How to Become a CFO
A chief financial officer (CFO) sits near the very top of a company, with only the chief executive officer above them. As a CFO, you’ll lead business strategy, develop revenue streams, and find funding. There is no required career path to take in order to become a CFO. Instead, you should earn appropriate degrees and gain broad experience.
Obtaining the Right Education
Earn an appropriate bachelor’s degree.Most CFOs have a background in business, economics, finance, or management. Don’t worry about the quality of your undergraduate institution. Only about 12% of CFOs at Fortune 500 companies went to a top undergraduate university.
Get an MBA.Almost half of CFOs at Fortune 500 companies have a Master’s in Business Administration.Consider obtaining an MBA if you want to work at a large corporation as a CFO.
- A graduate degree isn’t a requirement. It all depends on the complexity of the business and its needs.However, a graduate degree will help you rise to the top if you want to work at a large company.
Earn appropriate certifications.Many CFOs are certified public accountants (CPAs). In fact, many businesses will require their CFOs to have this credential.To qualify as a CPA, you’ll need 150 credits.Because most U.S. universities only require 120 credits to earn an undergraduate degree, many CPA candidates earn a master’s in accounting before taking the CPA exam.
- Also consider becoming a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), which is also helpful as you move up your career. You’ll need to pass two exams over three years to earn the credential.
Gaining Relevant Experience
Find an industry you enjoy.You won’t move out of school immediately into a CFO position. For this reason, you’ll need to work 5-15 years in other jobs, and you should choose an industry you are passionate about. Many CFOs work in the following fields:
- Investment banking
- Public Accounting
- Private banking
- Money management
Work as a controller.Many CFOs work as controllers before moving on up. A controller focuses on producing financial statements and accounts receivable or accounts payable.Because of this accounting experience, they are often great candidates to become a CFO.
- Make sure your accounting experience is as broad as possible. Gain experience in budgeting, planning, and financial systems.
- However, a CFO’s job requires more strategic thinking a controller position, so simply doing excellent work as a controller is no longer enough. Instead, gain experience in operations, investor relations, and leadership.
Gain treasury experience.If a CFO doesn’t rise through the controller ranks, they tend to come up through the treasury department. Consider getting experience in the following treasury functions:
- Planning and operations. In these jobs, you engage in risk forecasting, pension planning, and strategic development in coordination with the Board of Directors.
- Funding and capital markets. Manage short-term and long-term investments and ensure the business has adequate liquidity. You might also ensure contracts do not unduly constrain your business.
- Corporate governance. Work with internal and external auditors and ensure accurate transactions and audit trail.
- Stakeholder relations. Perform risk analysis for the board and manage relationships with investors, banks, and credit rating agencies.
Take a company public.This is great experience for a future CFO.You’ll understand the importance of investor relations and developing funding sources, which are key components of a CFO’s job.
- If you can’t take a business public, consider experience with a merger. This will show you are adaptable and willing to change, which are also important skills for a CFO.
Re-engineer a business.Another great experience is to help a business make itself over, called re-engineering. Companies will look favorably at someone who has identified and let go weak employees in a previous job, since CFOs also must eliminate redundancies and underperforming units.Look for opportunities at your current job to participate in strategic development.
Find a mentor.There’s no “one size fits all” approach to becoming a CFO. Instead, you’ll need to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. A mentor can help you analyze your opportunities and develop an appropriate career path.
- Join organizations such as the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) to network.
- Also look inside your own company. Many businesses have started mentoring programs for their accounting and finance staff.
Serve as a mentor.If you’re in a technical position, such as a controller, then you need to broaden your management experience. This might be difficult at your current job. However, you can ask to mentor new hires, which gives you some experience in management.
- Also look to increase your involvement in mentoring. For example, you can volunteer to become a mentoring coordinator, which gives you additional management experience running a program.
Broadening Your Experience
Move around to get business experience.CFOs must understand the big picture about a business. This includes technology, distribution channels, public relations, and other skills.You need to work with people at all levels of an organization, inside and outside your department.
- Because you probably can’t gain all of this experience at one job, you should move around. Once you’ve reached a dead end at your current company, look for new opportunities.
- Remember to leave your company on good terms. You might end up interviewing for a CFO position after gaining valuable experience elsewhere.
Ask to job shadow or cross-train.Avoid getting pigeonholed in your department. Instead, ask your boss for experience in other departments. For example, you can job shadow someone in a different department so that you understand their operations.
Work for a foreign office.In a very large company, you should jump at the opportunity to work in a different office. For example, you might be part of a team that opens an office overseas. By taking this job, you’ll get hands-on experience with contracts, sales, operations, and management.
Volunteer to help a different department.Assess where your experience is thin. For example, you might work as a controller but not have any experience with investors. Bulk up your experience by volunteering to handle investor calls.
- You might also volunteer to help the sales department create a sales forecast. A controller would have some knowledge in this area, but you’ll also learn more about sales forecasting.
Volunteer outside your company.When you can’t get experience within your company, you need to look outside and find volunteer opportunities. For example, you can help small businesses get loans or other funding, which gives you fundraising and investor experience.
- To gain management experience, join a professional organization and volunteer to chair a committee or run a campaign.
- Don’t shy away from volunteering outside your company. Remember that you are building a resume to show to a future employer. Don’t assume you’ll rise up the ranks in your current company to become the CFO.
Interviewing for a CFO Position
Read the company’s financial documents to prepare.If you’re interviewing with a public company, find and read their quarterly reports, as well as the reports of their competitors.
- If the company is private, read the company’s Dun & Bradstreet credit reports.
Explain how you see the big picture.A CFO must understand all aspects of the business, from operations to sales.You need to point out how you gained knowledge in these areas. For example, you might have volunteered for committees in your organization that allowed you to work with people in other departments.
- Alternately, you might have engaged in job shadowing or cross-training.Whatever your experience, highlight it.
Ask appropriate questions.Get in the right frame of mind for the interview. For example, imagine you are a consultant who’s been hired to come up with a strategy for the company. Ask questions like the following:
- What does this business hope to accomplish in the next year?
- What do you want to avoid in the next year?
- What are your needs over the coming 12 months?
- Why is the position open? Did someone leave?
Follow up with a draft proposal.Instead of writing generic thank-you notes, use the information that learned during the interview to draft a proposal for the business.For example, if the business needs to raise funds in the next 12 months, you can draft a proposal identifying which funding sources the business should pursue.
- Sending a draft proposal lets you show off your business skills. It also shows you were engaged during the interview and can swiftly synthesize information.
Video: What it Takes to Become a CFO
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