The Road to CFO

A solid grounding in finance and accounting never gets old for future finance chiefs. But these days, those hoping to become CFOs also need a dollop of charm and a global perspective.

Corporate recruiters know better than anyone what it takes to reach the ultimate prize of a finance career: the CFO slot. But well before that final interview, they say, young finance professionals make a series of crucial career choices. And while taking the road less traveled may make for nice poetry, choosing certain well-traveled roads makes all the difference for someone with their eye on the CFO’s office.

“The Big Four sells well,” says Chuck Eldridge, managing director of the financial-officers practice at Korn/Ferry International. Nothing beats the training or credibility gained by doing time at one of the big accounting firms, he says.

Not only does the “Big Four” hone one’s accounting chops, but starting a career with such a firm typically puts a young accounting professional face-to-face with top executives in client companies. “As they develop and get more responsibility and bigger clients, there’s the chance to face off with a client company’s CFO,” Eldridge says. Such experiences, he says, are essentially de facto interviews — indeed, they often lead to a CFO-track job at a client company.

Beyond the Big Four, there are still many different paths among which a CFO-hopeful can choose. For someone jumping straight into a finance career, Eldridge suggests trying to get some variety between working in financial analysis at corporate headquarters and moving to different business units. Being “right there on the shop floor,” he says, gives someone with a finance background the crucial business experience they will later need to prove they understand how companies, not just numbers, actually run. Of course, he adds, it’s important not to go too native in a business unit. An eventual return to the finance department mother-ship is still essential to keep one’s career moving in the direction of the CFO’s office.

Of course, while work experience is vital, credentials matter too, and Eldridge is clear about where he stands in a long-running debate: For the future CFO, an MBA is good, but a CPA is gold. “That’s the capstone credential,” Eldridge says. “A lot of companies want to see that box checked.” Even with formal training in accounting, he says, the lack of a CPA seems like a sign of unfinished business.

Still, an MBA (particularly when coupled with a CPA) has its merits, especially given growing range of abilities that CFOs now require. “You’re getting a breadth of management education” from an MBA, says Chip Clothier, of HFC executive search. “It allows you more familiarity beyond the numbers and gives you an appreciation of what a company is trying to do.”

And certainly, a CFO candidate must be able to demonstrate an appreciation of the big-picture appreciation that goes well beyond number-crunching, recruiters say. Like Eldridge, Clothier suggests working in a number of different finance areas, joining a task force or special project committee, and even doing stints overseas. Seeking a mentor within the company is also a good move, he says — everyone needs an experienced guide to help them navigate through the corporate culture.

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