Leigh Burnside ’92 has learned what it takes to climb the corporate ladder and succeed in the C-suite. But she’s also learned that careers aren’t just about reaching the next rung on the ladder – they’re about branching out.
Burnside is senior vice president of finance and chief accounting officer at the Wendy’s Company. She oversees a team of 80 professionals who focus on the finances of the quick-serve chain’s U.S. operations, and on accounting and financial reporting for the organization worldwide.
“I strongly encourage making the most of the opportunities that are in front of you,” says Burnside. “Know that there are lots of things that you might not even realize are opportunities quite yet, but advocate for yourself and don’t wait for someone to present them to you.”
Burnside has appreciated expanding her professional repertoire during her 17 years at Wendy’s, where her position enables her to get involved in different aspects of the business – from finance to growing the brand.
“My work drives me every day and what I love about my role is the breadth of things that I get to be involved in,” says Burnside. “We’re in a very competitive industry where it takes a lot to drive growth, so it requires all of us to work together, be creative and figure out how we can continue to promote one of the world’s most beloved and thriving restaurant brands.”
Burnside has always thrived in team environments – even in her days as an undergrad at Maryland Smith, where she studied accounting and played lacrosse.
“Team sports was such a big part of my life and so much of that transfers over into the business world. Much like a team captain, you’re trying to rally teams to collaborate, communicate and reach toward the same goal,” says Burnside. “In finance, I play a unique role in that I’m kind of independent. I can focus on the numbers and play more of an intermediary between marketing and operations.”
Upon graduating from Maryland Smith, Burnside took on a number of accounting and financial reporting positions before arriving at Wendy’s in 2004 with one goal in mind – to become a CFO. She began as a director of financial reporting, then director of strategic financial analysis, vice president of strategic financial analysis, and most recently, chief accounting officer.
“I had determined early on in my career that once I left public accounting I wanted to be a CFO – that was my long-term goal. One of the things that I tried to do throughout that time was to find advocates and mentors who were at that level and try to understand what would be needed to get there,” says Burnside. “I knew to be a CFO, you needed to have a much broader background in finance as well. And so that was one of the things that I was really looking forward to at Wendy's was to be able to broaden my experience into finance.”
At Wendy’s, Burnside says her interests in accounting and finance intersected. She also found an ideal environment where she could grow professionally and earn a seat at the table. It didn’t hurt either, she says, that she could work to support a staple she grew up with – the Dave’s Single.
To the people she mentors, Burnside cautions against becoming too fixated on reaching the next milestone, urging them instead to broaden their experiences and become more well-rounded in their roles.
“That includes doing things outside of your functional responsibilities, whether that's participating in an employee resource group or being a mentor,” she says.
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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.