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As the CFO at Exxon Mobil, Kathryn Mikells, ’94, believes in the power of bringing her most authentic self to the boardroom. For Mikells, that means being open and outspoken about her years of functional expertise, the diversity of her experience across industries, and her ability to encourage those around her to do their best work.

Before moving to Exxon Mobil in 2021, the longtime C-suite executive served in CFO roles at Diageo, Xerox, ADT Security Services, Nalco Water, and United Airlines. Mikells spent 16 years at United—joining as a financial analyst while completing her MBA and getting promoted through a wide range of posts.

How did your time at Booth influence your career trajectory?

I decided to go back to school because I was interested in switching out of financial services, where I had spent about five years after undergrad. I wanted to move away from selling to corporations and get more into the decision-maker mode. I used my Booth MBA as a catalyst to support that career change. When I went back to work, I was able to relate the academic theory to how it would be used in practice.

Was there a course that stood out?

The most impactful single class I took at Booth was a course on strategic leverage. It was a capstone strategy class that pulled together corporate finance theory with how to think strategically across industries. It gave me a foundation for thinking about the structure of an industry, barriers to entry, differentiated competitive advantages, and macro-industry trends— and how to use that information to shape a successful strategy. 

How do you stay connected to the Booth community?

I still benefit from the broader Booth network. I am engaged with Booth’s annual CFO Forum. It’s a great convergence of some of Booth’s recent academic work with people’s practical, on-the-job experience. It connects a broad network of CFOs across industries. The forum provides insights into recent research as well as the challenges and opportunities CFOs are seeing.

“We need to continue to figure out how to get comfortable with those jobs or projects that stretch us the most.”

— Kathryn Mikells

What’s a leadership lesson that’s guided your way?

One of the leadership lessons that I learned at Booth is that, many times, we have to lead from behind. You need to keep the team moving in the same direction and reaching for more. In other words, we have to keep encouraging people to strive forward, to understand the strategy, the role they play in execution, and what it means for them. 

How has your approach to successful leadership changed since the pandemic?

At times, the pandemic made it more difficult for us to connect with our teams. We had to shift to working in a virtual world with less face-to-face interaction. The pandemic created more personal stress on the workforce. As leaders, it’s critical for us to stay connected to people, to understand and address the new challenges they face, including new stresses from isolation and working from home. This has meant increased communication via video, ensuring we maintain those informal communications and touchpoints that are vital to keep a hand on the pulse of the group. It’s stressing mental as well as physical health and wellness, and ensuring people have access to the support they may need. It’s put a greater focus on ensuring we are supporting both personal and professional needs.  

What advice do you share with other women?

I talk to a lot of women’s groups, including at Exxon Mobil. One of my consistent pieces of advice is that you need to take some risks and stretch yourself. That means taking an assignment that’s a little bit uncomfortable or looking to make a job change outside of your prime area of expertise. We need to continue to figure out how to get comfortable with those jobs or projects that stretch us the most, because they enable the most personal development.

How do you embrace authenticity in your leadership style?

We all bring different strengths to the table, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I’m happy to embrace the people who are quietly competent as well as those who lift the energy of any room they enter. It’s the different life experiences, ways of processing information, views of the world, styles, and approaches that make each of us have unique perspectives. That’s what builds stronger teams.