The skills needed to become a CFO

We take a look at some of the most important steps required to become a chief financial officer. Alex Miller investigates

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If your ultimate career goal is to become a chief financial officer (CFO), you are probably already considering the steps required to achieve your goal.

Maybe you are wondering where you can go from your current position or whether your professional experience meets the standard path to leading the financial operations of an operation.

Whatever your situation, there are a number of definite skills and steps required to become a financial leader.

If you have your sights set on reaching the top of your profession, you will need to work hard and be extremely committed to developing your technical and interpersonal skills.

Initially, from an employer’s point of view it comes down to who looks better on paper and a perfect academic track record is always impressive. It almost goes without saying, but any trainee who reaches this level will also need a strong commercial understanding.

First time passes

Companies are able to cherry-pick based on more and more rigorous criteria such as preference for candidates who pass their exams first time and have solid work experience. At the end of the day employers want the best candidate and, if you can fit into this elite category, you put yourself at a competitive advantage.

To become a CFO, you will need a firm grasp of the fundamentals of budgeting, analysis, compliance, risk management and other accounting principals. As a CFO, your job will be to ensure that the CEO and board's decisions are financially sound, both in regard to resources available and regulatory compliance.

As a result, having solid financial experience should make you more able to make these judgments. Sometimes, especially at small companies, the same person serves as CEO and CFO, making this financial expertise even more crucial.

Gareth Davage, senior managing director at Michael Page Finance London & South East Regions, says: 'To maximise your chances of being considered for promotion, you must first exceed expectations in your existing role. 

'In addition to strong technical competence, earning a reputation for being a dependable, capable, hard worker is also essential. Always try to show initiative: understand the business needs that give to rise to the projects you are working on and try to deliver a little bit extra on top of what you have been asked for every time.'

Consider roles

You will of course need to be promoted several times before you are ready to become a CFO, so think carefully about the roles you will need to do that will offer you the right skills and experience. 

Make yourself a long-term plan and then set yourself a realistic goal for when you want to have achieved your next promotion.

Identifying people who can help you to learn what you need to know in order to progress will be an important strategy on your journey to becoming a CFO. Look at the senior people in your company and find out what opportunities there are to learn from their experience. Many companies offer mentoring schemes where trainees can ask senior managers for advice and guidance.

Josh Rufus, manager public practice at Morgan McKinley, says: 'Within industry, while technical expertise is important for CFOs, it is the softer skills that will set an individual apart – an excellent rapport with colleagues and other stakeholders, strong commercial awareness and the ability to sell are all part of what makes a good CFO.'

Finger on the pulse

Trainees will also need to have a full and detailed understanding of their arena and will need to have their finger on the pulse of what is coming up in their specific markets.

Gaining a deep understanding of the business is critical. As a CFO you will regularly meet with the board and collaborate with managers as a CFO. For this reason, you need to develop a broader understanding of the business and operational sides of a company. This is a consideration worth applying immediately.

Joss Collins, a financial services specialist at Venn Group, adds: 'CFOs need to utilise their network to share information and build a better understanding of the markets around them in order to make strategic decisions that can benefit their business. 

'As a result, developing a wide network is an important factor of the role and they will be expected to take part in forums, groups and conferences to develop this to its full potential.

'It is a tough task to reach this level in what is a massively competitive sector, but it can certainly be done.'

"Within industry, while technical expertise is important for CFOs, it is the softer skills that will set an individual apart – an excellent rapport with colleagues and other stakeholders, strong commercial awareness and the ability to sell are all part of what makes a good CFO."

Josh Rufus - Morgan McKinley