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The chairman of Tesla’s board on what makes a successful C-suite exec


When Robyn Denholm was young, growing up in the southwestern suburbs of Sydney, Australia, she became a “car enthusiast” by working at her family’s service station, helping to pump gas, repair cars, and complete book work. A natural at numbers, she took it a step further and became captivated by the power of understanding financials and their potential effect on business strategy, an early adopted focus that would guide her entire professional career to come.

After spending five years in accounting at Arthur Andersen LLP, she spent seven years at Toyota Motor Corporation Australia, eventually rising to national manager of finance. Denholm went on to rise through the financial ranks to eventually head corporate strategic planning for Sun Microsystems, and then, for the following nine years, she acted as chief financial and operations officer at Juniper Networks. Robyn and her financial leadership are credited for Juniper’s great increase in revenue between 2014 and 2016. In early 2017, lured back to her native Australia by a company with five times the revenue and three times the number of employees, Robyn assumed the CFO and head of strategy roles at Telstra, Australia’s leading telecom and tech company.

Robyn has an easy laugh and a casual manner, and she mentions, delighted by the memory, that in 2014, when she was asked to be on Tesla Motors’ board of directors, their first appointed woman since becoming public, she, being the car enthusiast, already had a Model S on order. With her deep experience in finance, she heads the board’s audit committee. In November 2018, in her most high profile, most highly publicized appointment yet, Robyn was named chairman of the board of Tesla Motors, Inc., succeeding billionaire founder Elon Musk, who remains CEO.

Megan McNealy

Megan McNealy.
Courtesy of Megan McNealy

While it would be easy to assume that such a flawless advance — such success in the execution of her dual finance/strategy focus — is a self-propelled achievement, Robyn is quick to correct that notion. Another significant focus of her life has been the importance of mentorship. She explains that she looks up to “as much the people I work for as the people I work with.”

At Toyota Australia, in her mid-twenties to early thirties, she met a life-changing mentor, the chief financial officer, a fabulous visionary leader whom she describes as “completely ahead of his time.” Instead of having traditional direct reports, he trained her and a cohort of peers in all aspects of his role, and amazingly, they all went on to become successful, next-generation CFOs and senior executives. She says he went beyond encouragement to “supporting you in taking that step beyond where you were. He was really capable of that. He pushed you and believed you could do it.”

She can tick off dozens of valued leaders and friends along the way who have mentored her over the years, including Scott Kriens, the 12-year CEO and chairman of the board of Juniper Networks, whom she describes as “a fantastic leader. I learned a tremendous amount from him about working with investors, being a great CFO, about leadership, and about life.” She greatly values Kevin Johnson, one of Kriens’ CEO successors at Juniper, now the CEO of Starbucks. As a fellow woman executive, she treasures Cathy Benko, vice chairman and managing principal of Deloitte, who taught her about resilience. She’s grateful for Deborah Chase Hopkins, former CFO at Boeing, and former Citigroup’s chief information officer and former CEO of Citi Ventures, who connected to Robyn through a work relationship and has been a valued mentor to her in the Bay Area. All of these mentors continue to offer encouragement and truly have her back.

Reinvent The Wheel Cover

“Reinvent the Wheel: How Top Leaders Leverage Well-Being for Success.”
Courtesy of Nicholas Brealey Publishing

In return, Robyn’s focus on the importance of mentorship inspires her to mentor others, to take them under her experienced wing. She has her own cadre of mentees, to whom she imparts what it means to be a C-suite executive in what she describes as “a whole new playing field.”

Foundationally, she believes that as a leader, her own authenticity is key. She mentions that she models “having one integrated life. What I do at work and what I do at home is one life as opposed to two separate lives. It’s authentic because you are one person and you cannot be two people. I have seen it cause burnout. The places where I’ve thrived from a work perspective are those where I could be my authentic self.”

She tweaked this focus on authenticity at Sun Microsystems, and then at Juniper Networks, where one of the company core values is “champion authenticity,” and where, with the many different streams reporting to her, she soared. At Telstra, she also fit right in, and she acknowledges that “part of the Australian psyche is to be authentic at work.”

In a giant break from traditional CFO expectations, and from her own well-known diligent work pattern, she trained her entire staff at Juniper Networks so that she could take a full month off for an extremely special occasion: her honeymoon with her longtime partner, and now husband, David. This was the longest period of time she’s ever taken off while working, so she met with the teams beforehand and handed over much of the day-to-day responsibility. Looking back, she says, “They really rose to the occasion over the whole period.” Not only did her mentees get a chance to shine, to handle issues in real time using their own acumen, but also they more than met her expectations, and she says, “The place was fantastic when I got back.”

As a leader and mentor, one of the most valuable attributes she models is intense curiosity, and she says that “the ability to acknowledge that you don’t know something is important and different than 20 years ago. Talking to the team, learning from the team, being able to be real about how I may not know something (although I do know enough to be dangerous), and to have them able to teach me has opened the team to having that sort of relationship as opposed to some sort of control environment.” She adds, “You have to learn to be effective and be effective to learn. I have done that well.”

She also models that a C-suite executive needs to be front and center, not only number-focused as in days of old, but also a keeper and driver of company culture, a proponent on diversity of thought (a topic she often speaks about publicly), and, of course, highly aware of company strategy, of driving the business toward desired outcomes.

Because of her focus talent, Robyn remains one of the most powerful women — and one of the most influential people — in the corporate world. Her brilliance at finance and business strategy, her appreciation for being mentored, her commitment to mentoring, and even her penchant for cars has brought her to this pinnacle, which offers a completely new, unique view. With her easy manner and quick laugh, Robyn, from where she stands, invites us to trail blaze alongside her.

Excerpted with permission from “Reinvent the Wheel: How Top Leaders Leverage Well-Being for Success” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, October 22, 2019) by Megan McNealy. McNealy is the founder of Well-Being Drives Success, a multi-faceted platform designed to support those in our workforce who strive for exceptional wellness and extraordinary success. 


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