Corporate recruiters know better than anyone what it takes to reach the ultimate prize of a finance career: the CFO slot. But well before that final interview, they say, young finance professionals make a series of crucial career choices. And while taking the road less traveled may make for nice poetry, choosing certain well-traveled roads makes all the difference for someone with their eye on the CFO’s office.

“The Big Four sells well,” says Chuck Eldridge, managing director of the financial-officers practice at Korn/Ferry International. Nothing beats the training or credibility gained by doing time at one of the big accounting firms, he says.

Not only does the “Big Four” hone one’s accounting chops, but starting a career with such a firm typically puts a young accounting professional face-to-face with top executives in client companies. “As they develop and get more responsibility and bigger clients, there’s the chance to face off with a client company’s CFO,” Eldridge says. Such experiences, he says, are essentially de facto interviews — indeed, they often lead to a CFO-track job at a client company.

Beyond the Big Four, there are still many different paths among which a CFO-hopeful can choose. For someone jumping straight into a finance career, Eldridge suggests trying to get some variety between working in financial analysis at corporate headquarters and moving to different business units. Being “right there on the shop floor,” he says, gives someone with a finance background the crucial business experience they will later need to prove they understand how companies, not just numbers, actually run. Of course, he adds, it’s important not to go too native in a business unit. An eventual return to the finance department mother-ship is still essential to keep one’s career moving in the direction of the CFO’s office.

Of course, while work experience is vital, credentials matter too, and Eldridge is clear about where he stands in a long-running debate: For the future CFO, an MBA is good, but a CPA is gold. “That’s the capstone credential,” Eldridge says. “A lot of companies want to see that box checked.” Even with formal training in accounting, he says, the lack of a CPA seems like a sign of unfinished business.

Still, an MBA (particularly when coupled with a CPA) has its merits, especially given growing range of abilities that CFOs now require. “You’re getting a breadth of management education” from an MBA, says Chip Clothier, of HFC executive search. “It allows you more familiarity beyond the numbers and gives you an appreciation of what a company is trying to do.”

And certainly, a CFO candidate must be able to demonstrate an appreciation of the big-picture appreciation that goes well beyond number-crunching, recruiters say. Like Eldridge, Clothier suggests working in a number of different finance areas, joining a task force or special project committee, and even doing stints overseas. Seeking a mentor within the company is also a good move, he says — everyone needs an experienced guide to help them navigate through the corporate culture.

Sometimes, too, making the right moves is a matter of avoiding the wrong ones. Bill Behn, senior vice president of national staffing services at Solomon Edwards Group, a national CFO services firm, says that one mistake young finance professionals make early in their careers is putting too much emphasis on salary, commute, and benefits. Finding the best opportunity for growth and exposure is more important, he says. Other perks can be made up later.

Perhaps the hardest area for future CFOs to master is the so-called “soft skills.” As the face of the company in front of Wall Street, and as a proxy for the CEO in many situations, CFOs must be comfortable speaking in public and interacting with company stakeholders, including its board. Here again, an MBA, or some other experience beyond hard numbers, can be helpful. “Accountants don’t work on people skills, networking skills, social skills,” says Behn. “A lot of them don’t know how to interact at a lunch or a cocktail party.”

If you think that’s an unfair stereotype, fine. But keep your ego in check if you set out to disprove it. “Don’t come out of the Big Four after three years and think you’re ready to be a controller,” says Behn. “You could fail and lose credibility.” Finance is still a slow-and-steady culture, and excelling at a series of manageable positions is the best way to move up, he says.

Timing those moves is also important. Job-hopping or languishing in one place for too long are both warning signs to potential employers. “You’ve got to stay two years wherever you go,” Behn says. “Three years is better.” Moving too much shows a lack of loyalty and bad decision-making skills — a common complaint
that sitting CFOs aim at the next generation of finance professionals. At the same time, says Behn, staying put too long is just as bad. “You don’t move up as quickly moving within an organization as you do when changing organizations.”

Still, for all that, the road less traveled can still wind up in the CFO’s office. Victoria Harker, CFO of global power company AES Corporation, does not have a CPA and did not work at a Big Four accounting firm. She studied economics and English in college and got an MBA. After working as a financial manager at a law firm, she joined MCI, where she worked her way up to acting CFO before moving on to AES. “Mine was more on the job training,” Harker says.

Harker rotated through several positions at MCI, then a unit of World Com, doing time as treasurer and also overseeing information technology and operations. That range of experience made her more ready for today’s CFO role, she says. “From a personality perspective, I enjoy the operational aspects of running a business,” Harker says. “More and more CFO positions are less about reporting and the rear view mirror and more about bringing strategic insight into how the company should be running.”

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2 responses to “The Road to CFO”

  1. Hello,

    The question of, At what age you can expect to be to transition to a CFO role, and how many years of experience is needed are both great questions. There is no one answer to this question. You will find discretely CFO who started their career an early age, and others in their mid and late career life. The answer that will depend on the hiring company size, location, industry type, and it’s culture. Also, it depends on; how much have you achieved in term of educational accomplishments, accounting and non-accounting career experience, managerial experience, and soft skills. The right mix determines your readiness. You may look at it as a checklist. The more “Yes” you have, the closer you are to the role. There are three checklists that will determine your success. First, how great your resume/CV matches the role. Second, how well you connected with the recruiter/hiring manager? Third, what type of feedback received from your previous employer and background check?

    Some online articles advise candidates to simply ask your current manager for, what would it take to be offered a specific role. This advice may or may not work. It may not work if your manager worked 20 years before becoming a CFO. Therefore, your manager may see you lack lengthy extensive career experience. On the other hand, if your manager is the type who moved up the ladder quickly, he/she may help you get there quicker.

    You may be asking, how to know the gap in career to the next role up the ladder? Simply by looking at the job description and knowing what you possess and what you are missing. Also, going to as many interviews as possible. During or after a career role interview, you will have a sense of what most common skills were desired by the company.

    Depending on how many “No” answers you have to job requirement or during an interview questioning, will indicate your readiness for the role. Clearly, the goal is to have as many “Yes” as possible to land an initial interview or move on to the second one. An example of what questions or requirements to expect during your next career move are;

    Do you have a job relevant master degree?
    Do you have Accounting experience? How many years?
    Do you have Management experience? How many years?
    Do you have CPA or CFA certificates?
    Do you have other career related certificates?
    How your problem skills? Provide examples?
    How your people skills? (Your interaction with recruiter during the interview will answer this question)
    How proficient are you with certain software such as; Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and other specified Accounting software?
    Do you have experience in a specific industry such as nonprofit, healthcare, government, banking, hospitality, industrial, and etc.?
    Have you worked in a profit and loss system before?

    If you have answered “Yes” to most of the above question, that doesn’t mean you will get the job, but definitely, you will be among top finalist candidates to move on to the next round of the candidate selection process.

    The second part depends on your skills shown during the interview such as;
    How you stood out among the finalists selected candidates, and that depends on your responses to questions or skills that the recruiter/hiring manager may evaluate such as;
    How are your communication skills?
    How are your analysis skills?
    How are your thinking process skills?
    How are you ranked among other applicants in term of fitting within their team?
    What type of references feedback received from previous managers and colleagues?
    How far do you live from work?
    How flexible are you in term of teamwork and working hours outside regular schedule?
    What activities are you doing outside your current role that can be viewed as bonuses? (volunteering, speaking at community events)
    Why do you want to join this organization?
    What is your asking salary?
    When can you start?
    How genuine your responses sounded?
    How did the recruiter or hiring manager(s) felt about you during the interview?

    As you can see there are many factors that take place to determine your readiness for a specific role like CFO/Finance Directors. Another great common factor is applying to the right company, at the right time, and establishing a strong rapport with the interviewer (recruiter/hiring manager) to the point the interviewer wants to bring you on despite other good candidates profile. An example of this is; hearing about someone whom you have known or went to school or worked with, receiving a senior management role just a few years after graduating from college. Sometimes network may play a big factor.

    I hope this answer had shed some lights on your question, and remember, there are factors within your control and others beyond control. All you need to do is, continue self-improvement educationally and professionally, build career networks, continue seeking your ideal role, don’t give up, ask experts for advice, and learn from others mistakes. At the end, you will reach your goal.

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