How CFOs can reach CEO

By Neil Amato

Not every finance chief is automatically CEO-worthy. Some skills must be practiced, and others must be learned on the job. Here’s what CFOs can do to position themselves for a seat in the chief executive’s chair.

Build relationships with internal and external stakeholders. For several years before Anoop Mehta, CPA, CGMA, became president of Maryland-based government contractor Science Systems and Applications Inc., he attended meetings related to business development. His presence as CFO sometimes surprised potential customers.

"In our industry, it's rare that financial folks have a lot of interaction with the technical folks," Mehta said. "I started getting involved in the customer visits. So I understood firsthand what [the customer] challenges were and how the finance organization could help."

Develop deeper knowledge of operations. Research from staffing services provider Robert Half and others shows that operational expertise is a must for potential CEOs. The careers of Mehta and Stefany Williams, CPA, CGMA, bear that out. Williams, the CEO of not-for-profit Goodwill of Western Missouri and Eastern Kansas, said that "an intense curiosity for how things work" has served her well. She said that while some of her CEO learning took place on the job, some of the steps she took helped prepare her for the role. One of those steps was gaining an in-depth understanding of operations.

"It's been about asking questions, talking with subject-matter experts about what's going on, asking follow-up questions, 'And what if you press lever B instead of lever A?' That's always been something that's fascinated me, and I think that's served me very well now. I've used that skill and learned a lot in a short period of time," Williams said.

Mehta added: "Sometimes CFOs get homed in on the internal reporting and the financial aspect of it, but the trend has been being more of an adviser. So in order to be that adviser, you have to have a broader understanding of [operations], and not just the financial aspect."

Improve communication skills. Williams recognized nearly 10 years ago that she needed to improve her ability to speak in public, so she joined a business networking organization and began teaching classes at a local college. "I worked on those public speaking skills so my fear level would diminish," she said.

Most of her anxiety over speaking has since gone away, she said. She continues to work on honing the message for different audiences as well as improving how she shares the not-for-profit's vision—skills that take time to develop.

Expand your network. The involvement in business networking improved Williams's speaking skills and grew her network. Likewise, Mehta finds value in involvement in outside organizations. In fact, such involvement is a requirement for his senior leadership team. Joining a not-for-profit board, for example, gives budding leaders the chance to effect change. "It increases your network and increases your ability to interact with CEOs of other organizations," Mehta said. "That helped me tremendously."

Editor's note: This article is adapted from "4 Career Steps CFOs Can Take to Be CEO-Worthy," cgmamagazine.org, April 20, 2017.

—By Neil Amato (Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com), a JofA senior editor.

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