CFO 101: Five Prerequisites

Veteran CFOs give advice to CPAs seeking the top job in finance.

To climb the ladder in most finance organizations, CPAs hone their skills in making accounting judgments, closing the books, accurately preparing financial statements and other reports and filing them on time. But current CFOs agree that to reach the top—the CFO position—another skill set is required. Unfortunately, these additional skills may not be written into the CFO job description.


Though the requirements may be somewhat elusive, the financial benefits are clear: average CFO salaries are 30% to 60% higher than controller salaries, according to Robert Half International. But while landing your first CFO job may be difficult, keeping it may be more difficult. Twenty-four percent of CFO positions in the Fortune 1000 turned over annually in 2007 and 2008 according to a report titled Fortune 1000 Turnover published in 2009 by executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles. In smaller companies, Liberum Research found that the average CFO position turns over every two to three years. The bottom line is that CFOs must come to the job well-prepared because, in most cases, they do not have the luxury of learning on the job.


Veteran CPA financial executives say CPAs must be well-versed in the five key skills outlined in this article before stepping into the lead finance role.



Differentiate yourself from the other accountants in your organization by being more strategic. You need to look holistically at the organization so you can understand the implications of problems and opportunities in individual parts of the business. “I think a lot of CPAs and finance professionals box themselves into ‘I’m just about finance and accounting,’ ” says Brenda Morris, CFO of Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods Inc. “And as a CFO you have to

look broader.”


Volunteer for special projects that allow you to learn about other aspects of your company such as sales, human resources, information technology and operations. Become the “go-to” person in your department and the person who staff members from other departments call when they need help.



The CEO is an organization’s chief visionary and lead strategist. However, to be effective, a CEO’s strategy must mesh with the organization’s capabilities and be successfully implemented.


It is critical for the CFO to translate the capabilities and performance measures of the organization into useful information for the CEO and, in turn, translate the CEO’s strategy into a measurable, actionable plan. Once the translation is complete, the CFO continues to communicate the strategy throughout the organization and the results back to the CEO and other members of the leadership team.


To be a good translator, the CFO must be a good listener and be willing to ask uncomfortable questions about what he or she doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. A CFO can’t rush in with answers. Rather, the job requires critical thinking with a goal toward consensus.


“It’s very important that the chief financial officer understand the strategy that the chief executive officer is advocating,” says Michael Bryant, CFO of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy. “The chief financial officer succeeds when he is also aligned with that strategy.”


For CFOs of publicly traded companies, the translator role is even more important because the CFO should take the lead in discussing financial results with the public in terms of company strategy.


The translator role is one of the hardest to learn, according to CFOs, because it varies by organization. If you’re working under a good CFO, one of the best ways to learn translator skills is by following the example of your CFO, says Michael Levine, a former CFO and now principal of the financial executive search firm Advantage Talent Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga.



CFOs, like CEOs, must motivate the people in the organization to achieve its mission. “You’re the purveyor of hope to them,” says Bradley E. Sparks, CEO of Visualant Inc., a publicly held development-stage technology company in Seattle. He says that the CFO must motivate people to execute the company’s strategy against firm deadlines while maintaining quality standards and anticipating the company’s future financial needs.


Interpersonal communications are extremely important. “As CPAs, that’s the area of our education that gets missed,” says Elizabeth Nilsen, CFO of West Yost Associates, a privately held engineering firm in Davis, Calif. “We learn to tick, to tie, to audit, to prepare the taxes, whatever the field of accounting might be that we focus on as we’re going into our public lives. But we don’t learn those management skills and those people skills and thinking outside the box.”


The CFO also needs to set the ethical tone for presenting the company’s financial condition to stakeholders. “We are the ones that have to provide that balanced point of view with respect to an organization’s financial results and future expectations, guiding the corporation ethically in terms of how we present our financial condition,” says Tom Foard, CFO of Publishers Circulation Fulfillment Inc.



Rather than specializing in a single area, try to gain some experience in as many finance jobs as possible.


“The key to being a successful CFO is not so much knowing everything, but knowing a little bit about a lot of things, trying to stay abreast of these things, knowing when to ask, not being afraid to ask and being willing to put in some long hours on occasion,” says Ralph Bender, CFO of the Manship Media Group in Baton Rouge, La.


Besides financial reporting and tax, you should be familiar with the basics of treasury functions such as investments, credit and cash flow forecasting; risk management functions such as insurance and business continuity planning; human resources functions such as payroll, employee health care and pension plans; and information technology systems such as enterprise resource planning and business analytics.



In corporate cultures, the accounting department is sometimes known as the place where all good ideas come to die, Levine says. The best way for a controller to step up to a CFO position, he says, is to help other groups in the company realize their objectives rather than pointing out flaws in their proposals.


Problem solving, according to CFOs, can often be as simple as networking with other finance professionals at conferences, via e-mail, phone and social media outlets such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.


“You have to be proactive,” Nilsen says. “You need to have your eyes open and look for opportunities where you can take that accounting knowledge, that business knowledge and find ways that you can help improve the company outside of just presenting historical financial data.”


Matthew G. Lamoreaux ( is a JofA senior editor.


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