After nearly a decade of placing financial professionals and leaders, I’ve had the unique vantage point of seeing a fairly clear delineation between functional accounting, finance roles and strategic ones.
People looking for their careers to transcend in public accounting ask us all the time what it takes to become a CFO; what they’re really asking is how can they see their work influence, impact, and drive strategy and business decisions.
Companies come to us looking for our assistance in filling Controller, Vice President of Finance, Accounting Director, CFO, and various other financial reporting and analysis based roles; often it’s necessary for us to drill into the details of the role and how it funnels into an organizational strategy to determine if it's more functional or strategic in nature.
So, what does it take to be CFO? How can accounting and financial professionals elevate their game to someday obtain a strategic financial role, and what specific skills must they develop beyond technical knowledge?
Leadership – Being able to build teams of sharp, hungry professionals that can be trusted to own their role is imperative. Hone this during tenures in non-management professional roles by seeking mentorship relationships, both as a mentor and by seeking out leaders you respect to mentor you.
Communication – Exceptional communication skills, both written and verbal, are non-negotiable components of a strategic leader. Read often, focus not only on professional development, but other non-fiction and fiction books too. Stimulate your mind with knowledge and words. Stretch outside your comfort zone by leading meetings where senior leaders will be present. Seek opportunities to convey team objectives and be sure to hold yourself accountable to a high standard as well as others.
Alignment – Take the extra step to make sure key stakeholders are on the same page, taking special care to not shy away from holding those in leadership roles accountable to delivering on projects you’re involved in. This will garner respect as they see successful outcomes stack up in your wake.
Decisiveness – Laboring over tough decisions is a tell-tale sign of someone who hasn’t yet grown comfortable with the responsibility of their role. Train yourself to make decisions quicker once the proper due diligence has been done. Don’t let perfect become the enemy of good.
Deal-Making – Nearly all of the best strategic financial leaders I know are on a constant quest to find a good deal. To acquire a target for a great purchase price. To drive the best value out of vendors. To help drive large scale customer negotiations. And in private companies, to identify other entrepreneurial opportunities to generate additional returns.
And how can companies seeking to hire a key financial role ensure they’re not either asking a strong line cook to be the executive chef at a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, or forcing Rembrandt to color within the lines of a children’s coloring book? Doing either – effectively under or over scoping the roles and thereby hiring the wrong level person – will likely result in turning over the position.
Scope the Role – Are you looking for someone to prepare and/or review financial statements? Someone to produce management reports? Or are you looking for someone to help decide on whether a debt, equity or hybrid capital raise is appropriate to finance an acquisition? Draw the line between the cyclical functionality and tactics versus more significantly impactful strategic initiatives.
Impact on Decisions – Will this person be only responsible ultimately for the production of financial information and reports, or will they have a significant say in the decisions made from leveraging the information? Figure out if the role falls more on the side of the spectrum of production and review than contribution to or driving of significant decisions.
Evaluate Peer Level – Are you calling the role a CFO? Figure out what other C-suite roles are involved from strategic and decision-making perspectives, and make sure you’re ready to include this person at the same level. Perhaps the role is scoped as a Controller, but it’s the top financial post at your company – if this person will be relied upon to help shape and craft the course of the company, an elevated title may be warranted.
Fresh MBAs and young CPAs with public accounting experience would like to think the most technically proficient, smartest person in the room will be CFO, and of course, everyone think’s they’re the smartest when they’re young! But the truth is the best, most effective financial executives I’ve worked with possess a confluence of finely honed soft skills and business acumen on top of strong technical experience, which becomes the lens through which they lead their businesses forward. So, do you have what it takes to be CFO?