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Reaching the heady heights of CFO marks the pinnacle of career success for many ambitious accountants. Rachel Willcox asks leading CFOs for their tips on making it to the top.

Achieving the financial top job is rarely something that happens by chance. Indeed, there are several proactive steps that aspiring CFOs should take to build up the experience, knowledge and skills increasingly seen as prerequisites for the role. Here, CFOs and career experts give the lowdown on how to step up and land the job of your dreams.

Be a jack of all trades

By nature, the role of CFO is broad, overseeing several functions within finance and often outside. The rounded view gained by an extensive range of business experiences, whether across different sectors and business units or commercial, operational and international exposure, will enhance your career prospects. Within finance, experience across compliance, regulation and fundraising will add CV points, even if it requires sideways moves.

“The more experience you have in different roles, the better you’ll be at understanding expectations from the team and of the team,” says Stewart Baker, CFO of Nasdaq-quoted Inspired Entertainment. “It will also stop you being pigeonholed.”

Continually take on new projects and challenges that will increase your breadth of knowledge, urges Andrew Fennell, Director of CV-writing company StandOut CV.

Make business partnering a priority, says Mark Freebairn, Partner and Head of the Board Practice and Financial Management Practice of Odgers Berndtson: “Develop relationships with people in other functions and have a network that allows you to be a strong commercial partner. People will engage with you if you’re passionate about what they’re passionate about.”

Yes, non-financials do matter

Understanding the numbers behind the numbers and the ‘physical’ elements of your business helps you to pre-empt any challenges and learn the mechanics, be they logistics, software requirements or communication processes, says Adam Westcott, CFO of British battery manufacturer AMTE Power.

Andy Stephens, Director of Finance at Loughborough University, explains: “Today, I’m a residential and commercial landlord and a hotelier, supporting entrepreneurial staff and students, and delivering major capital projects. I relish understanding the fundamentals of what is being done, long before I worry about the minutiae of the assumptions that drive the numbers.”

That strategic thinking marks a big shift from the very deep but narrow view of accounting developed by most accountants early in their careers. “Those who go on to become CFOs have invariably made a conscious switch to read more about their industry, to be open to new ways of working and to think about the breadth of accounting challenges within their organisation,” says Stuart Duff, Head of Development at business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola.

Keep learning

“Early on, you may think you know it all – you don’t,” warns Baker. Despite exam success and being well regarded as an ICAEW student at Deloitte, Baker admits the transition to industry was an eye-opener. “I realised there was so much I didn’t know about the ‘real world’, and I had to adapt accordingly.” This was not about changing who he was: it was more about adding new skills and paying attention to what people were doing and the decisions they were making – and thinking about why they were making them, says Baker.

Karen Young, Director of recruitment business Hays Accountancy & Finance, says: “Embrace any twists and turns that come your way, and frame upcoming challenges as exciting opportunities. You never know where a new task, project or role could lead you, but you’ll certainly benefit from learning something new.”

We can only battle problems with knowledge we currently possess, but learning never stops, says Simon Born, CFO of High Impact Office. “It’s inherent in our role that we are constantly learning and developing – either through our own endeavours or, more likely, with the assistance of those around us.”

“The more experience you have in different roles, the better you’ll be at understanding expectations from the team and of the team,” says Stewart Baker, CFO of Nasdaq-quoted Inspired Entertainment. “It will also stop you being pigeonholed.”

Stewart Baker, Inspired Entertainment

Take responsibility

Baker is adamant that assuming a sense of responsibility is a real differentiator between an individual who is great at their job, but stops on the career ladder, and one who keeps progressing. “Certain people will take responsibility for ensuring the numbers are accurate, but taking responsibility for ensuring the desired number is hit is a different matter,” he says. Similarly, hold your hands up when things go wrong. Don’t try to sweep them under the carpet or blame others, he adds.

Catherine Birkett, CFO at recurring payments fintech GoCardless, agrees that extracting positives from mistakes is key: “I am who I am today because of the mistakes I’ve made. Be honest about them and learn from them.”

Unleash your inner geek

A new breed of CFO has emerged, as use of data analytics steps up. A survey of 500 senior finance professionals, published in November 2019 by Sage, said that the primary role of the CFO is no longer in financial reporting. Instead, they are driving strategy and making technology decisions that affect the whole organisation. Two-thirds of CFOs said that they’re primarily responsible for digital transformation.

Not surprisingly, technological literacy is the top priority for more than three quarters (78%). Those aspiring to the role should also embrace IT and understand the challenges that financial decision-makers face as a result, especially when managing risks such as fraud, cyber security and compliance and legislation changes. They should be “able to understand numbers and big volumes of data and use that to support commercial decision-making”, says Birkett.

Focus on softer skills

As CFO, your grip on the financial picture will be largely taken for granted, but it’s the ability to bring a subject to life and explain financial matters in an accessible way that will get you noticed. In practical terms, developing negotiation and presentation skills will stand you in good stead.

“Be a human, not a computer,” urges Stephens. “People rely on us to keep the money safe, to report the truth, to pay the taxes and myriad other things that are as much about ethics and integrity as they are about facts and figures.” That sometimes means being prepared to let go of numbers.

Andy Stephens, Director of Finance at Loughborough University

“I rarely use numbers in presentations to staff,” he says. “Rather, I talk about risks and opportunities, activities and the environment in which we operate. The CFO is increasingly visible and must be able to speak with confidence and inspire the confidence of others.”

Linking financial and institutional strategy is key. Remember that no one can predict the future, so forecasts are a preferred destination, not an immovable target.

Use your network

Build a broad network – not just for the purpose of having contacts, but to gain advice from others who have taken the step themselves. Financial controller and treasury positions are often viewed as precursors to the CFO role, particularly if the individual is looking to be promoted internally.

“Personal reputation counts in finance, so continuously build and strengthen your network,” Young says. Tools such as LinkedIn are ideal for this, particularly when networking and industry events are off the cards because of the pandemic, she adds.

Baker says you should learn from good managers around you, both within and outside of finance. What do they do that impresses you? How do they respond when put on the spot? Draw on this next time you’re in a similar position.

Learn to say no

Being able to push back on requests and say no is a powerful skill to hone. The trick is having confidence in the rationale that underpins your decision and being able to articulate that clearly and firmly.

Always be confident, says Baker. “I wear my nickname of ‘C-F-No’ as a badge of honour now!”

Freebairn says being commercially astute enough to help the CEO make a business decision is one thing, but being brave enough to tell them something they’re not necessarily going to want to hear is just as important. “You need to be able to back up and qualify anything you say.”

Saying no effectively is a skill you can practise at any stage of your career, says Birkett. “It requires a structured approach. Give the reasons why and explain what would happen otherwise, and have the data and supporting docs to back up your argument.”

Be a leader

It may be one of the most technical roles on the board, but the past few months have demonstrated the leadership role that CFOs need to play to guide the business ship through stormy seas and uncharted waters. In practical terms, that’s about inspiring confidence while preparing for the worst; steering a course to achieve short-term survival while at the same time identifying strategies to capitalise on future opportunities; communicating with key stakeholders when emotions are running high; and fostering resilience and agility.

“Many ambitious accountants underestimate the need to develop their people skills and overemphasise their technical expertise,” explains Duff. “At CFO level, you will have to build strong, confident relationships in a short space of time with key investors, board members and stakeholders.” Get exposure to teams and to managing and leading others, he says.

Many ambitious accountants underestimate the need to develop their people skills and overemphasise their technical expertise

Stuart Duff, Pearn Kandola

Have a plan

Budding CFOs should have a career plan, Young says. “Set short-term and long-term milestones and congratulate yourself each step of the way. A trusted mentor or adviser will help you to develop a realistic career plan and stay on track.”

Don’t be afraid to deviate if things don’t work out, as long as it’s for a good reason, says Baker. “You don’t want to get a reputation for jumping ship too quickly, but you should have a chance to say ‘this isn’t right’.”

And act like a CFO before you bag the big job, says Duff. “Too many professionals talk themselves out of applying for a role because they haven’t got direct experience. Break the role down into the core responsibilities – leadership, operations, controls, strategy – and then actively plan to build experience against each of these role requirements,” he advises.

“Seek out placements, secondments and other development opportunities with clients that build your exposure in these areas and ultimately give you greater confidence in putting in that first application.”

Further reading

The ICAEW Library & Information Service provides full text access to leading business, finance and management journals and key business and reference eBooks. Further reading on achieving the role of CFO is available through the resources below.
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