The 6 technical skills in finance needed to progress to CFO

C-suite Workplace skills Career tips Article
The Australian Financial Review posted that technology has changed the role of the Chief Financial Officer so much that they no longer need to be ‘famous’ for their accounting skills.” The article, titled ‘Why CFOs are headed straight to the top’, predicted that “the CFO role would soon be regarded first and foremost as a leadership position.” More specifically, the article suggested that CFOs will be “enterprise leaders who just happen to be in charge of finance.”  In 2024, it’s never been more apparent that the road to CFO demands more than mere number crunching. It requires a unique skill set that draws on financial acumen, strategic vision, and leadership prowess. Not to be discounted are the technical aspects of finance that help to sharpen the competitive edge of aspiring CFOs.
As outlined in Robert Half’s second session of the Aspiring CFOs Series, a strong technical skill set is pivotal. From commercial reporting to investor relations, modern CFOs need to hone a well-rounded skill set to navigate today’s financial complexities.  This new transformative series seeks to inspire and educate the next generation of CFOs, acknowledging that the role is built on more than numbers and spreadsheets. It aims to equip professionals with the tools and guidance to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the digital age.  As this session explored, the right balance of skills will provide an essential foundation upon which leadership and strategic capabilities can flourish. It’s a crucial conversation for anyone looking to craft a well-rounded CFO profile.  CFO Panellists Henning Neethling (CFO, Sky News) and Amanda Smerdon (CFO, Lonsec), shared valuable insights into the multifaceted world of CFO competencies and the best strategies to acquire them. Both tireless in their pursuit of career success, each has drawn on their ambition and appetite for growth to accelerate their CFO trajectory.  Henning, a qualified Chartered Accountant, has strategically chased hands-on experience to acquire his diverse skill set. Climbing the ranks in the business banking and insurance sector, Henning spent time at Macquarie Bank and Commonwealth Bank, before an opportunity with Sky News elevated him into his current role as CFO.  Amanda is renowned for her unwavering commitment to personal growth, which has seen an early foray into both work and study. Amanda’s financial career has spanned organisations including Leightons (now CIMIC Group) and Riversdale. From Financial Controller to CFO, Amanda has embraced unexpected opportunities, culminating in her appointment to CFO at Lonsec.  Also joining the panel were Simon Brott (Private Equity Operating Partner, Cerberus) and John O’Leary (Director, Robert Half). Both experts in the field of executive recruitment, they share a passion for business transformation. Simon leads portfolio company management and operational diligence on new acquisitions in the region, bringing a wealth of experience managing the recruitment of executives in portfolio companies. Having undertaken several interim executive roles himself, Simon is well-versed in helping to grow businesses, solve complex problems, and create value.  John leads a dedicated team that provides temporary recruitment services to minimise the disruption to finance functions. Having managed the placement of C-Suite talent across various industries, John has an exceptional aptitude for navigating complex recruitment landscapes and delivering tailored solutions. Together, Simon and John know exactly what companies want in an executive, and what candidates need to be successful.  We know what you’re thinking – “What are the technical skills in finance that I need to become a CFO?”.  Over a 90 minute webinar, with 150 attendees, John O’Leary discovered the answers. Let’s explore the key discussion points and the intriguing expert insights that are indispensable for every aspiring CFO. Related: How to become a CFO – 7 steps to guide your career path
There are mixed opinions about how to build the core CFO technical skills. Henning distilled it when he said, “Consistent effort and a focus on doing what's right pave the way for success, irrespective of industry or academic qualifications.” While Amanda and Henning have travelled different paths to reach their current destinations, there have been certain parallels in their journeys. The similarities lie in the attainment of core skills, with both professionals acknowledging factors that have enriched their careers and evolved their skill sets. These include:  Supportive networks and mentors Continual upskilling and an unwavering commitment to personal growth  Versatility across industries Exposure to both group finance and business units A willingness to embrace unexpected opportunities John O'Leary, director at Robert Half and host of the Aspiring CFOs series, asked Amanda and Henning, "If you were to boil it down, what are key the technical skills in finance to become a CFO?" Here are the answers from the experts who not only have the skills but use them every day to level up their business and leadership.
For a CFO, the importance of producing accurate and insightful financial statements for internal and external stakeholders cannot be overstated.  Solid statutory accounting knowledge is essential for aspiring CFOs, so too is a strong grasp of financial data and financial analysis. However, as Amanda and Henning were both quick to point out, capturing the insights is one thing, but communicating them succinctly is another.   As Amanda discussed, effective financial reporting requires a user-centric approach devoid of technical jargon and grounded in data-driven insights. She says, “(It’s) got to be positioned for the end user. No accounting or financial lingo. It needs to be data-driven.” Amanda advocates for a holistic approach to financial reporting, stating that, “Financial reports should not just state numerical changes but should provide clear explanations for fluctuations and projections for future trends.”  Regardless of the audience, Amanda insists on commentary that “addresses factors such as timing, permanence, potential issues, and market influences,” especially where there are deviations from forecasts.  A holistic approach was also central to Henning’s success in the Financial Planning and analysis (FP&A) space. He credits his understanding of business dynamics to the forecasting focus of FP&A. He says, “Connecting financial analysis with broader business objectives ensures variances and questions are addressed comprehensively and strategically. A CFO's skill lies in their ability to synthesise information and discern patterns that drive informed decision-making.” As the session highlighted, financial and commercial reporting isn’t limited to rudimentary observations. For a CFO, it comes down to your ability to influence stakeholders – to drive the right numbers, to consolidate the budgeting process, to unearth where costs are coming from, and to engineer a path forward.   Related: Are finance skills at the top of chief executive requirements?
Weighing in on the latest Aspiring CFOs Series discussion was Simon Brott (Private Equity Operating Partner, Cerberus). 
Simon believes that investor relations play a pivotal role in the day-to-day responsibilities of a CFO. As the primary liaison between the company and its investors, analysts, and stakeholders, a CFO is wholly responsible for maintaining transparency, building trust, and effectively communicating financial information.  Simon says, “The board and stakeholders will look to the CFO to explain why the numbers might be down but also to hear what solutions and levers can be pulled to improve the situation.”  With this in mind, it’s important to recognise Simon and Henning’s shared sentiment that as CFO, “you don’t need to know everything about everything.”  As Simon says, “You need good people in your team who do know all the nitty gritty technical elements so you can shift the levers necessary to change the trajectory of a business and make strategic decisions.” Henning echoed this by emphasising, “You get the right people then implement the right processes.”  Simon says, “If a CFO can only report that the business performance went from X to Y but cannot explain why clearly to all stakeholders, that is a red flag. A CFO needs to be able to engage with executives and board members and tell the story and add commercial context of why the numbers went from X to Y. The key here is to articulate the priorities clearly.” Investor relations isn’t simply about pulling together all the appendices for the annual report. It’s about fronting the investors with the confidence to answer all the burning questions.  Knowing how to craft a narrative while putting commercial context around the numbers will show that you are in control of the business. It’s this level of sophistication and maturity that fellow executives, stakeholders, and shareholders, will value and respect.
As companies pursue growth through M&A prospects, CFOs play a critical role in assessing the opportunities, understanding valuations, conducting due diligence, and structuring deals for growth. 
Having experienced both positive and negative outcomes on the M&A front, Amanda shared some key insights into the related complexities. For Amanda, successful M&A transactions stem from “thorough due diligence and careful assessment of factors such as cost, synergy, regulatory compliance, and potential tax implications.”  She says, “A lot of acquisitions unfortunately fail. Knowing how it all works together is part of it. And then taking a step back and assessing the acquisition and working out the returns.” While M&A exposure is important for aspiring CFOs, Simon cautions against being an “M&A CFO”. He considers it to be a “red flag” when someone says “I want to specialise in M&A’, saying aspiring CFOs need to be “more rounded than that”. His recommendation would be to “focus on the other areas and after 15 years of solid experience, then you could consider the move or the option to be more involved in mergers and acquisitions.” CFOs are key players in strategic planning initiatives – it’s their financial insights that help to align financial goals with overall business objectives. Simon says, “For a CFO, having a calm head, and paying attention to the fundamentals throughout the process is critical. It is not uncommon for stakeholders to ‘just want to get the deal done’ and this can sometimes lead to people becoming too emotive and highly detrimental outcomes.” 
The ability to manage debt effectively can often separate the good CFOs from the great CFOs.  From mitigating financial risk to maintaining creditworthiness, debt management has a direct impact on the financial health and stability of an organisation. 
Comprehensive debt management involves strategic decision-making to optimise capital structure. Amanda reflected on her multifaceted experiences with debt strategies from acquiring businesses, executing dividend recapitalisations, to facilitating selective share buybacks. She went on to emphasise the importance of “capital restructuring to distribute funds effectively.” When asked, “What are technical skills in finance that can elevate aspiring CFOs?”, Amanda was quick to mention capital-raising expertise. She says, “Be it through equity or debt, capital-raising expertise plays a vital role in facilitating business expansion and meeting shareholder expectations. Understanding the possibilities in capital raising is crucial to optimise financial strategies and ensure business growth.”
In order to ensure compliance with regulations, safeguard assets, and protect shareholder value, CFOs must be prudent when it comes to governance and risk management. Amanda reflected on her journey of acquiring these skills. Not only did it allow her to ensure sound corporate governance and mitigate financial risks, but it also saw her gain a certificate from the Governance Institute.  Amanda’s advice to aspiring CFOs was centred around “the need for common sense in assessing controls within the finance function. And, the need to understand the rationale behind implementing controls to mitigate risks effectively.” It’s well documented that proactive risk management allows CFOs to identify potential threats, evaluate their impact, and implement mitigation strategies to safeguard the company's interests. Amanda agrees, reminding executive professionals to “stay updated on regulatory guidelines and liaise with the risk and compliance department to ensure compliance. Secondly, to prioritise collaboration with the general counsel and risk and compliance department to align with regulatory requirements and mitigate potential risks effectively.”
When senior finance candidates ask John, “What are technical skills in finance that I’ll need as a CFO?”, they often assume it’s skills like financial modelling and forecasting. Of course, those are necessary, but, as Henning suggests, the best CFOs are masters in the art of “letting go” He says, “As accountants, this is the biggest challenge. When they become a manager they feel so confident that they can do the job better than anybody else. They think though there’s a junior that can do it for me, I'm just going to do it myself. Over a long period, that can create such a bad habit.”  Henning acknowledges the increasing need for leadership and delegation as one progresses to the CFO role. Being mindful of the temptation to micromanage is critical, as Henning says, “This tendency can hinder the growth of team members and perpetuate a culture of control.” Instead, Henning advocates for a “hands-off approach”. He prefers to empower his financial controller and finance team to learn and grow through trial and error, rather than imposing his control over every decision and task. By taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture, Henning encourages a more collaborative and growth-oriented environment within his team. In building and leading high-performing finance teams, Henning is afforded greater bandwidth to contribute to more strategic projects. His examples include, “strategic alignment and personally collaborating with the CEO to devise annual strategies and establish key performance indicators for the executive team.” His hands-on involvement in strategic decision-making sets him apart, and it’s something that wouldn’t be possible without his effective leadership and his well-equipped team.  A team that he is “willing to wait months for if necessary to find the right fit”. Henning prioritises the recruitment of highly talented and dedicated individuals, believing that “a cohesive and engaged team is invaluable for driving organisational success.” Related: Are globetrotters best suited for the chief executive role?
With the business landscape shifting rapidly, aspiring CFOs must acknowledge what technical skills in finance will help them to succeed now and in the future.  With the growing importance of data analytics, financial technology (FinTech), and digital transformation in finance, experts anticipate significant changes in the accounting profession.  Amanda predicts that manual processing will become less common with the rise of automation. Her suggestion: “Embrace technology, don’t fear it, particularly in roles like supply chain management, where automation can streamline processes and reduce errors. Prioritise automation solutions for corporate governance tasks, which streamlines efficiency and effectiveness in testing systems.”  According to Amanda, embracing technology isn’t the only thing that can help you to stay ahead of the curve. She stresses the need for accountants to provide more than just numerical data to add value in strategic decision-making and business partnering. “It’s important to assess projects and determine their potential returns. Future accounting skills will focus on providing insights and strategic financial planning,” she says.  Amanda and Henning both agreed on, it’s the importance of showcasing strong leadership and operational skills beyond finance, now and in the future. Amanda says, “A CFOs true value lies in effective communication, problem-solving, and the ability to grasp the broader context of financial decisions. While technical finance skills are essential, superior communication skills are equally crucial in adding value and driving success in the financial realm.”  If you’re looking to progress to the role of CFO, technical finance skills are a must. However, if you want to excel and enjoy an enduring career, it’s imperative that you think beyond financial skills. A well-rounded skill set will empower you to drive business results as an effective leader, manager, communicator, and problem solver. As Amanda and Henning shared, developing your technical skill set through targeted training, professional development opportunities, and continuous learning, will help to sharpen your competitive edge and boost your chances of CFO success.