How to Pick Winning Finance Execs

Opinions differ on whether a prestigious accounting degree or raw intelligence is a better indicator of future success. But there's general agreement among corporate-finance talent scouts that passion and energy count for a great deal.

How do you spot a rising finance star?

The short answer, according to a range of seasoned talent developers in the field, is that they’re like mini-CFOs: they’re smart, they seek experiences beyond the technical finance duties, they show leadership potential, they can strategize, and they can put financial data into the context of the overall business.

While there’s general agreement about the qualities that distinguish budding standouts, however, experts differ on whether educational background or innate skill is a more significant sign of talent.

For some, pedigree counts. In that case, a good way to start looking for finance stars is to scan their academic backgrounds, according to Teri Valentine, director of corporate finance planning and development at Motorola Inc. Valentine says finance executives at the Schaumberg, Illinois-based mobile-products giant prefer to hire those who have a basic background in accounting from a prestigious school.

On the other hand, Peter Mondani, General Electric Co.’s manager of finance leadership development and human resources, observes that the people who have the hardest time getting to the executive level are the ones who were accounting majors. Mondani believes that raw intelligence—what he calls intellectual “horsepower”—is a better determinant of success in corporate finance. For instance, he recalls encountering a young finance executive who didn’t get top grades at a top school. Yet Mondani saw during meetings that the executive could connect facts with business issues “in a way that you were in awe.”

Further, high test grades might be weak indicators of future brilliance. Jonathan Schiff, founder of the Finance Development and Training Institute Alliance, notes that an analysis of the content of the CPA exam and the responsibilities of the CFO job shows very little correlation.

While talent spotters may be divided in the book-smarts-vs.-street-smarts debate, one thing they do agree on is that future finance stars have desire. “They have the passion and energy to want success,” says Mondani.

Motorola’s Valentine likes to see executives seek continuing education even after they’re on board—especially in prestigious finance and business programs at such nearby schools as Northwestern and the University of Chicago. In interviews, she looks for curiosity about where the jobs in question will take candidates: will the assignment stretch their skills?

Shining Through

And, will they aggressively seek to expand their skills? Rick Richardson, senior director and a partner in Spencer Stuart’s global CFO practice, gives an example of an impressive young finance executive he interviewed recently whose career benefited from a willingness to grow in just that way.

During a controller stint early on, the executive told her boss she wanted treasury experience. She moved into an assistant treasurer position, then to treasurer, and then added vice president of finance to her title. By pursuing the treasury know-how, she supplemented her controller experience by meeting analysts, creditors, and other people outside the company. She gained a crucial balance of internal and external exposure, the lack of which “keeps most people from becoming CFO,” says Richardson.

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