If you're an accounting or finance professional with your eye on the C-suite, here’s some advice on how to become a CFO. Spoiler alert: You need more than just top-notch financial skills and an MBA.
Today’s CFOs have a lot on their plate. Beyond managing a company’s cash flow and financial planning, they’re also busy hiring and managing their own team of financial professionals and working with internal and external parties on issues that affect the organization’s bottom line. What’s more, they’re often viewed as the CEO’s second-in-command, a strategic adviser who makes recommendations regarding everything from the budget to human resources and technology.
So it should be no surprise that companies seek candidates with a wide array of skills when they’re looking to fill the CFO role. Those who hold the job typically have advanced education and credentials, at least a decade of experience, and a broad understanding of the organization’s operations, products and services, customers, vendors, employees, and shareholders.
The rewards of the CFO career path go beyond the pay, which you can find in the latest Salary Guide From Robert Half. The CFO position is often a satisfying one that involves strategy, analytics, people management, and digital transformation initiatives.
If you want to know how to become a CFO, here are five steps that will help you move closer to the C-suite.
1. Further your education
In the past, finance chiefs almost always rose from the accounting department, going from staff accountant or internal auditor to director of finance, controller, or audit manager, and finally to the top post. The job focused almost exclusively on financial matters, and CFOs were expected to be experts in accounting, reporting requirements, and financial strategy. Many CFOs held bachelor’s (and sometimes master’s) degrees in accounting or finance, in addition to earning accounting certifications.
These days, however, there are many roads to becoming a CFO, and the role has expanded well beyond accounting and finance. That’s why many finance chiefs now hold an MBA. Business schools can help aspirants learn more about strategy and operations so they can successfully collaborate with human resources, information technology and risk management. If your career goal is the CFO’s office, you’d be smart to consider adding a business school degree to your resume.
2. Master the necessary technical skills
A big part of the CFO’s job is to ensure that the CEO and board’s decisions are financially sound. That means the finance chief must be a master of budgeting, analysis, compliance, and other accounting principles. Seek out jobs that allow you to develop these technical skills.
You might want to consider stints as a staff accountant, financial analyst, or auditor, where you can get an up-close look at how your organization manages the books, handles reporting requirements, and makes decisions about expenditures and acquisitions. Studying for and earning a CPA designation can also help you develop expertise in these areas on the CFO career path.
3. Improve your leadership and communication skills
CFOs must be strong leaders so they can effectively head up their organization’s finance and accounting departments. In today’s candidate-driven hiring market, it’s more important than ever for executives to set a strong tone at the top to help their company attract top talent and retain the best performers. They must also be able to lead in the boardroom, guiding fellow executives and board members to decisions that will put the company in the best possible financial position.
Expert communication, presentation and team-building skills are key to all of these expectations, so begin now looking for opportunities to improve and enhance these abilities. Offer to give presentations to audiences inside and outside your organization, for example, or volunteer for committees where you can fine-tune your leadership skills. Also consider asking someone whose communication skills you admire to mentor you.
4. Improve your cross-functional knowledge of the company
The CFO must collaborate regularly with managers and executives from across the company. What’s more, the finance chief regularly makes decisions that affect the whole organization. That’s why it’s critical for the CFO to have a thorough understanding of how the company is organized, what its most and least profitable sectors are, and the competition and risks it faces.
Cross-training and job shadowing are two good ways to start developing this deep knowledge. For instance, if you’ve always worked as a staff accountant, talk to your manager about doing a stint in, say, the operations or manufacturing department. If that’s not possible, try volunteering to serve as your department’s representative on cross-functional committees. This can allow you to develop relationships with people outside your department who can help you learn even more about the different areas in your organization.
5. Stay abreast of developments in technology and cybersecurity
In a Robert Half survey, 82% of CFOs said they’re collaborating more with their company’s CIO than they did three years ago, particularly on business system changes, technology investments, cybersecurity, and digital transformation initiatives. This partnership helps companies make smarter IT investments, improve the security of their data, and procure the digital tools that provide real-time information on challenges and opportunities.
Those looking for advice on how to become a CFO should make every effort to keep up to date on the latest directions in IT in both the company and its industry. Become well-versed in trends in digital transformation and understand emerging tech tools that will help give your company a competitive advantage by boosting efficiency and reducing risk.
Leading the financial activities of a business has become more complex, as consumer behavior and worker expectations of their employer have significantly changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and an economy that has cycled from recession and widespread unemployment to inflation and labor shortages. If you’re looking to make your mark on your company and your industry, the top finance job is a prime place to be today. These tips on how to become a CFO can get you started on that journey.
CFOs are in demand across the United States, including your city.