Why am I not a CFO?

Posted by on Jul 7, 2013 in Business Partnering | No Comments


Many accountants on qualifying believe all the time, effort and sacrifice made in studying for their exams should now be repaid by being given a gilded ladder to take them to being a CFO. However many are shocked to find that all the examinations they worked so hard to pass are not really that much use and even less relevant to their job. Furthermore  an increasing number  of CFO’s are MBA’s rather than qualified accountants. Could this be the result of the MBA CFO having been exposed to a broader set of influencers than that offered from the traditional accounting background?

I recently helped a large finance team to develop a program to ensure that their accountants remained motivated and happy in the organization. They had experienced quite high turnover as many of their staff had felt that their career was in a cul-de-sac with little chance of progression. In preparing for the project I contacted over 500 accountants who had qualified in the last 5 years with varying experiences and industry backgrounds to see how they felt. It was interesting to find that there was a common theme amongst many of their frustrations.

The main weakness that they felt was holding them back was one of soft skills. Monty Python established the idea of “the boring accountant with no personality”, but as a qualified accountant myself I could of course obviously never subscribe to this view! It’s also interesting to note that no part of the qualification prepares people to improve these softer skills. Even more interesting is the dearth of such courses in most of the CPD offered from the various professional bodies.

Todays CFO is now a very different person to that which occupied the role a couple of decades ago and it has evolved from one in which the main role was one of financial stewardship to one in which a CFO is now more of a business partner. A good CFO should be able to take many of the management tasks off the CEO to free up the CEO’s time.

So to fulfill their changing role what skills does a CFO need?

It goes without saying that you need good financial skills but the most technically able accountant is rarely the CFO and such information can normally be accessed via your firms or auditors technical departments. Research by the big 4 accounting firms indicates that you also need to have great communication skills and an awareness of the business beyond finance.

A small number of large organisations have recognized this and actively develop their finance teams in these areas. However if your organization has no formal approach to developing these traits there is lots of self-development that you can do to make sure you are on the right track.

To improve your communication skills why not volunteer to present on behalf of the finance team in company meetings? Not only will this improve your communication skills but will also get you noticed as a contender for future more senior roles. To develop your business awareness many CFO’s comment on the benefit a sideways move away from a pure finance role gave them. Look to see if this is an option or if not try and do a six-month secondment in another function.

One of the best examples of developing business awareness I have seen was in one of Britain’s most innovative consumer goods companies where none of the functional teams sat together but were spread throughout the building. This might sound like a logistical nightmare but worked fantastically well as each function was constantly picking up snippets of information from one another. They didn’t realize it but through this interaction they were developing much broader business awareness than any formal training course could ever given them.

To be an effective organizational team it is imperative that you have a good understanding of what other functions do and what they are up to. Another great technique which I have seen work well is to encourage cross functional learning by putting on a half hour presentation once a month which people are free to attend in their lunch hour. This not only helps business understanding but also creates networking opportunities and also helps with communication skills if you are the one presenting.

If your organization has a CSR policy and commits to helping certain organisations, why not volunteer to help them organise their financial control systems better. If no such linkage exists why not initiate one?

It is important to remember that all these skills are skills that people are not born with but ones, which can be learned, and fine-tuned with experience. The sooner you start practicing them the better you will become.

…be more than just an accountant!