Want to be a CEO? Good luck. Among chief executives in the Forbes 2000, a listing of the world’s largest publicly held companies, only 13% are former finance chiefs.

However hard you work, however successful you are as a CFO, however strategic your orientation, the reason the odds are against you comes down to something you may be hard-pressed to overcome: the way your brain works.

CFOs are far ahead of their bosses in financial acumen and in lock-step with regard to other technical, left-brain characteristics that drive things like decision quality, strategic mindset, global perspective, and execution alignment. But CEOs have a clear right-brain advantage that wins the day on the leadership front. They are better at building relationships and at influencing, engaging, and inspiring others; they are more courageous and optimistic; and they have a stronger customer focus.

Gary Burnison

Gary Burnison

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All of that is according to Gary Burnison, CEO of executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry and the author of a new white paper on the topic of CFO advancement. The document offers no empirical evidence for its conclusions, which were drawn from a highly scientific quantitative analysis of data on the firm’s 2.5 million executive placements. Still, the white paper offers a compelling narrative.

“CFOs tend to be very linear in their approach, which is consistent with a more narrowly defined position in which one is highly cognizant of rules and regulations,” writes Burnison. “CEOs, on the other hand, are less apt to tell people what to do and instead [likely to] guide them to what they should think about.”

Given their oversight of capital deployment, CFOs are expected to frequently say “no.” CEOs say “no” as well, but need to do it in a way that does not dampen enthusiasm or creativity, writes Burnison.

His perspectives are informed ones: before being named Korn Ferry’s chief executive in 2007, he was the firm’s finance chief.

“When I was an operating officer and a CFO, I could be one of the guys,” he writes. “I was even allowed to have a bad day once in a while…. Then I became the CEO. Suddenly, people were reading my mood as if it were tea leaves. I wasn’t speaking just for myself anymore. I represented a position and an institution. Motivating and inspiring people, displaying optimism in the face of challenges, and being highly attuned to others took on great importance.”

This realization prompted Burnison to change his communication style, by focusing as much on his tone, attitude, and the energy with which he spoke and interacted with others as he did on what he actually had to say.

He does not allow himself the protection of a PowerPoint presentation or any other communications aid. He tells of having delivered speeches in front of 5,000 people without slides, participating in a high-profile business forum in front of a live audience without notes, going toe-to-toe with a news anchor on live television, and sitting in a tiny studio with nothing but a bright light and a robotic camera for company while waiting to be interviewed by remote feed.

“Even the best media training offers an inadequate dress rehearsal to face the spotlight and to speak not for [yourself] but for the organization,” he writes.

If a CFO truly wants to become a CEO, he or she must have the right motivation for doing so, according to Burnison. The ambition shouldn’t be driven by ego or by an assumption that moving up is the next logical step in a career that has been marked by continual advancement.

“The process begins with the self-awareness needed to move beyond what is comfortable and develop a requisite broader array of leadership strengths,” Burnison writes. But self-awareness is just one of five key building blocks for what he calls the most important predictor of CEO success: learning agility. The full list:

  • Self awareness, especially of one’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Mental agility, or being comfortable with complexity and making fresh connections
  • People agility, or possessing exceptional communication skills and knowing how to get things done through others
  • Change agility, or a passion for ideas and high interest in continuous development
  • Results agility, or the ability to deliver results in first-time situations through one’s own drive and by inspiring others

“Of these five, CFOs are strongest in results agility and are comparable to CEOs in self-awareness, while CEOs have an edge in mental agility and in change agility,” Burnison writes. “The most noticeable gap for CFOs is in people agility.” Developing that “is a crucial aspect of right-brain leadership that CFOs will need to develop to move into the CEO role.”

In an interview with CFO, edited portions of which appear below, Burnison expanded on some of the thoughts raised in the white paper.

Do you think CFOs who do become CEOs are aware of the extent of the challenges before taking the job?

For any first-time CEO, it’s shocking. It doesn’t make a difference what role you’re coming from. You get to the top of the pyramid and nobody else is there. There’s a strange dynamic where people stop treating you as a person. You’re no longer Gary; you’re a function. There are a lot of consequences of that, one of which is that people don’t fully speak their minds to you.

When you go into that job, you are going to be encountering things you’ve never encountered before. It’s a really hard transition, whether you were a CFO or a COO or a sales or marketing person.

For a CFO, there’s an even bigger transition: you’re not reporting the news anymore. You have to make the news. You’ve been trained to be black and white and very linear. It’s a huge hurdle to suddenly be making news. And at the end of the day, as the CFO, you’re probably not going to be fired for the numbers, unless they’re wrong. But as the CEO, you will get fired for the numbers.

What was your state of mind when you got the job? Were you able to sleep at night?

I never questioned my confidence and courage. But I did over-compensate. I felt like I had to do everything I could to demonstrate that I could be “inspirational.”

People put handles on you. Whenever you meet somebody in life, it’s very hard to get that image out of your head. You met a friend of your daughter’s when she was 15, and now she’s 35 and it’s still hard to erase that first impression. It’s the same in business. People still say I’m a finance guy or that I’m good with numbers, when in fact many people are much more brilliant with numbers than I ever was. I was very cognizant of that, and still am.

How did you come to the realization that you had to focus much of your attention on your attitude and tone?

I’ll give you a couple of examples. I was at a formal dinner very early on in South America with about 50 people. We were the host. It became 11:15 and nobody was getting up. I was thinking, what’s going on? OK, we’ve had a great night, but it’s time to go. It became clear to the person next to me that I was uncomfortable. The person turned to me and said. “Mr. Burnison, nobody has gotten up because you haven’t gotten up.” Right there, that was a big “wow.”

Then, I gave a PowerPoint presentation, and afterward someone asked me what was the matter, that I seemed down. I thought about it, and it hit me hard that it wasn’t the message that was important. It was that I was the message. Since then, eight years ago, I haven’t used slides at all. Nowhere, no time, not with our board, not in front of 10 people or 5,000. It’s clear that I am the message. It isn’t what I say but how I say it that’s as important as anything.

Are you comfortable in your skin being a CEO?

Oh, I am now. But it’s taken time to get into my wheelhouse, if you will. There are bad things that happen, and you have to get used to that. It could be anything — lawyers calling you in the middle of the night about a lawsuit against you, a government hacking into your systems. And the learning curve is exponential. You can’t look around and say “Well, I don’t know.” You’ve got to find the answer.

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7 responses to “Moving from CFO to CEO: A Half Brainer”

  1. I was a CFO and just recently an entrepreneur. I agree with Gary as I’m aware of the stats but I disagree on the right part of the brain. No one borns a CFO and neither a CEO. What’s the brain difference from a COO a CFO a CMO or a Sales guy? I think is more a matter of open mind, curiosity, personal attitude of single individuals rather than the part of the brain they develop as everyone borns with one. Including CEOs.

  2. Let’s be honest here: CFOs, in general, are not well suited for the job, period. They like safety, the need proof in numbers, they focus on forecasts and analysis. If you’re a CFO you probably spent all your career in such environment and it will be very hard for you to overcome what is a normal way of conducting a business for you. CFO didn’t need to develop a gut feeling, didn’t deal with realtionships 24/7 – they spent those years on studying GAAP and new Excel functions.

  3. CFO’s that manage from behind a desk are not going to to scale beyond their current role. Those that walk the halls and get involved operationally to better understand the drivers of the business are very successful when the opportunity to transition into the CEO role is given. One in particular who I know personally, is Steve Milligan, CEO of Western Digital. His story of his rise to the top is one of confidence, gritty determination and competitive drive.

  4. I think that since we’re in finance we tend to believe that we’re a better material for CEO than e.g. CMO since we know the digits behind all of that, while they know only company’s last marketing campaign.
    The role of CEO requires entrepreneurship and reliance on the gut feeling, which is something that was never part of CFO role who was always trained to rely on digits in his/her assessments and minimize risks. Creativity was never part of finance world, say ‘creative accounting’ and the first thing comes to mind is Enron.

  5. Very interestiing article. I have been a skin the game headhunter mostly in the lower middle market for manufacturing clients. I have never encountered a hired CFO becoming a successful CEO. I have had several CFOs as runner up CEO search candidates. I am occasionally asked my advice from CFOs on what it takes to become a successful CEO in my opinion. First they should buy a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. Secondly, be careful if the former CFO is on the board and research the company’s culture. Thirdly, every Cisco needs a Pancho. Someone in ownership should help the new CFO turned CEO as a confidante during the onboarding cycle.

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