Snakes & Ladders

For one CEO, stepping down to a CFO post was the right move.
Eila RanaSeptember 3, 2008

Can a demotion ever be a good thing for an ambitious C-level executive? Anka Reijnen is about to find out. More than a few eyebrows were raised when she announced in the summer that she will step down as CEO of Dutch property firm Nieuwe Steen Investments (NSI) and become its CFO this month.

Reijnen joined NSI as chief operating officer in 1993. Five years later she helped steer the company, which had been founded by her father-in-law, through a stockmarket listing. Subsequently appointed CFO and then CEO, Reijnen — under shareholder pressure — unveiled a new strategy last year to expand outside NSI’s home market and double the value of its €1.2 billion portfolio by the end of 2011. As she sees it, the company now needs a different type of CEO as it embarks on a new growth trajectory, which is why an outsider, Johan Buijs, was appointed over the summer.

Is it that she was not up to the CEO job? “I think people thought this was the wish of the new shareholders or the new supervisory board,” says Reijnen. “But that’s not so. If they thought I wasn’t performing, they would ask me to leave.” What’s more, her CEO-to-CFO move could be confirmation of the growing importance of the CFO role in general.

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That’s an important message that Reijnen will need to get across to prospective employers, say career advisers. As for C-level execs considering a step down, they recommend getting a second opinion from a mentor. Also useful is feedback from previous bosses about strengths and weaknesses to assess whether you’re suited to the role, and talking to people familiar with the role can reveal whether the skills required match your own. Remember too that careful planning can help ensure a step down doesn’t become a career stopper. “People who plan seem to get on a lot better,” says Suzzane Wood, head of the finance officers’ practice at recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles. Yet while “you can be opportunistic once or twice, you can’t build a career on opportunism,” she cautions.

That climb up the ladder is not for everyone. “I’m not after a new CEO job — that’s why I stepped down,” says Reijnen. “Everybody wants to go to the top and I’ve been there, I’ve seen it and I have no ambition to do it again quickly.”