Is an Accounting Background Important for Today's CFOs?
Over the years, I’ve had many discussions with public-company CFOs that went something like this: Me: So tell me about your background. The CFO: I came up through investment banking (or business development, or FP&A, or treasury — anything but accounting). Me: No accounting? The CFO: No. I understand accounting, but I don’t have a degree and never really had any formal training. Me: How do you feel about signing off on the accuracy of your financials, at some professiona ..
Must you have a formal accounting background to become a CFO? Increasingly, the answer is no.
While historically CFOs cut their teeth in accounting and treasury operations, focused on managing costs and cash, today’s CFOs often serve as strategic business partners to the CEO. Under this remit, they lead M&A activity, serve as the external face of the organization to shareholders, and generally act as a broad-minded guardian of the business.
In my recent experience, this transition away from an accounting focus is stark. Among the last 50 CFO searches that I have completed over the past 18 months, only one client indicated that a CPA was highly desirable. Most of our clients, particularly larger ones, have in fact bifurcated the top finance and accounting functions. Following the Sarbanes-Oxley act in 2002, companies strengthened their accounting functions and appointed qualified chief accounting officers, who generally are highly technical CPAs.
This trend toward bifurcation of the CFO and CAO roles has only strengthened in recent years. According to Russell Reynolds research, the number of CFOs hired in the past three years with corporate accounting/control experience has decreased to 38%, compared with 51% of CFOs appointed more than three years ago.
CFOs with investment banking experience are actually more common among recent hires, as 24% of CFOs appointed in the past three years have such experience, compared with 17% of those hired before then.
The accounting experts that are currently serving as CFOs are mostly internal promotions. In the Fortune 250, 79% of all CFOs with leadership experience in corporate accounting/control experience were promoted to the role internally. While their technical accounting experience would seem to set them apart from the newer crop of CFOs, their tenure in fact grants them significant insight into the culture and strategy of the organization. In this group, the average time spent at the company prior to internal promotion to CFO is 14 years.
However, companies are increasingly looking externally for a CFO to meet the increased demands and expectations of the role. Among Fortune 250 CFOs hired in the past three years, 39% came from outside the company, compared with 23% before then. I believe this number will continue to increase, in line with growing activist shareholder activity, which is boosting the demand for experienced CFOs with a track record of success.
CFOs with operationally oriented backgrounds rather than pure accounting backgrounds will continue to be in demand, and increasingly so, as finance chiefs continues to grow in their role as a strategic partner to the CEO who is integral to the organization’s growth and success.
Jenna Fisher leads the global corporate sector for executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates.