For Many Finance Leaders, the CFO Path Includes Diverse Career Steps

By Robert Half May 29, 2019 at 3:25pm

Many chief financial officers have seen their influence expand beyond the traditional finance function, as they help to drive business and technology transformations at their company. To meet these expectations, and be an effective partner to the business, today’s CFOs need to have a depth of experience — and not necessarily just in finance.

New research from Robert Half Management Resources finds that 36% of financial leaders worked in business development before becoming a CFO. Many also have held administrative (35%), human resources (35%) and technology roles (33%). Only 14 percent of survey respondents reported that they have worked exclusively in accounting and finance during their career.

See more survey results in our infographic, The Road to CFO.

Setting course: Preparing for the role of an influencer

The financial executives interviewed in our survey also said they earned, on average, nine years of accounting and finance experience before earning the CFO seat. They also worked at three different companies, on average. So, the path to CFO can be long and may include a number of diverse career steps. But professionals aspiring for this role can set the right course with the following six strategies:

1. Master the fundamentals — technical and not

No matter how talented you are in business development or technology — or whatever other areas of the business you’ve worked in — you’re not likely to realize your goal of becoming a CFO if you don’t master the fundamental skills that the job requires. CFOs are expected to have broad knowledge in a wide range of technical areas, from budgeting and analysis to compliance and risk management.

Nontechnical abilities, like active listening and diplomacy, are also essential for CFOs to be effective leaders. Other traits, like integrity and empathy, are also highly valued by employers. So, look for professional development opportunities that will allow you to refine these vital skills and attributes.

2. Earn an in-demand certification or advanced degree

It can also be valuable for professionals aiming to become a CFO to earn certain certifications and advanced degrees. Many businesses prefer to hire candidates who have a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) and/or an in-demand designation, such as certified public accountant (CPA) or certified management accountant (CMA).

For more details on the types of skills and certifications today’s employers seek, see our latest Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals.

3. Be a proactive collaborator in your organization

Modern CFOs are business problem-solvers and cross-departmental collaborators. So, consider reaching out proactively to peers in other departments to learn about their priorities and challenges, and identify ways to help them. Be first in line to sign up for relevant cross-training and job rotation opportunities, as well, if your employer offers them. These efforts will help you gain a better understanding of how the company operates and how different departments interact.

4. Seek to grow your technology expertise

Technology, from cloud computing to big data analysis to robotic process automation, is becoming increasingly important to the everyday operations of accounting and finance functions. CFOs need to understand the benefits and risks of implementing financial systems and other technologies. CFOs are also often seated at the strategic decision-making table when the business itself is considering new IT investments.

Growing your technology expertise doesn’t mean becoming an IT expert. But if you do become a CFO, you’ll likely need to collaborate frequently with one such expert — namely, the chief information officer (CIO). So, pay close attention to what is happening technologically in your organization and industry, and why, and become “digitally fluent” at least from a business and finance perspective.

Read about current technology trends affecting accounting and finance functions in this report.

5. Understand the new labor model

CFOs at many leading firms are now embracing a new labor model for finance that is designed to meet the needs of businesses in the digital age. They are relying more on a flexible labor force that includes full-time employees who are focused on critical initiatives; interim and project-based professionals who help to support them, usually for a finite period; and other specialized resources that can provide additional capabilities and perform high-value work on an as-needed basis.

The upshot for you as a potential CFO of the future is to understand this growing trend, and to know when, why and how you might apply this staffing strategy in your organization one day.

Learn more about the new labor model for finance in this post.

6. Work as a consultant

For many experienced financial professionals, consulting is an important step toward earning the kind of experience and expertise that can help position them for a senior leadership role in the field. As consultants, they can work on diverse assignments, learn best practices, gain exposure to different industries, and maintain a flexible schedule — and accelerate their career progression.

Businesses today rely on senior-level consultants to provide specialized expertise to key projects or business initiatives that can last weeks, months or even longer. See this post to find out more.

Tap your professional network for guidance

The six strategies outlined above are just some ways to build the foundational skills and knowledge that can help you to succeed as a future CFO. And remember, you don’t need to go it alone: Your professional network can offer valuable support and help you identify relevant professional development opportunities along the way.

You might even want to explore setting up a mentoring relationship with a financial leader you know and admire. That way, you’ll get more direct guidance and feedback that can help you be more strategic in the steps you take to become a CFO.

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