Job Hunting

Seeking a CFO Job? Play the Odds

Here's how to calculate your chances of landing a particular finance-chief role.
David McCannJanuary 6, 2014

If you’re good at Blackjack, you might be more likely to get that CFO post you’re looking for. Winning either the card game or the career game depends significantly on factoring many variables into a calculation of the odds that a particular strategy will pay off.

1401_SeekingJob_Chart1bFor example, someone who has never been a finance chief and has no CPA or MBA credentials might be able to land a CFO role at a larger company in a different industry than his or her current one. But the odds of that coming to pass are incredibly low.

Conversely, even if you have CFO experience and a wealth of professional accreditation, you might not win a job even at a smaller company in the same industry where you presently work. But the chances of such a failure are similarly microscopic.

Strong leadership skills and the kind of experience the hiring company is looking for may be the dominant factors in getting hired as a CFO. But many others can be important too.

For one, company size is a significant criterion. If, say, you are locked out of becoming the CFO at your current employer, you may want to look elsewhere. But if you want to run a finance department, you probably should target smaller companies. (See chart, “Which Companies Hire from Outside?”)

“Large companies are more equipped to promote from within,” says Bryan Proctor, global co-lead of the financial officer practice at recruiting firm Korn Ferry. “They have deeper benches and a greater ability to successfully execute succession planning and transition.”

1401_SeekingJob_Chart2bIf you want to be the CFO of a large company, consider taking a non-CFO position — even if you currently hold that title. “Many times companies hire someone as a chief accounting officer or treasurer or divisional CFO and then move that person through a succession plan to the top job,” says Proctor. “That could take one year or five, but the point is that rarely does that person come in as the CFO.”

The matter of professional accreditation is one that some job-seeking finance executives, especially relatively young ones, may underestimate. “While it’s a leadership role and you may think a CPA is not that critical, there are some sectors that place more value on that,” Proctor says. “I’m doing a CFO search for a multibillion-dollar company right now, and a CPA is required.” (See chart, “Where Is Education Most Valued?”)

Whether someone is a sitting CFO is another important factor in landing the top finance job at another company, but that is also heavily dependent on industry.

1401_SeekingJob_Chart3bAt services companies, for example, a CFO’s job mostly entails corporate work like SEC reporting, financing and executing transactions, so traditional CFO experience is preferred. At the other end of the spectrum, finance chiefs at industrial companies tend to be more operationally oriented. “A lot of our industrial clients hire divisional CFOs from other companies to be their CFO,” Proctor says. “They are very much in the business and have less focus on the broad enterprise, such as how the company protects its assets.” (See chart, “Who Hires Sitting CFOs?”)

Financial services is another sector that has a relatively low tendency to hire sitting CFOs from other companies. Most CFOs at financial firms come up through the business; few are brought in from outside.

“If you’re thinking about changing industries, think about which ones are more likely to want your skill set even if you don’t have direct experience in that industry,” Proctor says. (See chart, “Which Sectors Hire from Other Industries?”)