Advice & insights: masterclasses from industry leaders

Two Decades of Financial Leadership Worldwide: Interview with Taleen Khzouz

Taleen Khzouz

Taleen Khzouz


Key Takeaways

  • The higher up you go, it’s less numbers and analysis and more people management. You have to walk the talk as a manager. You can’t just say people are important but you have to show it. People that feel heard and valued will always go above and beyond.
  • One of the most important things for women in leadership is to build strong networks and support systems. Connecting with other women leaders and mentors can provide valuable advice, encouragement, and opportunities for future roles.
  • Successful professionals demonstrate a combination of a few critical skills and qualities – strategic mindset, innovation, business partnering, communication skills, and the ability to build and lead high-performing teams.
  • I think two of the biggest key skills we need to be on the lookout for are AI utilization and proficiency in data modeling. There are so many tools out there and each company has a different way of doing things.  Learn a skill, SQL – modeling – AI, whatever it may be, and learn it well.

Tell us about your career journey. When did you know you wanted a career in finance?

To be honest, I didn’t know I wanted a career in finance.  I always grew up thinking I would be a lawyer We moved a lot when I was a child so when we moved again between my sophomore and Junior year, my new High School initiated a new Internship program that allowed you real-life work at a select number of companies for a semester.  So I decided to give it a try in my senior year.  Lucky for me, a law firm was on the list which was my number 1 choice, but my counselor suggested I also try my hand in a corporate setting for my 2nd choice, so I decided on Ford Motor Company.  I worked at both locations and excelled at both, but I did such an amazing job working in the tax department at Ford, that they called me back before I graduated high school and offered me a full-time job.  

I started in the tax department 3 days after high school graduation and worked full time while going to University full time at night.  Originally, I was on the accounting path, but changed to finance in my sophomore year at University after I found that finance suited my personality and likes more and it had more opportunities for corporate growth and exposure. After that I did several roles at Ford, working in accounting, finance, and controller’s office before moving to my dream job of working at Chicago Stamping Plant as a senior analyst.  

The move to Chicago was a personal goal of mine, so when I had to move back to Detroit after my role ended, I quit and found a job with Pepsico as a logistics analyst. In fact, working at Pepsico was on my vision board!  I interviewed and actively sought out that company.  But if I say I hated it, it would be an understatement.  I absolutely despised working for the manager at that time and I didn’t like the work I was doing or the culture.  It just wasn’t the right fit for me, so when the opportunity to work abroad came out of the blue, I jumped at it.  

I was already in Jordan on a summer vacation and a friend suggested I meet with the owner of the Ford dealership.  He had several brands under the umbrella of his holding company and needed someone to work with US companies, including Ford Motor, for tenders and business proposals.  It was the right fit for me, so I stayed in Jordan and didn’t come back.  I decided I would try my hand working in a completely new country and environment.  I absolutely LOVED my job. Although it was such a hard adjustment to make and it was out of Corporate America, and America altogether, I learned a lot about myself and my resilience. I got to travel quite a bit around that region, and I also got to network and meet with some influential business heads inside and outside the country.  

After spending 6 years in Jordan doing various roles for a couple of different large companies, I decided it was time to head back to the US. But before I headed home, I decided to take a trip to Dubai to see some friends.  In a completely unplanned and super lucky moment of being in the right place at the right time, I was offered a job on the spot to move to Dubai and work for a large PR company doing business development for their automotive side.  I took the job and although I did well, it wasn’t the right fit for me again, so I started to reach out to recruiters and my LinkedIn network to find another job.  

I got connected with an HR manager from Michigan at the newly established Ford Motor Company regional headquarters and he set up some meetings for me with the CFO and hiring manager.  I got offered a job and jumped ship. I worked for Ford for 4 years as a Finance Supervisor on the Aftersales and Warranty Business and I also got the opportunity to work in Profit Analysis which gave me a lot of exposure to the other teams.  I actively participated in the mentorship program, so again, I had some good connections and relationships with higher-level management.  

In early 2018, I was headhunted for the first time.  A recruiter reached out and said that there is a great company that he believes I would be a good fit for.  I hadn’t heard of them before, it was a medium-sized European company and it was consistently voted the best place to work for their company culture

I decided I would at least give the interview a shot and learn more.  It was the craziest experience interviewing and meeting the different teams and by the end of SEVERAL rounds of interviews, I decided to accept the offer to go to Hilti as a Regional Business Partner for the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa.

Working for Hilti was one of the hardest transitions I had. I had to undo everything I was taught and relearn how to think like an entrepreneur.  They really prided themselves on letting the teams and individuals innovate, make mistakes and improve.  In addition to learning a new role in a new industry with new terminology and mindset, I was going through some turbulent times in my personal life.  They were the most supportive group of people I could’ve ever asked to work for.  I learned a LOT in this role and I had my most memorable achievements as I navigated a whole new set of challenges I was facing.”

What were the key milestones in your career journey that led to your current position as a senior finance manager?

“To be honest, a lot of it had to do with luck and timing.  Being in the right place at the right time and taking chances.  Most of the “upward” movement came from taking a risk, like moving overseas, working in a different industry like PR, or working in a start-up, like Lucid. “

Have you had mentors or role models who influenced your career? If so, what lessons did you learn from them?

“Absolutely!  I always sought out mentors in every organization I ever worked for.  My Mentors were especially helpful when it came to navigating difficult situations and how to deal with them.  I highly recommend participating in a mentorship program at your organization and if not, ASK someone outside your functional leadership, that has seniority – so they have “been there done that” and you respect. 

I recall a specific mentor, a Senior Director in Environmental Engineering, who possessed extensive industry and corporate experience. He assisted me during a challenging period when I was working under a manager who lacked effective interpersonal skills, exhibited poor leadership, and often behaved rudely. 

On one memorable afternoon, feeling particularly emotional after an interaction, this mentor took me aside and asked: “What can you learn from this experience?” Initially, I began rattling off the negative traits of that manager’s behavior. However, my mentor encouraged me to pause, reflect on my emotions, and then imparted a valuable lesson: to recognize how this made me feel as an employee and what legacy I want to have when I am a Manager.  

This guidance deeply resonated with me. That advice stuck with me hard until this day.  I want teams to know me and remember me as a good manager who knows her business and supports her team, so I actively make an effort to make that happen.”

Your experience spans both the United States and international locations. How did working in different regions contribute to your professional growth, and what cultural adaptations did you find necessary?

“This is an interesting question! It’s funny because when I was interviewing for a role in
Dubai with a European company, I was actually told not to “bring my US attitude” to the
company. That particular company was big on people culture and apparently, the
perception is that the American employees are direct, workaholics who do not value
personal or family time. And on the flip side, I was in a conversation with a colleague
who said that Middle East employees would never be able to make it in the US because
they are slow and lazy. SO, I guess what I learned was how to adapt my personality to
different cultures and connect with people.

For instance in Jordan, it is considered a “coffee cup culture”. This means that most deals are done over a cup of coffee and if you haven’t been invited over for a cup of coffee, you’re not closing the deal.

I struggled at the beginning to understand just how valuable connections were. It was the way business got done and I think that is the same thing most Westerners struggle with when working in the Middle East specifically. Whereas in the US we might consider it a waste of time to meet with someone or find someone lazy that wants to meet several times over a cup of coffee, this act becomes necessary in the Middle East. I think the thing that helped me adjust the fastest was having an understanding of the culture before moving there. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t met with culture shock! You can’t go into someone else’s playground and tell them they are doing it wrong.”

Insights About the Role – What’s Life as a Finance Manager?

What does a typical day at work look like for a finance manager? 

“Well depending on the role AND the day it can vary a lot, especially at a start-up. Traditionally, a more corporate FP&A role looks like meetings, time to work on month/quarter/year-end close, forecast, and ad hoc tasks. Currently, I’m working on 2 confidential Strategic Initiatives for management so I’m spending a lot of time in meetings and gathering/validating data sets. But there are quite a few days where we have to drop everything and work on an ad hoc request for management.”

What do you find the most rewarding about the work you do? And what are the most challenging aspects? 

The answer is the same – people. People are undoubtedly the most rewarding aspect of the work I do. I’m happy to lead teams, help people solve problems and help people get the recognition they deserve. When I reflect on some of my achievements, the ones that bring a smile to my face are the ones where I was able to help someone. Building strong relationships and seeing the impact of our efforts on the company’s success is incredibly fulfilling.

However, the people-centric nature of the role comes with its own challenges. It’s very challenging managing diverse personalities and conflicting priorities within teams. Ensuring effective communication, fostering teamwork, and resolving conflicts can be demanding at times. It’s especially difficult when you deal with people who don’t want to change or won’t recognize that there is a problem with their behavior. But, despite these challenges, I find that overcoming them strengthens my leadership skills and contributes to the overall growth and success of the team and the organization. It also gives me credibility within my own team. You have to walk the talk as a manager. You can’t just say people are important but you have to show it.”

Finance is often seen as a field focused on numbers and analysis. Can you share insights into the people and communication aspects of your role, particularly when leading high-performance teams?  

“You know the higher up you go, it’s less numbers and analysis and more people management. In each role, even if it is in the same company, I always make an effort to get to know each team member personally, understand their strengths and motivations, and create opportunities for open dialogue and feedback. I have weekly 1:1 with my team members to ask about their families or hobbies and then we move to priorities and deliverables. I’ve always introduced myself as a “What you see is what you get” person so I always strive to communicate clearly, transparently, and regularly, whether it’s providing updates on financial performance, sharing insights on strategic initiatives, or soliciting input on important decisions. When it comes to high-performing teams, it’s important to invest in the professional development of team members to maintain a high-performance culture. People that feel heard and valued will always go above and beyond.”

As a former Dubai Business Women Council member, what insights can you provide about navigating challenges and opportunities as a woman in leadership?

“It’s been a while since I was involved in the Council but I’m sure the challenges for all women haven’t changed much.

I have a few key pieces of advice:

  • One of the most important things for women in leadership is to build strong networks and support systems. Connecting with other women leaders and mentors can provide valuable advice, encouragement, and even opportunities for future roles.  Mentorship can play a critical role in helping navigate career paths and overcome obstacles both, personal and professional.  Seeking out mentors who can provide guidance, advocacy, and opportunities for growth can be instrumental in advancing leadership aspirations.
  • Women in leadership often face gender bias and stereotypes that can impact their career progression.  It’s important to be aware of these biases and proactively challenge them by demonstrating competence, confidence, and assertiveness.  Therefore, developing strong leadership and removing the emotion at work is essential for women to thrive in leadership roles. Women in leadership have the opportunity to serve as role models and inspire the next generation of female leaders. By leading with integrity, authenticity, and empathy, women can empower others to pursue their ambitions and overcome barriers to success.
  • Asking for Help!  Until I became a mom, I didn’t understand the importance of being able to ask for help or delegate.  Achieving work-life balance is challenging for women in leadership roles, especially those juggling family responsibilities. It’s important to prioritize self-care, set boundaries, and seek support from colleagues, family, and employers to maintain well-being and avoid burnout.

I’m a HUGE advocate of women helping other women.  I believe that although women in leadership often encounter unique challenges, they also possess unique strengths and perspectives that can drive innovation, collaboration, and success.”

Tips and Advice for Aspiring Professionals

In your experience, what are the critical skills and qualities that a successful finance manager should possess?

“In my experience as a finance manager, I’ve found that successful professionals demonstrate a combination of a few critical skills and qualities that contribute to their success. 

  • Strategic Mindset – A successful finance manager should possess a strategic mindset that enables them to align departmental goals with overall business objectives.  I’ve seen that the most successful managers always come ready with suggestions on how the financial goals of the department translate into the goals of the organization. I’ve always been impressed with a manager who can tell a compelling story about the business with just the numbers.
  • Innovation – the role of the Finance person or manager is rapidly changing.  Thanks to technology, a finance person is no longer responsible for just reporting on the numbers.  We need to UNDERSTAND the numbers and what it means for the company and to provide new and innovative solutions to try. There are so many tools out there and each company has a different way of doing things.  Learn a skill, SQL – modeling – AI, whatever it may be, and learn it well. I’ve started learning as well.  I’ve never been tech savvy and that is what my aspiration is for 2024 – become more proficient in managing data.
  • Business Partnering – I was just on a call the other day where someone was expressing their frustration in working with finance departments.  The idea that finance sits behind a screen and reports on numbers without getting to know people, the issues or the business is over.  Finance needs to be front and center with their stakeholders and effective business partnering requires collaboration with various departments. Finance managers should be adept at building cross-functional relationships and working collaboratively to achieve common goals. 
  • Communication skills are paramount. A successful finance manager should be able to articulate complex financial information in a clear and understandable manner for non-financial stakeholders.  Effective communication is a two-way street. Actively listening to colleagues, superiors, and team members fosters understanding and contributes to better decision-making.
  • Successful finance managers build and lead high-performing teams. This includes fostering a positive work culture, providing mentorship and development, and aligning team goals with organizational objectives. Leadership in financial management requires the ability to make tough decisions confidently, but also do it in a manner that is considerate of others.”

How do you stay updated on industry trends and changes in the finance landscape, and how important is continuous learning in your field?

I really only do 3 things:

  • On-the-job practice – you can learn a lot when you work with others.  I recently just learned some new presentation skills in PowerPoint from the colleague who sits next to me.
  • Utilizing LinkedIn – LinkedIn is a valuable platform for staying informed about industry trends, news, and insights. I follow leaders I like or I’m interested in their work.  I’ve joined relevant finance groups and communities, and sometimes participate in discussions to exchange ideas and perspectives with peers.  And I also leverage LinkedIn’s learning resources such as courses like SQL which is my objective for this year.
  • Individual development plans – I seek feedback from mentors and supervisors to pinpoint areas where I can further enhance my skills and expertise and then I work with my manager to come up with a plan on how to address these and what special projects I can tackle that will address the gap I need to develop.”

What advice would you offer to someone aspiring to start a career in finance?

  • Education – Invest in yourself by pursuing relevant degrees, certifications, or courses.  Explore different areas of finance, such as investment banking, corporate finance, financial planning, risk management, treasury or tax. Consider specializing in a specific area that aligns with your personal interests and career goals.
  • Try different things while you can.  Once you’ve gone down a path towards a degree or certification, it becomes more difficult (not impossible) to change gears.  So seek internships, part-time positions, or entry-level roles in finance to gain practical experience and exposure to different areas of the field. This hands-on experience will help you develop valuable skills and insights that can advance your career.
  • Network, network, network!  Build relationships with professionals in the finance industry through networking events, industry conferences, and online platforms like LinkedIn. Networking is the key to opening doors to opportunities.
  • Develop proficiency in financial analysis, data analysis, financial modeling, or other technical skills relevant to finance roles. Familiarize yourself with financial software and tools commonly used in the industry and if you can, become an expert in one.”

Reader Q & A with Taleen Khzouz

I think two of the biggest key skills we need to be on the lookout for are AI utilization and proficiency in data modeling. The finance landscape is becoming increasingly digitized, and AI is playing a pivotal role in automating routine tasks, data analysis, and decision-making processes.  The role of AI, modeling and automation used to lie in roles for IT or Data Science, but now we are seeing that finance professionals who can leverage AI tools effectively will be in high demand. Continued upskilling in data science, machine learning, and AI applications will be crucial for staying relevant in the evolving financial world. The ability to identify trends, predict future outcomes, and provide actionable recommendations based on data analysis will be a key differentiator, in my opinion. 

Additionally, the role of finance professionals is evolving beyond traditional number-crunching to becoming strategic business partners. Professionals who can understand and interpret financial data in the context of broader business objectives will be highly valued.

Collaborative skills, effective communication, and the ability to translate financial insights into actionable business strategies will be essential.  I guess that is what makes me “desirable” to work with. I have demonstrated in my previous roles, that I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and get on the ground with my business partners to understand their business in order to use the numbers to help make decisions.  

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the acceptance of remote work. Finance professionals should be comfortable with virtual collaboration tools and possess effective communication skills in a remote work environment. Flexibility and adaptability to changing work structures will be essential. Continuous learning and adaptability will be critical for finance professionals to stay ahead. This includes staying updated on industry trends, regulatory changes, and advancements in technology.”

“My MBA in International Business from Hult International Business School in Dubai has been instrumental in shaping my career trajectory, providing both tangible and intangible benefits that have significantly contributed to my professional growth.

The MBA program equipped me with a well-rounded understanding of various business functions, including finance, marketing, operations, strategy, and my favorite class Behavioral Economics. Studying in Dubai exposed me to a diverse and multicultural environment, fostering a global mindset.

This international exposure has been particularly beneficial in my role, where I deal with international finance and business operations. Understanding different cultures, business practices, and global market dynamics has enhanced my ability to navigate complex, cross-border business scenarios.  The diverse cohort and multicultural setting of my MBA program forced me to adapt and refine my communication skills. Engaging with classmates from various backgrounds encouraged me to articulate ideas clearly and consider different perspectives. This has proven to be a valuable asset in my role as a finance manager, where effective communication is essential for collaboration and strategic business partnering.

One of the significant advantages of completing my MBA in Dubai was the extensive networking opportunities it provided. Building relationships with classmates, faculty, and industry professionals has expanded my professional network, opening doors to collaboration and partnerships. These connections have been instrumental in staying updated on industry trends and accessing valuable insights.

More importantly, many managerial positions, including the one I currently hold, often require an MBA as a basic qualification. Having completed my MBA positions me as a competitive candidate for roles at the managerial and senior levels.

This qualification not only opens doors to opportunities but also demonstrates a commitment to continuous learning and professional development.  These benefits have not only propelled my career growth but have also equipped me to navigate the complexities of the international business landscape with confidence and agility.”

Taleen Khzouz

About the Author

Read more articles by Taleen Khzouz

Want more expert insights?

Liz Bentley focuses on enhancing leaders' emotional intelligence, communication, and adaptable leadership styles for managing… Read Article

Jackie Boyle offers pharmacists interview strategies, emphasizing authenticity, clear articulation of career goals, showcasing clinical… Read Article

Erica Yanney advises on building careers abroad, focusing on adapting to local cultures, overcoming language… Read Article

Casey Chung offers CPAs guidance on transitioning careers to find fulfillment beyond numbers, highlighting the… Read Article

Kevin Mede offers resilience strategies for law enforcement professionals, focusing on understanding motivations, managing personal… Read Article

Kelan Sarnoff guides new dietitians on emphasizing internship experiences and key accomplishments on resumes, preparing… Read Article

Melanie Coeshott advises accounting and finance professionals on balancing technical and soft skills, emphasizing continuous… Read Article

Howard Wolkowitz focuses on trust and integrity in insurance sales, advocating for persistence, continuous learning,… Read Article