CPAs Give Way to MBAs

As CFOs get more strategic, so do their teams.
David McCannOctober 26, 2011
CPAs Give Way to MBAs

The mix of talent in corporate finance departments is shifting toward fewer accounting staffers and more hands in financial planning and analysis, finance recruiters tell CFO. The change has been picking up steam as CFOs take on increasingly strategic roles, and as the once nearly single-minded focus on financial controls triggered by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act continues to moderate.

It’s not news that today’s CFOs are more strategically oriented than their predecessors, but they are getting more support for that by pushing the strategic mind set down through their organization. Few finance departments are adding head count, but when attrition, for example, brings opportunities to hire, the new folks are more likely to have MBA degrees than CPA designations. And some companies are redeploying or even shedding accountants, says Donald Kilinski, global CFO practice leader at DHR International.

“Finance always has to lead by example,” says Kilinski. “If you’re not adding, say, sales staff, you can’t add finance staff either. So you retrain your existing staff, get them involved in new areas, change the staffing mix as people leave, or change out people who aren’t leaving to get those new skill sets that provide strategic advice.”

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

This case study of JonnyPops’ success highlights the unusual financial and operational strategies that enabled rapid expansion into a crowded and highly competitive frozen treat market. 

The “cat’s meow,” he adds, is a CPA who then gets an MBA. Such a person gets grounded in the discipline needed to implement and monitor financial controls, policies, and procedures, and then adds the ability to advise on “grayer” areas such as what projects should be funded; whether something should be acquired, built, or bought; and whether products or services should be extended or eliminated.

It’s not that companies are saying “damn the controls.” They’ve just adapted to Sarbanes-Oxley with well-oiled reporting machines that require less maintenance, and consequently they are shaping their teams more toward focusing on the yet-to-be-decided rather than just documenting the past, Kilinski says.

Cost pressures have also resulted in fewer people being focused on traditional accounting. “Companies have had to get smarter about how they do things, like by using shared services to reduce the demand for transaction processing,” notes Michele Heid, leader of the global financial officers practice at Heidrick & Struggles. “So if a CFO is going to add a resource, it’s probably going to be someone with analytical skills.”

Also driving the trend are growth needs, especially expansion into emerging markets, says Peter McLean, chairman of Korn/Ferry International’s Global Financial Officer Center of Expertise. That requires a close partnering between finance and operational management to allocate capital for the strategic investments, which translates to a need for greater FP&A expertise.

Meanwhile, back at the top of the finance organization, companies are increasingly dissatisfied with executives whose technical skills are their primary strength. “For a controller, having a brilliant accounting mind isn’t good enough,” says Richard Dowd, CEO of Dowd Associates. “That’s been the case in all our searches in recent memory for CFOs, controllers, treasurers, tax vice presidents, and their direct reports. That person has to think analytically, manage people well, and see the big picture.”