Crisis Demands New CFO Skills

Rather suddenly, companies aren't any longer looking to make accountants into finance chiefs. In their fight for survival, they need a different breed.

The preferred skill set for CFOs is shifting quickly in the heat of the economic turmoil and the credit crisis. For many companies seeking finance leaders, the accounting and financial reporting acumen deemed so crucial in the early years of the Sarbanes-Oxley era has slid down the wish list over the past 12 months — and especially recently, executive recruiters told CFO.com.

That realignment was gradually taking hold anyway, with many companies having gotten their hands around Sarbox compliance. Now, with events dictating a faster pace of change, what they’re looking for instead in CFO candidates depends on how the crisis is affecting them.

Those for which raising capital is an urgent priority want someone with proven skill at managing a balance sheet and who understands the capital markets. Those that need to restructure flagging businesses are going for people with operating backgrounds. For many financial services firms, adeptness at valuing assets is everything right now.

These demands may be contributing significantly to the continuing high rate of CFO turnover. It’s common these days for a CFO who was the perfect person for the job last year to fall victim to this year’s circumstances. Holding onto the job often demands nimbleness.

“I feel sorry for the CFOs. They need to be chameleons,” said Chuck Eldridge, managing director of the financial-officers practice at Korn/Ferry International. “One day they’re focused on growing the business, the next day on the credit crisis or on how to turn around the company.”

It may be that the most valuable trait a CFO can possess today is flexibility and responsiveness to significant swings in the dynamics of the market. “A lot of them will tell you that right now it’s all about being calm and measured,” Eldridge said.

A marked shift in companies’ CFO preferences began to take shape in late 2007 and early 2008, he noted, away from the certified public accountant and controller background. Depending on the company, in greater demand now are MBAs, with their broader education and finance perspective, and people with treasury or financial analysis backgrounds.

Finding Funding

Several headhunters told CFO.com that capital-markets skills are emerging as perhaps the most commonly pursued capability. “It’s not as easy today as calling in some bankers and having them pitch the business — you actually have to go out and make things happen,” said Tom Kolder, president of Crist|Kolder Associates. In kicking off recent CFO searches, he noted, CEOs have made a point of saying they need somebody who can “come in and be creative about getting funding for growth opportunities.”

Kolder continued, “The pendulum swung to the controllership skill set with Sarbanes-Oxley, and now it may be that treasurers are going to have their day in the spotlight.”

The focus on capital skills represents a return to basics, according to Steve Scroggins, a managing director at Russell Reynolds who does much of his recruiting work in the financial services sector.

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