The Heart and Soul Behind Dollars and Cents

Leadership Profile
Written by Elisabeth Inns

Mike Kaelin


RTI International

JULY 2021

When we think about CFOs and their typical responsibilities, we picture balance sheets, forecasts, budgets, return on investment and all the usual terms associated with finance.

But for Mike Kaelin, CFO of RTI International, the role of the CFO encompasses much more than ensuring that organizations are profitable. Chief financial officers touch every aspect of the business, giving them the widest lens and perhaps the most significant sphere of influence in the C-suite. 

How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

I like to lead with a bold vision. I think about where we want to go versus where we are. I get my team excited about the possibilities within that future and then align and incentivize them regarding that direction. Building a strong team is critically important, so I surround myself with smart, talented people, who can fill in the gaps where I'm not as strong.  

Currently, one of my big projects is working on culture within my team, something you wouldn't expect from a CFO. We’re trying to reframe how we want to work and operate, not just among ourselves, but across the institution for the people we support. 


I set the framework and vision and let my team do what they do best.”


Lastly, it's important to be authentic and transparent. I work hard to create an open and trusting relationship with my team that moves in both directions, where I can be their coach and advisor and where I can learn from them.

How has the pandemic shifted your leadership philosophies or strategies?

It has forced me to reach out and communicate broadly to the team. I used to have three all-hands sessions and one big conference a year with my team. Now, I have sessions every other month and make myself more available to the broader staff. 

We live in a dynamic time where racial justice, equity, diversity and inclusion are top of mind for everyone. I'm asked many questions that are not financial or business-related but are more connected to social issues. You have to educate yourself on these topics because your staff wants to hear your perspective as a leader.

What are the critical traits that a CFO needs to have to be successful in today’s landscape?

  1. Possess high ethical values - It is important that the CFO is seen as the objective voice within the organization; someone who can give unvarnished truths when necessary.
  2. Be an optimistic leader – You have to hire, develop and lead your team in a dynamic environment. Create an exciting vision of the future, and find ways to get your staff excited about it. Build a positive and healthy culture.
  3. Be a digital pioneer – It's not good enough to just have some understanding of how technology is going to influence what you do. You need to be at the forefront, and continue to educate yourself and understand how technology can impact work processes and business models.

What has been your path to becoming a CFO?

I spent seven years with a Big 6 firm, which foundationally provided a tremendous benefit. I then had the opportunity to work at a number of different companies in various industries and through different business cycles, which provided a variety of tremendous experiences.

Along the way, I realized with each new role I was taking on more, and the scope of my role was getting bigger. Eventually, this led me to my current CFO role. 

I wouldn't change any of my past experiences, some good and some bad, because they have given me the tools to do this job extremely well. I feel prepared and comfortable because I've worked through so many different situations.   

Where do you see the future of the CFO role heading?

The CFO has the best and broadest view in the C-suite, outside of the CEO. As a result, we need to be deeply engaged in our businesses in order to lead critical initiatives like the digital transformation shift that's occurring in all industries. If we are not active in digital transformation, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to ensure that our organizations are taking steps to be successful.

In addition, CFOs have to think through the complexities that we are going to be faced with. Recruiting and retaining talent in a highly competitive and broader talent market is going to be critical in this environment. We have to create and build a culture where people are excited about the work they are doing and how it contributes to overall organizational results.

Finally, it’s about being the heart and soul of the business. We have to understand that our responsibilities are not purely financial. There’s more to it. Chief financial officers must possess the ability to understand and support their organizations because of their greater purpose. We can't put a fine lens on everything, or we'll miss how our companies truly connect to the broader world.


Special thanks to Mike Kaelin and RTI International.

by CFOs, for CFOs

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