By Andy Burrows
[First published 28 February 2018]
“What are the things I need to do to become a CFO in the future?”
“How can I make the transition from Financial Controller to Finance Director?”
These are the kind of questions I get from people from time to time. They probably ask me because of the breadth and length of my experience.
So, I thought I’d write something that gives a few pointers around how I would answer those questions.
[BONUS: I've created a free workbook to help you come up with your action plan from these tips.
It's called the CFO Career Action Plan Workbook.
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So, without further ado, here are those pointers…
I’ve seen several career-minded people fail because they spent so much time and energy thinking of plotting their career that they didn’t do a good job. And that’s a shame.
Careers are made up of levels and steps. And you don’t normally get to progress to the next one unless you’re impressing people in the current one.
The other thing to remember is that not many roles are created just as stepping stones to the next one! Every role you do has a purpose, and a set of requirements to serve the needs of the Finance function and the business. No one really cares how you want to use the role to advance your career… unless you’re good at it.
So, always make it your first priority to “be the best version of you” every day. Whether the job is easy, mundane, difficult, complex or straightforward, never put less than 100% into it, and work to deliver the best output you can.
I always say that to be successful in anything, you need to be “intentional and analytical”. That’s what it means to be “strategic”. It’s knowing what you want to achieve, and making specific plans to do it, and then analysing to learn and get better.
In career terms, choosing your roles carefully, and doing things to learn the right skills, are important.
Look, recruitment consultants (in the main) don’t give a sh*t what your career aspirations are. They’re just happy to find anyone who will do a good job for their client and earn their fee. So, they sometimes try to persuade you to consider roles they think you can do, but are outside what you said you were looking for. And that’s fair enough. Because they don’t know how open/desperate you are unless they ask!
The point is that up to a certain point (because sometimes you haven’t got time to keep trying) you need to have a clear idea what career moves you want, and stick to the plan as much as you can.
(And don't forget to get the CFO Career Action Plan Workbook to help you come up with your plan and stick to it!)
If you want to be a CFO, find one (or preferably a few), and analyse them.
What jobs did they do to get there? What skills are they displaying?
What makes them a convincing CFO or Finance Director?
What are the skills and behaviours that are common to all CFOs, and which ones set apart those who are really successful or great, in your view?
How do you get that insight? Ask them! And read about them! There are plenty of career stories out there in the Finance & Accounting media and on LinkedIn.
At a conference I went to recently, that’s exactly what one of the CFO speakers said that he did at several points in his career.
One of the common problems is that it’s easy for people to think that you’re only able to do the job you do now.
I’ve had that a lot. For instance, I worked in a large plc business and got landed with implementing IFRS 2 and IAS 19 as part of the IFRS conversion project. From that point on, I was pigeon-holed as “technical”. The fact that my role before that was as a Finance Director in my previous company was completely ignored all the time.
More recently, I get “well you’re more of a Finance project person”. Actually, er, no. I do projects because I can, and I like to. But it’s not the only thing I can do. I’d actually make a pretty decent CFO, Finance Director or Group FC!
So, it’s important to take every opportunity to demonstrate business acumen, especially if you want to get to a CFO role one day. And that means getting involved in projects where you’re not always talking about the P&L or the balance sheet. It could be a systems implementation, an acquisition integration, a business line divestment, a fund raising, or anything like that.
It’s all great experience. You learn loads. And it makes you a more rounded business professional, and more able to step up to a CFO role when the time comes.
And it helps to prevent you getting labelled.
You can’t play it safe, I’m afraid. You can’t stay in your comfort zone if you’re ever going to make it to the top of the Finance function.
There is no standard career path to CFO. The reverse is actually true. The more standard and straight you try to make it, the lower your chances.
If you trained through Finance Operations, then try to get some Financial Reporting experience. If you’re in Financial Reporting, try to get some FP&A experience.
Working in larger businesses seems to be most beneficial (although I wouldn’t necessarily say a similar thing about training in public practice, where I think mid-size is better). In these businesses there are normally well-developed ways of moving around different parts of Finance and different parts of the business. And that is fantastic experience.
Managing people is a skill to start getting as early as you can, as it’s something that you keep developing in over the course of many years.
And spending some time working closely with a business area is a good idea, too, if you can. Once you’ve got into a management role, often in larger companies there’s openness to moving managers into other operational management roles. The principles of management don’t change, but it proves to yourself and to everyone that you can, a) change your communication style to address a non-Finance audience; and b) you can understand the challenges of a different function or business.
The next few points are skills or behaviours that I think are critical in developing towards a CFO or senior Finance role.
And first on my list is, “intellectual curiosity”.
I’ve said in several conversations and online discussions that I think one of the most important qualities of Finance business partners, and that includes CFOs and Finance Directors, is curiosity.
You only get to understand the business you’re in, and business in general, by asking questions. And you ask questions best when you’re naturally curious.
Personally, I’ve always just been interested in what other people do, and in how things work. So, both in formal and informal settings, I tend to ask a lot of questions about what things are and what they do.
And as an encouragement for auditors, since I used to be one myself, this is something that is drummed into you. You start to lose your fear of asking stupid questions, because you do it a lot in the early years. And (well, it was true for me) seeing the variety of businesses, you develop a curiosity from talking to different people and comparing their styles, strategies, outlook, way of working, and so on.
So, I’d encourage auditors to think about branching out into business Finance.
But, whatever your current role, you won’t progress unless you’re curious.
Data analysis is becoming more and more important in the business world, as companies grow in size and reach. So, learning the principles and methods of analysis will stand you in good stead.
But broader than that, being analytical in every sense is important in a CFO role. By that I mean it’s not just analysis of data that is important. Business analysis, the ability to analyse processes, controls, design requirements, project business cases, and critically assess arguments, strategies and proposals – it’s all part of having an analytical way of thinking.
And one of the ironies, for me, is that being better with analysis actually improves communication skills, because you’re able to get to the point and explain things clearly because you’ve had to understand clearly.
You should never underestimate the power of knowing your numbers.
One of the key things that the business expects of Finance leaders is credibility. They need to trust that you have things under control. And there is nothing better for credibility than always having the answer (and more) on the tip of your tongue.
It’s the same with any public figure, politicians and the like. Just think how impressive they are when they can respond quickly in debate with facts, figures and robust, clear arguments. And it’s the same for a CFO.
That’s why, ironically, Financial Controllers, I think, often make better Finance business partners than Financial Analysts and FP&A managers. Often, Financial Controllers will have reviewed and signed off practically every number in the monthly financials, and will know how the numbers got there.
It’s fundamental, and it’s probably your comfort zone, but don’t forget to go further!
To be a CFO, or a senior Finance business partner, I can’t stress enough the need to understand the business. Your ability to assess and advise on the key drivers of performance, and your ability to know what to do to control and manage performance, is what the CFO is paid for.
And you only get that through experience, and that experience only builds up as you ask questions, read, research, learn and reflect.
A CFO needs to be able to explain the performance of the business to analysts, investors, fellow directors and others. They also need to be able to convince their senior colleagues in strategic decision making, and to ask the right questions.
That means working on gearing communication style and content to the different audiences, and being able to translate financial concepts into terms that the different people can relate to.
“Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” That’s what the Roman wise man, Seneca, said, two thousand years ago (apparently).
And it’s worth saying that, when you dream of being a CFO it’s a bit like a kid who dreams of being a professional soccer player. It’s out of reach for most. For every CFO there are hundreds of wannabe CFOs. And just like in sport, you need a little bit of luck.
But as I used to say to my boys, who wanted to aim to be pro soccer players, luck doesn’t just happen, which is the point of the quote above. There are things you can do to improve your chances.
With preparation – all things I spoke about above – you can be ready when the opportunities come along. Work hard at it and be darn good at what you do.
But there are also things you can do to improve the likelihood of getting the opportunities, being in the right place at the right time.
For instance, networking both physically and online. Linkedin is a great place to build your profile. So when you’re at events, courses and seminars, get to know people. Make friends!
You should also keep talking with recruiters, even when you don’t need them.
Think about all the ways you can increase your exposure to opportunities, and maybe you’ll get one or two.
Don’t be afraid of rejection. How many times was JK Rowling rejected by publishers before she finally got one to show an interest in Harry Potter? Lots!
But do listen, and learn from, the feedback you get. Not every hiring manager or recruiter is right. But you should weigh their feedback carefully.
You may find, as I have, that failing in the CFO career path may lead to other avenues that you may enjoy.
Be open to reassessing your goals, but don’t automatically give up on them just because one or two… or fifty… turn you down!
Wanting to progress to be a CFO is a great dream to have when you’re going through your career in Finance.
And I hope the tips above give you some food for thought.
I think if you’ve taken the time to read this, then you’ve shown the serious intent that means you’re more likely to succeed. But there are no guarantees.
The harder part is taking the time, and making the effort, to put these tips into practice, and then sticking with it, even when the going is tough.
Because as they say, “the only guaranteed way to fail is not to try at all!”
Now go and download the CFO Career Action Plan Workbook to help you turn these "actionable tips" into actions that move you forward!
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