Motivation and preparation can pave the path to CFO

How enterprising CPAs can land a coveted finance leadership job
BY MARIA L. MURPHY, CPA

 Michael Dinkins, CPA
Michael Dinkins, CPA (Photo by Rex Curry/AP Images)

Demand for talented and experienced CPAs is high. As CPAs consider their career paths, many aspire to become a CFO in industry. A limited number of these positions are available, and the competition is intense.

How can candidates best prepare themselves for the CFO role? Here is what some successful CPAs who have attained the position have to say.

SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE

CPAs with designs on a CFO position need to distinguish themselves with skills that go far beyond the basic foundation of accounting competencies. The significance of these skills varies based on the company’s size and industry, but all of them should be considered in a self-assessment to prepare for a career move. It is important to develop experience in a specialized area or master knowledge of a subject that makes you valuable and helps you stand out from the crowd.

Michael Dinkins, CPA, the CFO of Texas-based medical technology manufacturer Greatbatch, said that in choosing a CFO, there are two equally important and necessary parts to the decision—“Can Do” and “Can Fit.” “Can Do” covers the required knowledge, experiences, and strengths a candidate must have to meet the needs of the business. “Can Fit” covers the ability to collaborate, build working relationships, and influence others to get things done.

BUSINESS AND OPERATIONAL EXPERIENCE

If you do not understand the business of the company, you cannot be an effective CFO. One of the most important responsibilities for these leaders is to create and implement company strategies and policies and to define the organization’s future direction. This requires an entrepreneurial perspective about where the organization is and where it is going. Leaders must be able to provide analysis to change behavior. To do this effectively, you must build a collaborative relationship with operational colleagues.

Some CPAs have strong accounting and finance backgrounds but no operational experience. To get it, aspiring CPAs can volunteer for projects outside of finance, take lateral positions in different areas, and seek out and visit others who work in operational areas such as manufacturing and sales. CPAs can broaden their perspectives by asking questions, even if it is uncomfortable; reading contracts from a business perspective; and attending and participating in meetings.

“If you stay in a staff position working with other finance people, that’s a very difficult way to get to a CFO seat,” Dinkins said. “You have to get into the operating positions … and hopefully at a divisional or plant level be responsible for a P&L or portion of one, and show that you have successfully worked with people in that operational environment.”

Valuable relationships also can be developed by educating other departments on how their performance and results become part of the organization’s overall financial results.

PEOPLE SKILLS AND NEGOTIATION

Effectiveness in leadership roles requires being open with other employees. A positive attitude and enthusiasm are essential. Having an executive presence is critical, as you will be dealing with customers and shareholders, bankers and lawyers, partners, and boards of directors. But while it’s important to be able to speak the language of the boardroom, you must also be able to alter your behavior and learn different ways to communicate with all levels of an organization, and to build relationships with people with different levels of education and experience.

Jenine Dalrymple, CPA, CGMA, the CFO at Tucson, Ariz.-based mining contractor Southwest Energy LLC, learned about the business by leaving her office and traveling to the locations where the company’s miners were working. Her background and education were very different from theirs, but she gained their trust by showing a personal interest in what they did and by asking them questions.

“I learned about employees’ problems in the field that I could fix,” she said. “To me, that’s the greatest power of the CFO role. I can make a difference in each of those people’s lives.”

LEADERSHIP SKILLS: CREATIVITY AND COURAGE

To be a CFO, you must be tough and confident. You must be able to make difficult, reasoned decisions and explain complex accounting, financial, and business concepts to others in a way that they can understand. You must be a good storyteller to communicate the story behind the numbers to management or third parties. You must maintain your professional ethics and maintain a CPA’s duty of care to stakeholders, having the courage to know when to draw a line in the sand and not deviate from principles. You need to encourage new ideas rather than just maintain the status quo. CFOs need to go beyond the numbers to be strategic partners to CEOs.

“To me, being a CFO requires creativity, the courage to be tough enough to stand up to people and expect them to do the right thing, and bold enough to tell people when things go wrong,” Dalrymple said.

STRONG PERSONAL VALUES

While pursuing higher positions on the career ladder, it’s important to be true to yourself and not deviate from your values, CPAs say. Getting the job you want can leave you feeling empty if you sacrifice your beliefs to get there. Dalrymple stressed the importance of picking a firm and career that provided flexibility and supported her commitment to family and community. Paul Shillam, CPA, CGMA, controller of Pacific Medical Centers in Seattle, suggested that working well with others in leadership roles requires an understanding of oneself as a starting point.

“First and foremost, be authentic,” he said. “Be yourself. You have to have your own personal set of values. It starts with yourself and understanding what your values are. Then you extend them to the group you are dealing with.”

NETWORKING AND MENTORING

A strong network is critical to career success and advancement. While having a large number of connections can be valuable, successful networking is more than just collecting contacts. It is important to assess your current network and to build quality contacts in targeted areas that can help you attain the role of CFO—in select industries, firms or business associations, geographical areas, or community activities. Shillam described how he located hospital CFOs in his area on an association website and contacted them.

“I started calling up CFOs and asked them for a moment of their time to discuss my career and how they got to where they are today,” he said. “… The first person suggested additional people to talk to. This networking was beneficial in helping me with my career plan.”

Building relationships outside of a usual comfort zone is important for good networking. Some successful people set measurable goals for networking and execute them. For example, they may take someone to lunch once a month, or go to a conference and sit with someone they don’t know and start a conversation. Find a way to relate to new connections, and remember them and make sure they will remember you. You may not realize today who will end up helping you in the future.

Dinkins had been the leader of a due-diligence team for a potential acquisition. Years later, one of the team members who worked for him, who had become an executive recruiter, remembered Dinkins and contacted him to be a candidate for a CFO job, which he ultimately accepted.

“It shows that someone below you may be the person that helps you move up,” he said.

Personal contacts such as spouses, family members, neighbors, and friends, as well as professional mentors, can be part of a network. Mentors may be assigned through human resource programs or may just happen, but the important thing is to have a personal relationship, build trust to get advice, and have someone who will tell you the truth.

NEXT STEPS

As you consider your strengths and areas for improvement against these recommendations, it is important to do a thorough self-analysis of your abilities and talents. Talk to friends, families, peers, and subordinates to get others’ perspectives. Use performance evaluations. Consider retaining an executive coach. Learn more about what issues are important to CFOs today. Attend industry conferences, including conferences offered by the AICPA and state societies, to get exposure to the professionals and industry you are interested in.

Assess what you are passionate about and what defines success for you (beyond compensation)—job content, work/life balance, making a difference, taking responsibility, and building a team. Do not get hung up on job titles, but instead choose a job for the right reason.

No matter what steps you take in your career search, there is always an element of luck involved. Be open to opportunities presented at all times and always have your “antenna up.” Do not underestimate the value that you bring to an organization as a CPA, based on your experiences and credentials. If you continue to develop your professional strengths and play to them, you are likely to create career opportunities for yourself.

Tips for Rising to the Level of CFO

1. Maintain and broaden your skill set. While it takes more than good technical skills to advance, these skills cannot go stale. Keep current on business developments and technology changes through daily reading, and attend conferences to see what hot topics are important to CFOs. Assess your skills honestly through self-analysis and feedback from others.

2. Develop a specialization. Stand out from the crowd, and be unique and valuable. Consider what the company’s value proposition is. You may need to reinvent yourself or further develop a specialty that you already have. Recognize your strengths and build upon them.

3. Understand the business from an operational perspective. Get out of your office and away from your computer. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t already know everything, and ask questions.

4. Take initiative. Don’t wait for opportunities to be presented to you. Seek projects that will lead to experiences you need. Be proactive and visible, and put yourself in situations to succeed.

5. Have an executive presence. Project confidence, learn the language of the boardroom, and use this language and demeanor in dealing with customers, shareholders, bankers, and lawyers.

6. Be open and approachable in communications. Do not act as if you have nothing to learn because of your experience. Ask questions, learn from others, and build relationships with people at all levels of the organization.

7. Network. Assess your current network, call old contacts, and ask for suggestions on how to expand your network. Seek contacts in targeted areas—industries, locations, communities, and charities. Build relationships outside of your comfort zone, and set measurable goals for networking and execute them.

8. Understand yourself. Think about what you are passionate about, because you will be better at your career if you love what you do. Be courageous, make tough decisions, stay true to principles, and maintain a duty of care to stakeholders. Be authentic, be yourself, and be an effective leader by motivating and encouraging others through your passion.

3 Tips for Becoming a CPA Firm Leader

Managing partner is a leadership position in public accounting that CPAs may aspire to. Here are three tips for pursuing one of these positions, from Leon Janks, CPA, managing partner of Los Angeles-based firm Green Hasson Janks:

  • Understand the challenges and motivations of the individuals in the organization. “What is critically important is having the confidence and passion that you can mold the future of a firm, motivate others, and create a firm with financial stability and direction,” Janks said.
  • Develop the skills and confidence to attract new clients, along with the leadership ability to help others at the firm develop this skill
  • Capitalize on your strengths. “For many years, I spent more of my time trying to get rid of or trying to reduce weaknesses,” Janks said. “But I have come to the realization that my time and energy are better spent investing in and ‘strengthening my strengths.’ Gravitate toward using your strengths to make a contribution.”


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Accomplished CPAs who yearn for highly coveted CFO jobs will face intense competition. At this point in their career, technical skills are well-established, so leadership abilities must be developed to compete for these top jobs.

Understanding all aspects of operations of the organization—and the people in it—is one key to obtaining a leadership role. And a strategic focus is essential.

Obtaining a CFO job requires courage and the ability to motivate and communicate. An element of luck is involved, too, but CPAs who develop strategic and leadership skills put themselves in position to take advantage of opportunities that come their way.

Maria L. Murphy ( emailmariamurphy@gmail.com ) is a freelance writer.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, editorial director, at ktysiac@aicpa.org or 919-402-2112.

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