Resilience at Work: An Interview with CFO Marty Chavez

31 MAY 2018

Marty Chavez, chief financial officer of Goldman Sachs, was recently named the firm’s resilience sponsor, a reflection of our firm’s focus on this important subject. We are offering various programs and personalized tools to help our people focus on their wellbeing. Here Marty discusses how having a ‘short sacred list’ of priorities helps him stay focused on the things that matter.

What does the term ‘resilience’ mean to you?

Marty: I think about it as an engineer, that’s how I grew up. Resilience is an important design principle. In software development, you could try to foresee every possible circumstance and design a response for it. That would be expensive, and inevitably you’d miss something. A better approach is to assume that there will be stresses or failures where things don’t go the way you expect or wish, and then have capacity or tools to invoke when that happens.

Generally my experience is that we cause a great deal of our own suffering by wishing for things to be different than they are. And so there’s a component of acceptance and a component of preparation and then there’s a component of recognition – that we don’t get our way all the time, and there’s no reason that we ought to get our way. So what kind of person are you going to be when things don’t go your way? That’s really what it’s about.

How have you developed your resilience?

The best advice I ever received was from Suzanne Nora Johnson, who was vice chairman of the firm. She told my partner class not to get caught up in the concept of ‘work-life balance,’ and to instead focus on our ‘short sacred list’ of priorities. To know them, and to act accordingly, owning the consequences – good and bad. It’s an exercise I’d recommend to anyone. I have three: family, work, working out, in that order.

If your work here at the firm isn’t on that short list you’re probably in the wrong place. And I find that if I don’t make exercise, and, more generally, my health, an extremely high priority, it always gets booted. And then I become much less effective at my top-two priorities. So I see health, sleep, diet, working out, all those things as essential for my top-two priorities.

Some people might say, ‘Marty, it’s great for you to talk about resilience, but you’re the CFO of the firm and so you’re in a position to make these choices.’ That is true. It’s also true, though, that if I hadn’t been making these kinds of choices along the way, I wouldn’t have lasted long enough to have the opportunity to be in this role.

Why is the firm putting an emphasis on this topic?

The firm is the people. We’re here as a firm for our clients, our shareholders, and others – we have many stakeholders – and ourselves. When resilience goes away, or when we don’t have resilience in the first place, we end up with businesses and people that are brittle, and that don’t respond well in the face of unpredictability. In the end, we’re in the risk business, and anything that we can do that makes us more effective is good for business. One of the ways we’ve always differentiated ourselves as a firm is by being there for our clients at a time of stress. So focusing on the resilience of our people helps with that, there’s no question. So it’s a good thing, it’s the right thing, and it’s also good for business.

How has your mindset evolved over time?

Certainly my ‘short sacred list’ has moved around. I have kids now, for instance. For a long time, working out didn’t happen at all and my health was terrible. But I’m always planning for success and I’m always planning for things not to go as planned. Maybe that has to do with having grown up as a strat and in risk management, and now being CFO. What’s the plan for when things don’t go as planned?

One thing I’ve learned over the course of my career is that while things need to get done, they don’t necessarily have to get done exactly the same way in the future as they are today. So there are ways to tackle problems – by inspiring your colleagues, asking for help, working on it yourself – that means you can leave something in a better state than when you inherited it and also gain back some of your own peace of mind in the process.

You’ve been chief financial officer for about a year after serving as chief information officer. How have you found the transition?

I have found with all of my new jobs there’s a steep learning curve at first, but this was the steepest. It’s also the one that presented the most opportunities for personal growth. There’s some component of figuring out the job and doing it as your predecessor did it, and then over time there’s some capacity to evolve it. And we all bring our different strengths and proclivities. I’m a numbers and analytics and software-inclined person. I’m always thinking whether there is some tool that we could build that would allow us to run this or that process more efficiently, more reliably, more rapidly with fewer errors. So there’s some component of learning and adapting, and then growing and repeating. That’s what I’m up to.