The development journey of an aspiring CFO

By Andy Burrows

Recently, I asked a question on LinkedIn and to Supercharged Finance mailing list subscribers. It went like this:

If I was to say to you that I want to help you get CFO-ready in six months, what are the top 3 things you think you would struggle with (and therefore need the most help with)?

If you want to submit your own answer to that question, I’m always interested in what people think. So, do let me know via the comments.

The responses received so far have been quite revealing, in two ways:

First, it shows what people think you need to be ready for a CFO role. And some of the things mentioned actually surprised me.

Second, it helps me in developing CFO Readiness Builder (my six-month development program for aspiring CFOs) to focus on high priority areas.

Now, just because people think certain things are needed to be a CFO, doesn’t mean they actually are absolutely needed as pre-requisites for CFO selection. Perception isn’t always reality. And some things come into play only within certain industries, types of businesses and stage of organisational development.

In any case, what I want to do here is to share my own thoughts, so that you can understand my thought process.

But before I do that, I want to address a couple of themes that often confuse Finance professionals.

What qualifications are necessary to prepare for a CFO role?

Firstly, there’s the issue of qualifications.

And there are a couple of points here, although it’s hard to say something that’s applicable to every country in the world. Every country is different.

Being in the UK, my own experience is that an accountancy qualification – ICAEW, CIMA or ACCA – is an essential starting point. You’re much less likely to get to an FD/CFO position without one.

But whether it’s a professional qualification, such as ICAEW, AICPA, CIMA or ACCA, or an Accounting and Finance degree, it is the grounding in accounting and finance that matters.

Whatever else Finance professionals offer, whatever else CFOs are responsible for, nobody takes us seriously if the accounts regularly contain errors or the tax returns are late. You need to know what you’re doing with accounting, control and governance. And in countries like the UK, you get that from having training and experience that gets you a qualification.

But the second point is that after that foundation, it’s less about qualifications and exams, less about knowledge, and more about being able to actually do things. For instance, being able to demonstrate how you’ve helped the business with decision-making through your financial models is more important than having a certificate in financial modelling techniques.

It’s less about knowing how to lead, and more about actually exhibiting great leadership.

What I’m observing is that simply getting further qualifications after the foundational accounting training does not get you further in your career. For me in the UK at least, getting the letters ACA after my name brought me a significant pay rise and opened up huge progression opportunities. However, even getting an MBA does not impress in the same way.

So, you have to be careful to examine your reasons for going for additional qualifications. Any additional education is going to benefit you. An MBA will introduce you to great concepts and frameworks and ideas. If you want that education to help you do things better, like leading better or making better business decisions, then great. But don’t do it simply for the letters after your name.

In many cases, I believe that investing in something like my CFO Readiness Builder, or in coaching, can get you a better return on investment than something as expensive as another qualification (like an MBA or a second or third accounting certificate).

What technical skills do I need?

Secondly, people worry about the technical skills they might need as a CFO or Finance Director. This is the biggest area where people keep saying to me that they’re worried that “they don’t know what they don’t know”! Even recently appointed CFOs say this to me. They realise that now the buck stops with them. And what if they miss something?

As I mentioned earlier, accounting, reporting, tax, governance and control, are non-negotiable fundamentals.

Alongside that, FP&A fundamentals like budgeting, forecasting, analysis and modelling, are pretty foundational. And here you’ll find tools like KPIs, Balanced Scorecards, and Activity Based Costing, are helpful too.

That’s why I always advise Finance professionals get experience in both Reporting/Control, and FP&A, before moving upwards too much.

But what of things like cash management, treasury, banking relationships, arranging equity and debt finance, and risk management?

Of those topics, only cash management is what I’d call a non-negotiable. You’d be a very dangerous CFO is you couldn’t manage cash! And unpalatable as it may be, especially if you come from an FP&A / FBP background, cash management is inextricably linked with accounting. Accounting (especially balance sheet and working capital management) actually helps you understand the cash position much better, and the actions you need to take.

It's not difficult (to grasp), though!

With risk management, I learnt enough from colleagues in Risk Management to get to the right level for a Finance Director role. But it’s not so complex that you couldn’t pick it up sufficiently from a book or a short course. You don’t need to be able to do a risk management job. You just need to be able to understand the framework and the way to apply the concepts in strategic decisions and operational management.

With the others, around treasury, I think the main worry is that old circular argument – you mainly learn what you need from experience. But to get experience of doing them you need to have done them!

My best advice there is to think what kind (established, growth phase, entrepreneurial, start up, public/private investors, owner managed), and what size, of business you want to be CFO/FD for. And then try to build your career within those parameters. Then you will either observe or get involved in things that will get you the right level of experience.

What are the elements of CFO-readiness?

So, what I’ve covered above are the technical foundations. If you only have those, however, all you’ll be is a good accountant, or a good FP&A analyst. That’s not (normally) enough to get you a CFO role.

So, what are the additional elements that make someone CFO-ready?

Well let’s think about it. What is a CFO?

My answer is that, these days, a CFO is a business leader. A business. Leader.

Therefore, there are two things that will set you apart as someone who is ready for a CFO/FD role: Business acumen and leadership.

And I see those built up in stages that I’ve sometimes referred to as ‘promotion triggers’:

  1. Be eager to learn and improve
  2. Be great at what you do

If you have those two things, at the lower levels, that’s normally enough to get you a promotion to roles that either have a team or increased contact outside Finance. In other words, it you’re good enough and keen, then you’re trusted to show others how it’s done, and you’re trusted not to embarrass the department!

  1. Have a reputation for helping the business
  2. Have a reputation for delivering results with your team

Reputation involves interpersonal and influencing skills. The two aspects are your own team and the wider business. If you’re well-respected by your colleagues around the business, and if your team has a good reputation for delivery (because you lead them very well), that’s when you get promoted to senior management. In other words, be good with the business and good with your team, and they’ll give you a wider remit in the business and a bigger team!

Finally,...

  1. Develop strategic insight

By the time you’re in senior management in Finance, you should be very business-focused. And your conversation with your fellow managers in the business should be insightful. You should be able to discuss strategic matters with great understanding.

When you’re at that stage, I would argue, you’re looking much more like a CFO or FD. And that’s when you’re CFO-ready – ready to take on a CFO role when an opportunity comes your way.

Our CFO Readiness Builder program

If you have the ambition or goal to be a CFO or Finance Director one day, here’s an opportunity to get yourself ‘CFO-ready’.

CFO Readiness Builder is a six-month development journey, involving online training, coaching, homework and group work, with the support to go with it. The aim is to actually get you CFO-ready, and not just teach you about it.

If that sounds like something you’d enjoy and would benefit you, CLICK HERE to find out more, and to register your interest.

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About the Author

Andy Burrows is a popular writer and speaker on a wide range of topics in Business Finance and Accounting. He provides online training and coaching, so that business-focused Finance professionals can grow in impact and business leadership.

He was named as one of the top voices on LinkedIn in 2019 in Finance, Accounting and FP&A.

Qualified as a chartered accountant, Andy has worked in many senior Finance roles over the last 20 years, including Finance Director at one stage, across many different sectors in a variety of companies.

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