ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

How to move from a CFO to a CEO mindset

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 04 Jan 2024

Having a strong financial background is invaluable when becoming a CEO, but you also need the right leadership mindset and skills, says author Ben Renshaw.
Contributing to your CPD?

If this article is supporting your professional development, it can count towards your verifiable CPD hours. Use the pop up at the bottom right corner of your screen to add reading this article as an activity to your online CPD record.

David was on the company succession plan from CFO to CEO. He had gone through a battery of tests, including a detailed 360-feedback process. The results were not flattering. I was introduced to him as an Executive Coach by the company HRD. David was not pleased to see me. 

Following a tense introduction, I asked him what success looked like as a leader. He shot back: “I am not a leader. I am a technocrat.” At this point, David was accountable for more than 3,000 finance colleagues for a global organisation. However, it was clear that he had not developed a leadership mindset. 

I have interacted with thousands of executives over a 25-year period. The three functions where I have experienced the most resistance to moving from a technical role to a broader leadership perspective are finance, legal and technology. However, the area that has produced the most C-suite leaders including CEOs during this period is finance. I believe that having a strong financial background probably brings the most valuable skillset when becoming a CEO, accompanied by the right leadership mindset and skills. 

Back to David. I enquired about his interest in becoming the next CEO of the company. He admitted that it had never been on his career plan – he got his fulfilment from running a tight financial operation and had not considered the next step to CEO. Thus started a journey of self-reflection, which led him to arrive at a place where he was fully committed to making the shift to CEO. This involved progressing three main development steps to enable him to succeed in the role.

  • Be skilled to be yourself 

How well do you know yourself? Understanding yourself involves having a clearly defined personal purpose and set of values, which form the essence of your leadership brand. Your purpose is your reason for existence and provides the intrinsic motivation for why you do what you do. 

To transition from a finance role to a C-suite position, it is essential to be driven by a motive that goes beyond status. A way of discovering your purpose is to identify experiences when you have been most energised, had significant meaning and culminated in making a big impact on others. Your values are your deepest beliefs, which shape what you stand for. 

Stephen McCall, former CEO of hospitality group edyn, was a former CFO I coached during his transition to the top job. In a recent discussion, he reinforced the significance of values: “A CEO needs to live and breathe the company values,” he explained. “I didn’t want values to become an operating statement in the business. I believe that values are a guide for people to find their own way. At edyn our values were: ‘The courage to question, to evolve, to be human.’ We encouraged our people to be courageous and share their ideas without the fear of being ridiculed.” 

  • Be inspired to inspire others 

Are you the type of leader who lights up a room when you walk in – or out? One of the qualities people look for in leaders is inspiration. When I coached David to CEO, his first engagement was to present to the top 500 leaders in the business. We sat down to discuss and he pulled out a spreadsheet with the company numbers. I asked him what outcome he wanted from the presentation. He said to inspire. 

I took a deep breath and informed him that sharing the numbers was not going to inspire. I suggested that he craft a story that helped his senior leaders connect with who he was as a human and link it to the company strategy to provide clear direction going forward. David was then able to articulate his purpose and values through meaningful stories and align it to the organisational big bets to accelerate growth. The outcome? Inspiration. 

  • Be equipped to succeed 

Listen, learn and lead. This is the best positioning I have encountered for the first 90 days in role. As part of your transition to a new executive position, it is critical to clarify your initial time in a deliberate way. This will involve setting up listening sessions with colleagues in strategic locations, which sends an important message to the business about your intent and focus. You will need to quickly get up to speed with the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation so that you can ensure there is the right platform for success. 

Keith Barr, former CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, stated the importance of fine-tuning company capability: “Understand what creates competitive advantage and what makes or breaks your business, including data, technology, procurement and systems. Define the value chain and the capability required to execute the strategy.” It will also be important to understand the talent potential in the business because company performance will be reliant on your people. 

Making the shift from a financial mindset to a CEO mindset requires a strategic intent. Once you are committed to the journey, build a robust plan to guide you along the way. Ensure you have the right mentoring support to test and validate your thinking and actions. Ultimately, if you recognise that having this focus will accelerate your learning and development regardless of outcome then you will undertake one of the most rewarding professional assignments possible. 

Ben Renshaw is a leadership expert, executive coach and the author of How to Be CEO, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Discover more from ICAEW Insights

Insights showcases news, opinion, analysis, interviews and features on the profession with a focus on the key issues affecting accountancy and the world of business.

Podcast icon
Insights Podcast

Hear a panel of guests dissect the latest headlines and provide expert analysis on the top stories from across the world of business, finance and accountancy.

Find out more
Daily summaries
Three yellow pins planted into a surface in a row
News in brief

Read ICAEW's daily summary of accountancy news from across the mainstream media and broader financing sector.

See more
A megaphone
Stay up to date

You can receive email update from ICAEW insights either daily, weekly or monthly, subscribe to whichever works for you.

Sign up
Open AddCPD icon

Add Verified CPD Activity

Introducing AddCPD, a new way to record your CPD activities!

Log in to start using the AddCPD tool. Available only to ICAEW members.

Add this page to your CPD activity

Step 1 of 3
Download recorded
Download not recorded

Please download the related document if you wish to add this activity to your record

What time are you claiming for this activity?
Mandatory fields

Add this page to your CPD activity

Step 2 of 3
Mandatory field

Add activity to my record

Step 3 of 3
Mandatory field

Activity added

An error has occurred
Please try again

If the problem persists please contact our helpline on +44 (0)1908 248 250