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Business & Industry

What Does It Take to Become a CFO?

Finance officers and recruiters offer some advice on how to increase your chances of landing the job.

By Carol Lippert Gray
December 2000

  

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • TO INCREASE THE LIKELIHOOD OF BECOMING A CFO, you need a broad range of skills beyond knowing the ABCs of accounting. You must be a business strategist, think like someone on the board of directors and be familiar with technology. Don’t ignore the operations side of the business either.
  • CPAs ARE PARTICULARLY WELL-SUITED to becoming CFOs and working as the CEO’s right hand. Because of their discipline and organization and their ability to present financial information appropriately and with integrity, accounting professionals make excellent CFO candidates.
  • CFOs NEED CORPORATE EXPERIENCE in either the controller or treasury functions. It’s okay to move around companies to gain experience. It’s critical to keep up with continuing professional education, especially in today’s regulatory environment.
  • POSITIONING YOURSELF AS A TEAM- AND CONSENSUS- builder will encourage people to trust your judgment. The CFO applicant must know how to deal with all the business departments, must understand risks and provide options for mitigating them.
  • DON’T ASSUME THE CEO KNOWS you want to be CFO. Make yourself known. The CEO wants someone of impeccable integrity and loyalty. Network, develop contacts on the board and with your auditors.
Carol Lippert Gray is a freelance writer from Morristown, New Jersey. Her e-mail address is clippy331@aol.com .

ant to be a chief financial officer? Business experts and CFOs themselves say your first priority is to become a business strategist. You have to move from an accounting focus to see the borders of the big picture—and beyond. You have to understand all aspects of your business, from the sales goals to the marketing plan to your company’s position in the marketplace through to the strategic plan. You have to be familiar with distribution channels, public relations and all other functional silos. You have to understand the latest technology and be able to share your IT savvy with your colleagues. In other words, “You can’t rely on just knowing the ABCs of accounting,” explains Diane Albergo, manager of member career services at the Financial Executives Institute (FEI), a membership organization for CFOs and senior financial executives in Morristown, New Jersey. “You need a strong business sense.”

What CFOs Earn
Source: “Climbing the Compensation Chart” by Eric Krell in the “Just Compensation” supplement to Business Finance (Nov.00), www.businessfinancemag.com . Reprinted with permission.

But since CFOs are made, not born, how can you increase your likelihood of becoming one—and thus being the right hand of the CEO? In addition to having excellent “soft” or “people” skills, you need extensive technical knowledge. In today’s business environment, however, the experts say there’s so much overlap between hard and soft skills it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between them.

Perhaps that’s why Laurence Stybel, of Boston-based Stybel Peabody & Associates, Inc., an executive search firm, recommends that you begin your quest for CFO-hood by changing your own thought processes. “Start thinking like a member of the board of directors,” he advises. “You’ve proved you can think like an accountant. Most CEOs are obsessed by what their boards are thinking. Come across as someone who knows what the board wants and the CEO will think of you as a confidant.”

TAKE YOURSELF TO THE TOP

If you’re actively seeking a CFO position, Stybel offers some techniques that can help. “Go to Web sites such as monster.com, careerpath.com and fei.org,” he suggests. “Look at the ads for CFOs and check the clichs du jour. The marketplace is telling you this minute what it wants. ‘Multitasking’ is very in these days, but ‘being a business partner’ is so 1997.”

His other pointers:

  • “Sometimes, to position yourself for the next level, you may have to do things that are counterintuitive. Look for what the market wants rather than what you want.”

  • “Understand your best source of opportunity will come from outside your company. Employees at some large companies can be recognized internally. But smaller companies are more thinly staffed, without much bench strength. Sometimes being at a small company makes it unlikely a controller can be recognized as anything but a controller.”

  • “Don’t get dazzled by the title. Focus on the job content and reporting relationship. A lot of people with the title vice-president of finance really are controllers and may not be CFO material. They may lack treasury experience, for example.”

  • Jobseekers must think like marketers and step outside their customary roles. “A job search involves differentiation. The whole idea is to stand out from the crowd.” That may be hard for CPAs, however. “It’s the equivalent of asking you to write your name with the wrong hand and violates a lifetime of learning and habits that have made you successful.”

  • “Network. Develop contacts, especially partners in CPA and law firms and people on boards of directors. Go out of your way to meet those people. Change your personal focus from inward to outward.”

There’s no clear-cut path to the CFO suite and no one-size-fits-all job description. The good news, according to Betsey Nelson, CFO of San Francisco-based Macromedia, which helps Web developers create state-of-the-art Web sites, is that accounting professionals are particularly well-suited to the position. “Because of their discipline and organization, their ability to present financial information appropriately and with integrity makes their information superb.” Nelson calls herself “an economist who rose through the financial planning ranks.” She is responsible for all administrative functions, including accounting and finance, treasury, tax, human resources, real estate, legal, mergers and acquisitions and investor relations.

Before joining Macromedia, Nelson spent eight years at Hewlett Packard, where she held a variety of positions in both finance and corporate development. She was involved in numerous acquisitions, equity investments, divestitures and joint ventures both domestically and internationally. Before that, she was a consultant with Robert Nathan Associates, an international economic consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.

Nelson holds an MBA in finance with distinction from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Science in foreign service from Georgetown University. Her advice for getting ahead includes maintaining a positive attitude and willingness to get involved. “The more you put yourself forward, the more people will put on you.” And, she adds, “It’s always good to ask questions.”

BREADTH OF VISION

Successful finance execs seem to agree that technology skills and breadth of vision are hallmarks of the CFO position. A viable candidate “has to be broad in many areas; being a CPA is only one of them,” says John Meinert, a CFO who rose to chairman of apparel maker Hartmarx Corp. Meinert, a past president of the Illinois CPA Society and an AICPA vice-president, now is a principal with J.H. Chapman Group, investment bankers in Rosemont, Illinois. “Two other factors have a terribly important impact on this objective: the computerization of information and the participation of the CFO in all forms of operations,” he says. In other words, explains Meinert, you must understand “the technology behind the way goods and services are marketed” and “every kind of asset, including intangibles, property leases, negotiations, mergers and acquisitions and pensions and benefits.”

Paul McDonald, executive director of management resources at Robert Half International in Menlo Park, California, seconds the importance of technology savvy. “Many CFOs have the information technology department reporting to them,” he says. “You need a solid understanding of enterprise resource planning and e-business initiatives. You need to keep pace with emerging technologies and Web-based applications, especially those that coordinate front- and back-office operations.” To do so, he suggests, “Study up on what’s needed and what’s going on within your corporation. If you are asked to sit on a financial systems conversion committee, take advantage of the offer. Make yourself visible through verbal and written communication to the committee.” And, he adds, don’t neglect your continuing professional education, through university classes or professional seminars. In fact, FEI’s Albergo says, many an accountant who hopes to become a CFO has returned to school to pursue an MBA.

According to McDonald, industry-specific skills are less important than a well-rounded total skill set. “If you have strong decision-making skills and an MBA or CPA, you’ll have an advantage over someone with industry-specific skills who may be lacking in the technical or functional arena.”

Meinert adds, “You can gain a lot of experience by moving between companies.” No matter the industry, however, corporate experience is critical. “You need to come from the controller side or the treasury side,” Albergo says. “CFOs come up one way or the other. It’s harder if you’re just coming out of a public accounting background.”

Still, the route to the CFO suite can be a catch-22 process, according to Ruth Wallace, CFO at Patrion, a Web-based start-up for long-term care providers, residents and families in Louisville, Kentucky. A CPA who spent 10 years with KPMG, Wallace previously was CFO of Community Physicians Network and Centennial Resources Inc. “Organizations typically want to hire a CFO who’s been a CFO,” she says.

Preparing for the First Step

Here are some suggestions for the job candidate going off to the first round interview for a CFO position.

Do your research. Don’t go in unprepared. Minimum requirements for a public company include a review of the company’s 10Ks and those of its key competitors. For a private company, review the Dun & Bradstreet Credit Reports for the company and its key competitors. And it’s always a good idea to speak with current and former employees of your potential employer.

Identify the company’s needs. Approach the first interview like a consultant. Ask the interviewer about the organization, and use the job description as a platform to find out the needs and constraints. Here are some questions to ask during the first interview that will make the employer want to see you again:

  • Why is this position open?
  • If you were to list your needs in the next 12 months, what would they be?
  • What internal or external problems do you perceive in this position?
  • What do you want to achieve in the next 12 months?
  • What do you want to preserve in the next 12 months?
  • What do you want to avoid in the next 12 months?

Structure the right analogy. Do you think of a job interview in these terms?

  • A job interview is like an audition for a play. You try your best and then wait for the producer’s decision.
  • A job interview is like playing a tennis match.

You volley back the questions, and then wait for the return.

Of course, these analogies are oversimplifications. Viewing the job search as an audition is too passive, and seeing it as a tennis match implies an adversarial relationship. Instead, try this analogy:

  • A job interview is a way to put together a consulting proposal for a long-term, expensive project.

Keep in mind you don’t have to be brilliant in the first interview. Your candidacy can be kept alive with the proper post-interview tactics. Do not merely send bland “thank you” letters. Instead, try to capitalize on what you learned during the interview by sending in a draft proposal that positions you as an executive problem-solver.

The bottom line is convincing the company it is not making a mistake in hiring you.

Source: Preparing for the First Round Job Interview. Stybel Peabody & Associates, Inc., www.stybelpeabody.com .

RESUME BUILDERS

What kinds of experience should you highlight on your resume? The short answer is “varied.”

“You need an understanding of the financial markets, venture capital, Wall Street and leveraged balance sheets,” Wallace says. “Work with your company’s external auditors.” In other words, stay in touch with your outside auditors for more than just the annual audit. She suggests candidates develop strong technical accounting knowledge, especially in today’s regulatory environment. “Controllers may want to go back to public accounting,” she says.

If you’re a controller, McDonald adds, your experience should be as diverse as possible, including budgeting, planning and up-to-date financial systems knowledge.

Familiarity with reengineering is also important. A CFO should be a strong leader who can let go of weak staff members, “demand excellence, lead change and think out of the box to shake up the organization,” Wallace says. Companies seek CFOs who have demonstrated that they have technical skills. “Raise and manage equity and debt. Develop relationships and influence people. Be innovative and decisive.”

According to McDonald, “Helping to take a company public is always outstanding experience in marketing yourself, as is reengineering experience.” If a candidate has been involved in a merger, “You know what change is all about. You are adaptable.” Other experience that strengthens your track record, he thinks, includes taxation, budgeting and treasury functions. In addition, he says CFOs “need a broad understanding of legal matters and have to know when to refer to inside or outside counsel.”

Having a mentor doesn’t hurt, either. “My first opportunity was provided by my mentor and supervisor in public accounting,” Wallace says. Today, in fact, the trend toward mentoring is so strong, McDonald, Nelson and Albergo say, many corporations are starting internal mentoring programs for their finance and accounting staffs. It’s wise for CFOs to mentor their own employees, too. “I’m always looking for ways to involve my accounting people more deeply in the business,” Nelson says.

But you have to be a self-starter. “Study up on what’s needed and going on within your corporation,” notes McDonald. “Typically, you’re aware of what’s going on in your industry by studying the competition and benchmarking your organization.”

ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT

If you feel you’re lacking expertise in a particular area, McDonald says, go ask for it. You may be able to get involved in a project through a simple request to your boss. McDonald also encourages stepping away from your desk and into group projects. “Build credibility,” he says. “Volunteer. People will learn to trust your judgment. You’ll become known across cross-functional lines and will be seen as a team- and consensus-builder.”

Meinert recalls that in his career, every time an opportunity—such as work in foreign operations or licensing—came up, he took advantage of it. He came to Hartmarx when he was 22 and was named CFO in his late 30s. He was asked to travel to Europe and negotiate contracts for licenses and sublicenses for apparel. By 1973, when he was CFO, Meinert went to Japan. “Working back and forth with various companies and helping them find ways to license and sublicense names—and finding the manufacturers to do it—is an important way to learn to deal with people,” he explains.

Tim Adelman, who is CFO of InsuranceNoodle.com, a Chicago-based online insurance solution provider for small businesses, and former CFO of Aon Enterprise (another small business insurance provider), stresses the importance of additional abilities: multitasking; dealing with various business departments; handling human resources; and risk-management skills. Working at a small company, Adelman says he wears many hats and is responsible for “everything including the kitchen sink.” But, he says, “I am having the most fun I have had in 16 years.”

Before joining InsuranceNoodle.com, Adelman, a CPA, was vice-president of financial consulting at Marsh USA, the brokerage unit of Marsh & McLennan. From 1989 to 1998, he held various positions at Aon Enterprise, from accounting manager to CFO.

“You have to prove yourself to your company’s internal customers (from the mailroom to the CEO to the advisory board), to its external customers and to its shareholders,” he says. “Be part of the business process to drive value and help execute the business plan rather than being just a cost center. The job of the controller and CFO is to remove obstacles and break barriers so others can do their jobs. You must be able to deliver and execute within a team environment. ‘No’ is not an acceptable response within the organization.”

Having done all that, though, it’s not always easy to achieve internal recognition. You may think you’re ready to be CFO but the decision makers may not. “It’s like your father never believing you know how to drive a car,” Meinert says. “You’ve got to show that you are capable. Put good teams together. Put the brightest people under you who are pushing for your job. They’ll push you up, not out. Self-confidence is persuasive to your superiors.”

“You may have to get experience outside your company,” McDonald says. “Call a business incubator or the local chapter of the Small Business Administration and volunteer for a local corps of executives. Or spread the word that you’ll help a small company get a loan or write a proposal.”

Still want to be a CFO? Remember, cautions Meinert, “You can’t be just a numbers person. You have to be an operations person.” But why stop at CFO? “With enough breadth, you can become chairman of the company,” he adds. “If you have what it takes to be CFO, you have what it takes to be CEO and even chairman.”

You Have to Know the Big Picture

A lthough IT expertise is a crucial skill for aspiring CFOs, many experts stress that the knowledge base doesn’t end there. They underline the importance of strong managerial skills and experience in M&A, business deals and megatransactions. And, they note, saving the company money—and making it—are equally, if not more, important.

“To be a good CFO, you must understand what keeps people in operations up all night,” says CPA Peggy Scott, CFO of New Orleans-based Pan American Life Insurance Co. “You will have to win over the sales and operations sides and show them you can help them. If you aspire to become a CEO someday, you must keep in mind that you’ll need some level of experience along the way. Operations experience helps candidates take that final step.”

She suggests that not being able to see the big picture is “the single biggest thing” that holds CFO candidates back. “I’ve seen really good people get overlooked because they were put in a box,” she explains. For example, Scott says that heading up the internal audit and tax departments can be dead-end jobs because they are perceived as being too narrowly focused.

What about having definite career goals in your own five-year plan? “I think goals are essential to my success as well as for others,” says Scott. “I have always had short and long-term goals, both personal and professional in nature for as long as I can remember. In fact, most of the time, I carry them with me. Overall I would say I have achieved many of my professional goals, but I still have some years ahead and some additional items I would like to accomplish. However, the important part is to plan as far as you can see and then adjust as you go.”

Scott began her career in public accounting, rising through the ranks as a tax partner at Deloitte Haskins & Sells to become a managing partner. In order to achieve her objective of managing a Deloitte office, Scott had not only worked on her technical skills but had also spent significant time in developing the practice, mentoring staff, and getting involved in community organizations.

Once she left Deloitte, Scott chose to further develop her managerial abilities by enrolling in an executive MBA program at Tulane University. She then became CFO of both a health care company and an HMO before landing her present position at Pan-American Life Insurance. As a CFO all her CPA skills come into play, whether looking for opportunities to improve the company’s bottom line and add profits through financial planning, or restructuring and redesigning departments for efficiency and cost savings.

Although not every company looks within to fill the CFO job, “the key to becoming CFO through promotion is board exposure. Get on teams, do something to get the board’s attention. The board needs to know and approve you in order for you to become CFO.” And, she says, “It doesn’t hurt to let the CEO know you aspire to the CFO position some day. Don’t assume that he or she realizes it.”

If you’re looking outside your current industry for a CFO position, Scott observes, you’ve got lots of company. “The trend is to be more receptive to CFOs from other industries,” she says. But, she cautions, “every time you make a career change or an industry change, you have to work very hard. You have to take time to learn, and most of that time is on your own.”

Finally, Scott notes, anyone who wants to become a CFO must possess impeccable integrity. “The CEO must view you as totally loyal to him or her, and as being there to assist in leading the company. If you’ve spoiled your reputation along the way, there’s no getting it back.”

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