CFOs-Turned-CEOs: The View from the Other Side of the Desk

So what's it like being a CEO? These former CFOs know.

So you want to be a CEO? Wanna be in charge? The Big Cheese?

Well, these days it is increasingly common for CFOs to ascend to the CEO job. According to research by Spencer Stuart recruiter E. Peter McLean, 20 percent of the CEOs appointed in 2000 spent time in the finance ranks. While he has no historical comparisons, McLean believes it is safe to say that now more CFOs are included in CEO searches than they were previously, and sometimes they beat out their nonfinance rivals.

The reasons for this are compelling. Over the past decade, finance executives have become more involved in strategy; they have been given operations oversight; and as they have taken a broader view of the organization, they have worked more intimately with the CEO. “CFOs penetrate all facets of a business, which is critical to understanding what levers to push as CEO,” says Frank E. Weise III, CEO of Cott Corp. and former CFO of The Campbell Soup Co.

But is the top job all it’s cracked up to be? What is life like for a CFO who becomes CEO? How are things different when you’re faced with what Weise calls “the weight of accountability” that only a CEO truly shoulders? What is the transition like? What are the pleasures? The disappointments? And how about that finance background: Is it adequate, or is there a lot of learning on the fly?

We asked Weise and several other CFOs-turned-CEOs. Here’s what they had to say:


Powerwave Technologies Inc.

“CEO is a much better job,” asserts Edwards, who has been chief executive of the Santa Ana, California-based wireless company since 1996. “It was great being a CFO [at AST Research Inc. for eight years], but after doing all the legwork and having someone else make the call, I wanted to see what I could do if I were making the call.”

Oddly, he finds that being in the hot seat adds up to less stress. The first day on the job, for example, Edwards was caught in traffic on his then-unfamiliar Silicon Valley commute. He was frantic that he would be late for his first meeting. “Then I realized they’re meeting with me,” he says. “They won’t start until I get there.”

He also has treasured having more control over his time. When his daughters were in high school (they are now both in college), he could adjust his schedule to coach one daughter’s basketball team and attend the other’s swim meets. “As CFO, you need to be there whenever the CEO wants you,” he says. Of course, as CEO, he has another authority to answer to — customers. “If Nokia wants to see me,” he says, “I have to go to Finland.”

And even faced with today’s tough economic environment — Powerwave Technologies’s latest quarterly sales were off 29 percent — the 47-year- old Edwards has been able to maintain his calm. “Because of my CFO background, I know we have the balance sheet to weather this storm,” he explains. “But as CEO, I’ve had to increase my visibility to make sure everyone sees what I’m seeing — that the wireless market will develop, and that this correction will be a short-term blip in a long-term success story.”


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