The Economy

Movin’ On Up

CFOs who have proven their strategic mettle are in high demand.
Sarah JohnsonJune 1, 2011

Consider a new economic indicator: the rise and fall of demand for certain CFO skill-sets. Whereas the downturn highlighted the core, traditional aspects of the role, the recovery appears to have more companies seeking finance executives who have talents beyond financial smarts, including deal making, strategic thinking, and working with capital markets.

“Companies are still looking for CFOs who have a strong background in controlling costs and buttoning up the organization — those activities were crucial during the recession as many companies fought for survival,” says John Challenger, CEO of executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “But now, as the economy is opening up, CFOs with broader experience can help companies think and act strategically about how to utilize the cash on their balance sheet to grow.”

This change means that aspiring CFOs and CFOs looking to change jobs need to tweak their résumés to show that they have broad expertise, and highlight any experience they may have in driving corporate strategy. “Strategy alone is not enough, but it demonstrates that you can see beyond day-to-day operations and the finance part of the role,” says Amgen CFO Jonathan Peacock, who embodies the profile of a strategic CFO. A former partner at McKinsey and at PricewaterhouseCoopers, he joined the biotechnology firm last September from Novartis, where, as finance chief, part of his responsibilities included strategic planning and international business expansion.

Certain job titles are now getting more consideration, including treasurer and vice president of strategic planning, although holders of either post will face challenges in reaching the top finance spot. “It’s hard to find a dyed-in-the-wool lifetime treasurer who has also been operationally exposed to the business,” says Clem Johnson, a partner at search firm Crist Kolder Associates. Strategic-planning executives, meanwhile, usually need an in-between finance job before ascending to CFO, although perhaps not so much for internal candidates: the CFOs at Aeropostale, Papa John’s International, and Clear Channel International were recently promoted from vice president of strategic planning.

Investment banking, once a popular launching pad for aspiring CFOs, is getting renewed attention. About one-quarter of requests for CFOs now call for this type of history, a remarkable turnaround from a year ago, Johnson says, when investment banking’s luster had almost completely faded.

Where do these trends leave finance executives who feel stuck in their current role? Recruiters suggest taking on new projects, joining a board, or helping executives with their board presentations. For those who are content, the higher expectations being placed on CFOs can only bolster their stature. “The majority of new searches I’m embarking on are for companies that want the CFO to be a strategic business partner,” says Adam Kovach, a partner at recruiting firm Spencer Stuart. “They want the candidate to be the number-two executive in the company.”