advantage.
Third, know that you’re empowered to shape and reinforce the culture of the organization. You can do so by always communicating the culture and rewarding those who exemplify it. Too many leaders believe they can communicate the vision of a company once and that everyone will then remember and live by it. The reality is that we need to communicate purpose and vision over and over again so others will champion the message and repeat it throughout the organization.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Dean: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” I’ve leaned on it throughout my career, though I only learned recently that it’s actually a quote from Teddy Roosevelt.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Dean: Be a mentor in some way. My most rewarding experience has been launching and directing high-potential leadership programs where I have watched hundreds of people get in touch with their own personal power and leadership abilities. The truth is, I probably grow through those programs just as much as the participants because I have to challenge myself to be constantly present on all levels and be my authentic self in order to demand the same of them.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Dean: As I mentioned earlier, I am an avid skier. I also love golf. I find golf to be the most challenging sport in so many ways, and it keeps me humble. Also, about eight years ago, I started competing in triathlons, not because I thrive on the idea of running into the ocean at 7:00am on a weekend, but because preparing for the races motivates me to take care of my body and have it support me in my life. I know Father Time will win in the end, but I am going to put up one hell of a fight!