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.

Sometimes, too, making the right moves is a matter of avoiding the wrong ones. Bill Behn, senior vice president of national staffing services at Solomon Edwards Group, a national CFO services firm, says that one mistake young finance professionals make early in their careers is putting too much emphasis on salary, commute, and benefits. Finding the best opportunity for growth and exposure is more important, he says. Other perks can be made up later.

Perhaps the hardest area for future CFOs to master is the so-called “soft skills.” As the face of the company in front of Wall Street, and as a proxy for the CEO in many situations, CFOs must be comfortable speaking in public and interacting with company stakeholders, including its board. Here again, an MBA, or some other experience beyond hard numbers, can be helpful. “Accountants don’t work on people skills, networking skills, social skills,” says Behn. “A lot of them don’t know how to interact at a lunch or a cocktail party.”

If you think that’s an unfair stereotype, fine. But keep your ego in check if you set out to disprove it. “Don’t come out of the Big Four after three years and think you’re ready to be a controller,” says Behn. “You could fail and lose credibility.” Finance is still a slow-and-steady culture, and excelling at a series of manageable positions is the best way to move up, he says.

Timing those moves is also important. Job-hopping or languishing in one place for too long are both warning signs to potential employers. “You’ve got to stay two years wherever you go,” Behn says. “Three years is better.” Moving too much shows a lack of loyalty and bad decision-making skills — a common complaint
that sitting CFOs aim at the next generation of finance professionals. At the same time, says Behn, staying put too long is just as bad. “You don’t move up as quickly moving within an organization as you do when changing organizations.”

Still, for all that, the road less traveled can still wind up in the CFO’s office. Victoria Harker, CFO of global power company AES Corporation, does not have a CPA and did not work at a Big Four accounting firm. She studied economics and English in college and got an MBA. After working as a financial manager at a law firm, she joined MCI, where she worked her way up to acting CFO before moving on to AES. “Mine was more on the job training,” Harker says.

Harker rotated through several positions at MCI, then a unit of World Com, doing time as treasurer and also overseeing information technology and operations. That range of experience made her more ready for today’s CFO role, she says. “From a personality perspective, I enjoy the operational aspects of running a business,” Harker says. “More and more CFO positions are less about reporting and the rear view mirror and more about bringing strategic insight into how the company should be running.”

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