Climbing the career ladder takes grit and strategy, and — according to experts who have been there and done it — finance professionals have the innate skill sets to triumph.

Robert Half recently invited a panel of C-suite executives to share how they steered their finance career paths toward the top spot. Warren Hillier (CFO, Evolutions), Andy Morgan (CEO, Smart Capital Technology), and Carolyn Clarke (founder and CEO, Brave Within) revealed key groundwork for becoming a CEO and how to be a good leader. 

Read: your guide to current and future exec level roles 

Actively engage with the business 

Build knowledge 

Only so much can be learned from sitting behind a desk and dishing out orders. Truly effective leadership comes from engaging with the wider business.  

“Be active and engaged in your business — don't manage it from behind the desk, don't manage it by email,” says Warren. “As you get involved and build those relationships, you’ll get that broader knowledge and understanding of the organisation.”  

Increase your value 

Relationships are crucial to career advancement. Andy says that once he started going out and talking with customers one-on-one, he gained valuable insights into selling to C-suite and developed a clearer understanding of the business’ strategy. He became known and valued for the relationships he’d developed with those customers.  

“I think it helped me elevate my position in the organisation, become more of a leader in the group and not just be seen as finance,” says Andy. 

Gain credibility 

Active involvement in the wider business also provides more opportunities to stand out and build much-needed credibility. According to Carolyn, taking on roles like trustee in not-for-profit organisations or volunteering as pension fund trustee can play into your finance skill set while adding an extra string to your bow. 

“Really look for those opportunities to step outside of what you do on a day-to-day basis. That can be through the curiosity lens and finding that there are problems that you might have the brain to fix within your own organisation,” says Carolyn. “It can be putting your hand up to be the pension fund trustee, which is something not many people want to do, but [finance professionals] have the right skill sets to do it.” 

Start building relationships at work 

Reciprocated engagement  

Any CEO hopeful will need a network of excellent colleague relationships to reach the top of the career ladder. They allow you to build influence which helps grease the wheels of progress. 

Warren says: “Those relationships become very powerful because you can start to exploit them. You start to influence people, they will listen to you, they will reciprocate your engagement and understanding their part of the business by listening to what you have to say, and you can start to shape and develop the business.” 

Elevate your position 

On his journey to CEO, Andy made a conscious effort to build relationships with the board, the management team, and with customers. He says, “I think by having some of the softer conversations, perhaps in the coffee room, or just walking around the business, and asking people what their pain points were, the PR helped me elevate my position in the organisation.” 

Read: Using soft skills to help women close the leadership gap 

Courage to be bold 

Carolyn advises finance professionals to be willing to put themselves ‘out there’ and engage with people. For her, work relationships provide the essential support systems needed to make bold moves and take the next steps in your career. Relationships are fundamental to the ability to lead. 

“Being CEO is being a leader. It’s being the figurehead of your organisation. And that's very much about emotional connection. It's about having a real, clear sense of confidence and being able to take all the people with you.” 

Challenge the status quo 

Be open to exploring new ways of doing things 

A closed mind is a barrier to success. Warren learned early in his career that he could unearth new business opportunities and better ways of doing things by challenging the status quo. 

“You really have to challenge the way that you're thinking about these things in the business”, he says. “Discuss it with your peer group and your management team — some revelations can come out of it. You think you've lifted every stone, but actually, there’s usually something that gets tucked away somewhere that you could prise out.” 

Read: Why embracing different opinions in your team is important 

Be curious  

Andy encourages finance professionals to be curious and ask questions across the whole business. By allowing his curiosity to lead him, Andy was able to make better business decisions and boost his reputation. 

“It didn't really matter what part of the organisation it was. It could be marketing; understanding, why are we spending money with a digital marketing agency? Why are we spending money with brand agencies? Or it could be the engineers — how'd you accept a job? How do you go out and fill out your timesheet or your report back? What I found is I learned a lot more about the organisation to make my decision making a lot better and enable me to elevate my position within the organisation.” 

Ask questions 

Carolyn feels every professional wanting a spot on the board should embrace the opportunity to ask questions of themselves as well as their colleagues. She says: 

“Our job is to ask questions. If you're doing your job well, you’ll be asking the questions as to whether ‘Does that make sense?’, ‘What I'm seeing — is it right?’, ‘Where's it come from?’, and ‘Can I stand behind those numbers?’ That is part of the job of an executive board level.” 

Always look to the future 

Think strategically 

Warren believes it’s important for a future CEO to be able to think strategically and pre-empt the issues and opportunities ahead. In understanding the industry, competitors, and changes in legislation, you’ll be equipped to protect the business as you move it forward. He says, “When you start to think about those and build those into your thinking, suddenly you are thinking strategically, and you are starting to think like a CEO.” 

See the opportunity in the risk 

What’s the worst that could happen? That’s the mindset Carolyn advises executives to take when assessing a risk or an opportunity. Knowing the potential outcomes and how you’d handle them can embolden you to make big moves. 

“One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is understanding your options. You can take risks, whether it's personally, or whether it's for your organisation, if you have a real understanding of the potential range of consequences, and how you will respond to those consequences.” 

Make resilience part of your skill set 

Future CEOs need to understand what resilience means to them — you can’t bring this desirable skill to the table if you haven’t strengthened it through counselling or personal development.  

“Boards are looking for chief executives who can evidence resilience as part of their skill sets,” says Carolyn, “We've all seen the broader challenges of the last few years. So, resilience is really important.” 

Keep honing your leadership skills and carve out your finance career path by visiting the Robert Half advice blog or downloading a free copy of the 2023 Salary Guide. Are you ready to take the next steps in your finance career? Browse open roles now.