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Book Recommendations from Tudor Mihăilescu, Finance and Business Enablement Manager

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The following interview is a must-read for anyone interested in working and performing better in the finance field. We had the chance to talk to Tudor Mihăilescu, Finance and Business Enablement Manager at a top multinational corporation, over South East Europe Operations.

Tudor has been working at the company for more than 15 years. He started with an internship in the Finance department, back when he was still a student at the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest, Romania. He’s been climbing the career ladder ever since, all the way up to the current position of Finance and Business Enablement Manager over South East Europe Operations. This experience has allowed him to go deep and thoroughly understand every aspect and challenge of the finance field.

In the following rows you’ll find out what books had an impact on his professional and personal life, the ones that would support every key role of a finance manager, advice on how to make decisions when you don’t have all the necessary facts, and many other interesting insights.

Estimated reading time for this interview is 17 minutes. If you'd rather listen to it, you can do it on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

I find it impossible to call out my favourite book. It’s like asking who is the better sportsperson, Messi or Federer – they both are GOATs in their very competitive fields. So, I do have at least 10 books that have left a deep mark, in different corners of my mind and heart. Still, if I were to be a bit more choiceful than that, I would go with the following 3:

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is more than a book, it’s really a compendium of wisdom. As a result, you can only sip it slowly, it’s a very condensed writing. Kahneman proves, after many years of studies and an amazing partnership with Amos Tversky, what huge gap lies between how we think we act/make decisions and how we really do. This has had an impact both on my professional life as well as personal one, in the broader area of decision making. With this “bible” under the belt, one can further study this space of decision making with other great works like Nudge (Thaler) or Decisive (Heath/Heath).

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is another masterpiece. Built around a very testing personal story, it leaves you empowered to be the master of your own destiny. Finding your logos (purpose), what really really drives you is probably the most important mission we have in life and, once that is somewhat conquered, everything else – no matter how difficult – will be just noise. Frankl’s journey, an interesting mix of personal and professional, is a great example.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Vance) is probably least known in my selection, yet I enjoyed a lot. It is less of the actual story it tells, rather by providing a glaring example of ‘there is more than meets the eye’. It shows the power of context to how a certain person is brought up, ends up doing in life. And, at a bigger scale, may explain political or social trends that otherwise appear as a total surprise. Personally, I was reading this book while on the professional side I was working to improve my leading through questions techniques, which also pushes you to have patience to drill to a root cause before jumping off to conclusions.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

There were many such moments actually and one of the reasons I love reading. It happens quite often that something I read connects with my daily life, especially on the professional side. If I have a situation that is on my mind – an organizational challenge or an important presentation that I need to deliver some time ahead – reading is the form in which I feel the universe is plotting to help me solve the riddle. By reading, I get subtle tips in what is to be done and also how to deliver and execute the case for change. With an open mind and lateral thinking, you can get so much better at doing what you are doing.

As an example, Frankl’s book has significantly shifted how I view my role as an organization leader – putting much more focus on sharpening the meaning of what we do, including trusting more the individual view and choices and having trust that the noise (complexity, process etc) will bend to the power of that meaning… One could say that this is the precursor step of ‘where there is a will, there is a way”, which means we need to ensure there is a genuine will. Previously, I was probably working a lot more on the way – work on improving a process for example and take will/purpose as granted.

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What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

Mindset by Carol Dweck has been a book I have constantly referred to. The whole book is build on the duality of Fixed vs Growth mindset and the choice we have in picking which way we go. While it has obvious professional links, it has also been very relevant in my role as father – a role for which one is probably least prepared. In dialogues with my young boys, who are inherently very competitive, I have played back a lot of the insights – digesting with them what brought a certain success (work vs native, for example), and equally reconciling failure.

What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

To answer this question, I first need to very briefly share what I see my key role to be, as the CFO of my business unit.

CFOs are bound to be involved in all areas, be it business, organization or stewardship. The effectiveness of the CFO is typically proportionate to the understanding of the business. By knowing intimately the business, not only strategy but also operations, CFO can make relevant proposals. This is built with time, since the first days of being a finance professional.

In every industry, there would be many relevant books but nothing would replace being in touch with the customers and people in own organisation. It’s a vast of space to recommend books, but I would suggest that learning how proven entrepreneurs or managers have done this as a good start (read about Jake Welch – Straight from the Gut, Steve Jobs, Shoe Dog – Phil Knight or Elon Musk) – admittedly, some of them may set a very high bar.

Once you have a good grip of what is to be done, even if you are the CFO, you still need to convince some people that the proposed course of action is right. This is where it gets complicated for finance people. We tend to think black or white, true or false, so quite fact centric and assertive in communication. This in itself will not be sufficient to get the traction, to get the idea approved and then implemented. First thing first, finance people need to be decent communicators, ideally awesome communicators. There is an art in building a case or in delivering a presentation and we need to treat this step as seriously as we have treated the other steps. I do believe this is a top priority for an aspiring or practicing CFO – There are plenty of books on this topic, I would recommend the works of Chip and Dan Heath like Switch and Made to Stick. Beyond communication, CFO needs to learn to influence effectively, get people to contribute so that they buy in. Again, this is a vast space, some of my personal favourites being Who Moved My Cheese (Johnson), Lateral Thinking (de Bono), The Art of Asking (Palmer).

Last, finance managers are the ultimate resource allocators, making sure the limited resources of an organization are put against the biggest opportunities. This is the challenge of every business and every individual, saying no to so many tempting ideas. A book which I have enjoyed and plan to re-read is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (McKeown).

You said that finance people tend to think in black or white, true or false. How do you separate the noise from the signal? And how do you make decisions when you don’t have all the needed facts? Are those decisions influenced by emotions or intuition?

Reality is that you never have all the facts. What you know is so much smaller than what you don’t know and we need to get comfortable with that. Another reality is that as much as we believe we are rational human beings, there is an inherent amount of emotion and bias in each one of us. With those two cold showers, we still need to take decisions every day and do that in a decent way. Probably the key step, even more so for hard headed finance people, is to accept those humbling facts, our limitations. These will mentally enable you to do 2 things – be open for more perspectives (to add more facts or counter your biases) and be ready to validate the decision down the line (there is a chance you’re wrong so do keep an eye on eventual repercussions and possibly course correct).

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

I tend to read every day. I typically read 2 books in parallel, driven by the format. I have a paper book that sits on my nightstand and I get through it in the last part of the day, before going to sleep. Some days it will be 5 minutes, some others it will be 30 minutes. That same book format would get a more generous allowance during weekends and vacation.

I also have an audiobook that is my enjoyable partner while I drive to and from work, making Bucharest traffic a more neutral experience. Not all books are ‘readable’ as audiobooks, but I found plenty to be.

How do you make time for reading?

One typically makes time for the things one enjoys. And I do enjoy reading. So, it’s not about making time as that tends to be 24/7 for everyone, rather how you allocate it. I do have a professional and personal packed calendar, still there is decent time for reading. One thing is for sure, I probably watch far less TV than most people. Audiobooks have also significantly broadened my time horizon, giving some purpose to the otherwise boring / frustrating commute time. Importantly though, it has not always been like this – I have truly discovered reading only few years back, upgrading it from a vacation feature to a daily one. So, one needs to give it a try for a period and see how it goes.

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

I do, in some books. I used to have a physical note book, now I have a virtual one, in the format of Microsoft Onenote. Through One Note, I have a virtual binder of cool stuff that I heard in a training or article or a book – it includes my personal notes or even pictures I take. Being virtual, I actually get to use it every now and then, but deep down I guess I am doing it more to underline that that certain idea is worth a record.

How do you choose what books to read next?

There is no process. I always have a year long stack of books ahead of me and I chose the exact next one based on mood, moment in time interest, recommendations from friends or sites like yours. I am very old fashioned when it comes to books – I love buying physical books, I always stop in the airport library and I rarely leave without a book. I certainly buy more than I can read. A decent addiction to have, I guess.

Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

Yes and no. We all have different contexts, so we may need or enjoy a book more or less. It’s like the wine pairing, not everything goes with everything. I do tend to scan through sites or apps (like Goodreads and Audible) and see what people are reading and get tempted. It also happens that I see a book recommended or referenced by other authors so it grows in my eyes. That’s how I got to Kahneman and that’s why I added Influence (Cialdini). Last but not least, I have few friends that are avid readers as well and they are a constant source of trustworthy suggestions.

Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

It’s vacation time so I got brave enough to start a sizeable trilogy by Ken Follett, The Century (Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, Edge of Eternity). The only expectation I had was to enjoy a good story, take my mind off into a different space. And it delivers, it’s a nice blend of history and fiction, an absorbing story throughout 20th century. Given how eventful this century has been (WW1 and WW2 to name some ‘highlights’), it provides a fairly chilling experience on how big political plays got reflected in the lives of normal people, across different geographies or statuses.

I do also have an audiobook rolling, admittedly not much traction in vacation time. It’s Principles by Ray Dalio, again a book referenced in many places.

All books mentioned by Tudor Mihailescu in this interview:

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