What does it take to become a CFO?

The chief financial officer role in a company is the end-goal for many professionals who have in interest in finance, or have studied it at a high level.

Just like the CEO, a CFO’s role is equally critical in influencing stakeholders, driving strategy and making key decisions that have a significant impact on the business. People often look to the CFO to get a pulse on the organisation and its financial health, as their decisions and actions tend to have a serious impact on the share price or trading position of the company.

With the rise of technology and automation, CFOs today are also increasingly expected to elevate their game and develop a whole new set of competencies and skills, besides having strong technical knowledge.

Read on to find out if you have what it takes to make a good CFO.

qualifications

The CFO role is usually achieved through gaining industry knowledge and experience, and so it may well be a job which someone without formal financial training can eventually aim towards, provided they have worked in relevant roles for significant companies for a number of years.

That being said, qualifications can certainly help you get yourself in a good position to be on the path to a CFO job. Whilst a bachelor's degree in a related topic like maths, economics or business may be useful at entry level, a further business/financial qualification such as a CFA or an MBA may put you ahead of other candidates. A CPA is also incredibly important, as some companies see it as a mandatory requirement for the CFO role.

So, putting in effort at university or undertaking online courses while you work/study may well help you reach your goal of becoming the CFO of a major company.

knowledge

While qualifications may represent knowledge to a certain extent, the learning stops at the end of the course and information can quickly become out of date, especially in the ever changing financial sector. What most businesses look for in a CFO is somebody who is aware of all of the current market conditions and can apply that information to the business to make good strategic decisions.

It is also crucial to delve deeper into the industry you want to work in as a CFO, so that you can gain an understanding of the precise factors which influence the various businesses operating within it. This means knowing every technicality, from data analytics to IT and common marketing techniques, including learning from other companies to see how they approach major financial decisions.

experience

Experience is the primary asset any company will look for in their chief financial officer. You should look to take on roles where the work can be directly linked to relevant skills needed for a CFO. Depending on your age and where you are in a career, this can range from junior accountancy roles to middle management positions.

Even being able to shadow someone in a high end financial position will allow you to experience a similar level of responsibility which the CFO of a major company is subject to on a daily basis (as they make important financial decisions for the business).

Bear in mind that it is this experience which will help to shape your skills for becoming a CFO in the future, so you should learn as much as possible and continue to apply your knowledge in future roles to ensure sustained learning.

In the rapidly evolving world of technology, a budding CFO should also have experience handling the latest technologies as many organizations are implementing robotics, automation and artificial intelligence into their finance functions to support the business. The ability to understand these technologies and wield them as a tool for efficiency will greatly help the future CFO focus of business partnering to bring additional value add.

leadership

One of the most important character traits of an effective CFO is having effective leadership skills. Since CFOs usually have a team working directly for them, they must know how to hire, manage and support them whilst working towards achieving the company goals. It may seem like a bit of a balancing act, but it is a necessary skill if you want to be a successful CFO.

This entails hiring and training the right staff for the job, and being able to motivate and encourage them to work as a team towards the overall financial goals of the company.

Leadership without the necessary skills means that little will be able to be achieved, aptly summed up by Garry Wills, author of Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership, who noted, "Not many of us will be leaders, and even those who are leaders must also be followers much of the time. This is the crucial role. Followers judge leaders. Only if the leaders pass that test do they have any impact. The potential followers, if their judgment is poor, have judged themselves. If the leader takes his or her followers to the goal, to great achievements, it is because the followers were capable of that kind of response."

vision

Driven by massive changes in the external environment, the world of finance is currently shaken by megatrends such as technology breakthroughs, shift in global economic power, demographics and social change, and rapid urbanisation (read our CFO Network Series article). Digital, naturally is a crucial aspect of these megatrends. The CFO of the future understands digital is not just about technology, but about re-thinking ways of solving problems, creating unique experiences and accelerating business performance.

You’d need to have the vision to transform and adapt to a digital age, as well as plan and implement a robust and effective digital strategy across the business. Digital capabilities are constantly evolving and finance leaders will need to work with each other to keep pace with impending changes and to prepare their organisation for the future.

business partnering

Finance leaders should combine technical skills with business and interpersonal skills to provide value beyond what is typically expected of a finance function. Developing skills in cultivating relationships, negotiation, conflict resolution, presentation and facilitation, can help finance leaders and their teams build trust with important stakeholders and elevate their role to that of a business partner.

To be a value-adding business partner, the CFO would be expected to provide insights, analysis and guidance that management and business teams expect in a timely fashion. The implementation of a digital strategy for the finance function would enable it to play a more strategically influential role within the business, allowing it to be an efficient operator, strategic advisor and business enabler.

In summary, the most high performing finance leaders we’ve worked with tend to possess exemplary aptitude, business acumen, strategic thinking as well as communication, leadership and business partnering skills, on top of their technical knowledge and experience. Companies are also constantly seeking out CFOs who can keep pace with new demands, particularly in the areas of data analytics, artificial intelligence and robotics, not to mention the skills to look ahead for business model disruption.

So, do you have what it takes to be CFO?

contributed by neil buckland

Neil Buckland is a Leeds Business School University graduate and has been working in the digital industry for the last 5 years. With a particular interest in business and global markets, he has been writing content for various publications since graduating in 2012.  When he is not writing, you can find him on the pitch for 5-a-side, reading or enjoying the occasional online video game challenge.

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