Wanted: Strategic CFOs. Again.

The skills companies value in finance leaders continue to shift with the times, with strategic acumen now edging past capital-markets experience, headhunters tell the crowd at CFO Rising.

McLean
: Well, of course, that’s a company in crisis. But companies outside the Fortune 500 tend not to have enough people with all the experiences and training needed for the CFO role, so they’re forced to go out into the market.

Even if you have a good internal candidate, selling it to the board becomes an issue. We just did a project where we interviewed a group of 40 longstanding CFOs, in their roles for six years or longer. In every instance, these people claimed to have their successors in-house. But is the board going to be satisfied that an internal candidate will be as good as an external one with CFO experience? That is a challenge, because the board has a major obligation to get the selection right.

Heid: That is even more prevalent in today’s economic times. But I will say that an outsider has to be substantially better in order to overcome the fact that the inside person knows the company, its management team, and its systems. Internal promotions to CFO have increased significantly over the past year. I encourage people to make sure they have punched all the tickets for the CFO slot — some corporate roles, operational finance roles, global experience, some treasury experience. If you’ve been in a silo, it’s much harder for the board to endorse you as a candidate.

McLean
: It’s really important to take ownership of your career development. Make certain to pursue opportunities within your company for roles that will broaden you. Larry Zimmerman, the CFO at Xerox after a long career at IBM, where he became controller, says he always took roles that nobody else wanted. When [former IBM CFO] Jerry York asked him to take the role of European CFO in Paris, he didn’t really want to do it, but he did it anyway, and it positioned him to come back and be the controller of IBM.

Recruiters have mentioned that they’re getting many résumés these days and are stepping into the role of coach. Can you describe that?

Heid: We are getting inundated with résumés. I probably receive 200 a week, so realistically I can’t get back to every person and meet them live. But if I were to coach anyone, I’d say get to know recruiters when you’re employed, because rarely do we place someone we haven’t met.

McLean
: As you approach recruiters, be specific about what you’re interested in. Over the past year, many people I know personally, like neighbors, have reached out to me to say they didn’t know where to turn and that opportunities seemed so limited. Some of these people are multimillion-dollar executives who have had successful careers, and yet their résumés don’t get much attention because they’re not specific enough.

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