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"How do I Get My First CFO Job?” - The Three Paths to CFO

October 1, 2019

The journey to CFO can be long and not particularly clear to most people in F&A. Especially that final jump to CFO. While we tend to think that just by keeping our heads down and doing a great job will eventually get us to the rank of CFO, it's never that simple. You need to be thoughtful and strategic to map your way to C-Suite. This post outlines three common paths for achieving CFO status that should help with your planning.

One of the four large accounting firms hosted a leadership development seminar in Seattle.  Invitations were extended to Controllers and Finance VPs of their local clients.  The question the attendees wanted answered more than any other was, “How do I get that first CFO job?”  More than a few participants were frustrated by the facilitator’s non-answer, “Everyone is different.  It really depends.”

True, but unsatisfying.

Each CFO reached the role according to his or her own unique circumstances.  However, there are well defined and understood scenarios by which a Controller, Treasurer, or VP Finance can make the jump to CFO.  

In fact, there are three recognizable scenarios that provide on-ramp opportunities to the CFO position:

Scenario 1:  The CFO role becomes open at your current company.

This is the most obvious situation.  The incumbent CFO vacates the role, thereby providing an opportunity to be promoted directly into the open position.  In this scenario, there are two possible twists.

The first case is whereby the prior CFO was promoted to CEO.  The new CEO as the hiring manager already knows you and your capabilities well – for better or worse – and will already have an opinion on whether or not you are a serious candidate for CFO.

The other case is when the CFO leaves the company and the incumbent CEO is making the decision.  Often in these situations, the company will run a hiring process that considers both internal and external candidates.  The challenge is whether the CEO wants someone already with the CFO title.  Your chances are better if your experience with the CEO includes extensive interaction.  It will improve further if you had dealings with the board and good relationships with other C-level executives.

Scenario 2:  The hiring CEO is looking for specific skills, not titles.

It is the rare enlightened CEO who looks past titles at the outset when hiring her CFO, and instead focuses on the capabilities she needs. This viewpoint is favorable to candidates trying to make the jump to CFO.  Being viewed as a serious candidate then becomes an inventory check of your skills to the most important capabilities the company seeks.

The other version of Scenario 2 is when the company initially sought and failed to find someone who previously held the CFO title.  After several months of fruitless searching, the CEO may step back and revise her viewpoint to emphasize capabilities instead. If you were rejected initially, you may become a viable candidate if the role remains vacant for several months.

Scenario 3:  The opportunity has some hair on it.

Some CFO roles are hard to fill for a reason.  Companies with various problems will struggle to attract candidates and often emphasize skills and experience over prior titles. Types of problems include:

Difficult CEO

Some CEOs are difficult to work with.  Symptoms might include several CFOs cycling through the company in rapid succession.  Or, the CEO may have a negative reputation.  Be sure to talk with some of the prior CFOs to understand whether you can successfully work with the CEO.

Distressed Company

Some companies may be struggling economically or at risk of bankruptcy.  Others may be fighting legal or regulatory problems.  In either case, go to the extra effort to carefully understand just how bad the problems are.

Tainted Company or Industry

A company may have suffered and resolved a serious problem in its past, but the reputational taint lingers.  Certain industries by their nature will struggle to attract candidates. For example, the cannabis industry contends with the conflict between state and federal law which impacts its ability to attract candidates.

Despite the potential ‘easier’ recruitment with problem companies noted above, you should be cautious and ensure you truly understand what you are getting into before you accept a role in any of these cases.

As with any business discipline, there are far fewer positions at the top of the F&A profession than at the staff-level.  If your goal is to reach CFO, recognize there are three main ways you can make that final jump.  Be flexible and take advantage of whichever scenario is the right one for you.

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