As a qualified finance professional, it’s important to understand and plan where your career will take you. Whether your ambition is to become a specialist in a certain area, run your own department, or aim for the heights of being a CFO or CEO, planning is vital.
Seems early? Statistically, planning early increases your chances of success.
If you take the old Harvard goal-setting analogy, the 3% of people who wrote a career plan during their MBA earned more than ten times that of the 97% who didn’t.
In addition to your finance qualification and career plan, which will lay the foundation for your journey to CFO or CEO, you’ll also require drive and determination to realise your career goals.
Developing an early CEO or CFO mindset, where you align yourself with the right people is equally as crucial for success.
In this guide, you can explore where your finance qualifications can take you and the key elements to success to assist your climb to CFO or CEO. You’ll also find case studies where finance and accountancy qualifications have led to CFO and CEO positions today, with the key career steps that assisted their rise to the top.
Your career as a finance professional offers many routes to senior positions, and you’re already gaining the commercial acumen and skills you’ll require to take your next step.
As you do this, you might be considering whether to take a traditional route to Chief Financial Officer or investigate the option of becoming a Chief Executive Officer instead.
No one route is better than the other. It is entirely personal to you, but the career path to CEO is slightly different.
Overall, the route you take to CFO is similar to that of CEO, as both will require you to climb the seniority ranks, gain qualifications, valuable experience, and go above and beyond to showcase your ability. However, to be a CEO, you’ll also need to broaden your knowledge of other business functions and gain a holistic and more strategic view of the organisation’s goals and challenges.
Yes, the transition from finance professional to CEO has become much more viable since the global financial crisis in 2008, which has made the appointment of CEOs with your skillset vital as businesses have become more risk-averse.
“51% of CEOs in the FTSE 100 have finance backgrounds.”
51% of CEOs within FTSE 100 companies have a financial qualification or began their professional life in a finance role -- finance is becoming more embedded in the c-suite.
It’s also true that as a CEO, you have the earning potential far above that of a CFO, sitting in the company of Jeff Bezos, whose career started with working in investment banking firms on Wall Street.
Jeff’s journey to CEO includes gaining a degree in engineering, working in the fintech industry, becoming a senior vice president at D.E. Shaw & Co, and then topping the rich list by becoming CEO of Amazon.
“If you don’t understand the details of your business, you are going to fail. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” Jeff Bezos
As mentioned, the global financial crisis has accelerated the need for an out-and-out numbers person who can manage a more risk averse environment while providing sound business advice to grow a business sustainably.
In addition, the finance and sales divisions now work together to provide business decision support -- the finance function has become an integral part of the business at every touchpoint.
In determining fiscal opportunities and risks, finance professionals position themselves as more of a strategic influence, easily translated to a boardroom environment.
A finance professional’s financial and commercial acumen is a key priority for businesses, no matter where the organisation is in terms of growth maturity (scale-up to FTSE 100).
If you consider the primary duties of any CEO or CFO, you’ll find:
Strong analytical and financial skills.
Excellent commercial acumen across all business areas.
A dedication to continuous improvement and development.
All of the above can often be found in the CV of a seasoned finance professional.
As you progress through your finance career, you’ll have opportunities and choices to make; if you’re aiming for CFO or CEO, though, there is a formula for success.
There is a clear connection between those placed in senior roles and their:
Breadth of experience.
By purposely developing these three areas, you can better position yourself for senior roles as your career develops.
Developing the range of experience you have within different areas of finance is crucial for senior roles, as is working with different mentors and key stakeholders.
There are many specialist areas such as financial planning and analysis, investments, mergers and acquisitions, commercial finance, financial auditing, technical accounting, taxation, treasury accounting, controllership, and many more.
Valuable as part of a traditional finance route -- this broader experience is also highly sought after within CEO positions as it can inform strategy.
In general, it’s also expected that CEOs have led an accounting function in addition to any commercial finance experience as this shows leadership and knowledge of basic accounting functions.
Jeff Weiner, former CEO of LinkedIn and now executive chairman, gained an economic degree and was responsible for M&A valuation before his role at LinkedIn. His breadth of experience was an excellent fit to take LinkedIn forward.
In addition to classic finance qualifications, senior-level executives often obtain non-finance qualifications such as an MBA or attend leadership courses; memberships are also common, such as the Institute of Directors, which single them out as having CFO or CEO potential.
According to a recent study, 25% of CEOs in the FTSE 100 have MBAs -- your strategic and leadership ability is as important as your finance capability at a senior level.
The MBA route, for instance, was sought by Phill Knight, former CEO of Nike, who also had a finance background, having worked for Price Waterhouse at the start of his career.
If you’re an out-and-out numbers person, an MBA can provide a grounding in areas such as sales, marketing, management, and leadership, which reassure future employers you’ll have a holistic understanding of all business functions to enable decision making.
When it comes to securing senior roles, your achievements are of great importance, and that’s why it’s essential to note them throughout your career.
You will pique future employers’ interest by saving money, making money, increasing efficiency, or productivity.
It’s also important to align yourself as close to business leaders as possible, so you can understand the company’s strategic direction and actively contribute to organisational priorities.
If you’re aspiring to be a CFO or CEO, then spending time with the most senior professionals will help you understand how they think -- gaining mentorship is crucial for this process.
Chris Spooner, Senior Vice President, Finance at Rubicon, is a real-life example of how one finance qualification can start a journey that leads to VP.
In a recent podcast, Adrian O’Connor, Founding Partner, Global Accounting Network, interviews Chris about his journey to VP and reveals why finance backgrounds are so appealing to employers.
Chris’s attitude early on in his career has clearly led to his success -- taking an unpaid internship and seeking mentorship.
Chris also takes educated risks, strives for enjoyment and direction in his career choices, and uses his transferable skills and adaptability to learn or even ‘unlearn’.
Finance major in college.
Started an unpaid internship at a small boutique investment banking shop in Atlanta.
Found a full-time, paid role as an analyst (two years on generalist assignments).
Looked for corporate strategy roles to focus on mergers and acquisitions (M & A) in the Atlanta area and was lucky to come across a company called Novellus.
Joined a new startup called Rubicon (asked to build an investor deck, build a long-term financial model, build a business case that will help Rubicon raise money).
“Rubicon was just this idea of being at a startup and being able to kind of chart your own course choose your own destiny, being able, again, to kind of triangulate for yourself, what’re the right speeds to move at there's, you know, at a large organization, not saying that this is a bad thing, but there's a higher degree of inertia around any sort of decision-making process, any sort of change that's going to occur in the organization. And I just had a greater appetite for speed, I guess. And so I'm looking at this company that had some really ambitious goals, you know, a track record of high growth that was alluring to me. And then the opportunity to kind of come in on the ground floor, and build up a team from scratch was something that, that I knew I wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to do elsewhere.” Chris Spooner
The interview also saw Chris identify a central distinction in today’s organisations and why a finance professional is perhaps a good fit for risk analysis and decision making, but that you sometimes have to ‘unlearn’ or balance precision with the speed of a decision.
“The central distinction that I've seen is kind of a risk appetite or uncertainty, and being able to triangulate and articulate your degree of confidence in decision making is important. Particularly if you wind the clock back to an earlier Rubicon and an earlier stage startup, when you’re burning money, time is not on your side, right. And so you've got to make decisions quickly. What's important is that you make a decision, you move forward, you learn from that decision, and you iterate upon that. And so what I've always impressed upon my team is the need to prioritize speed.” Chris Spooner
Gavin Adair, Chief Executive Office at Rosa’s Thai Cafe, is another real-life example of how one finance qualification can start a journey that leads to CEO.
In a recent podcast, Adrian O’Connor, Founding Partner, Global Accounting Network, interviews Gavin about his journey to CEO.
Gavin saw the benefits of widening his skills beyond finance early on in his career by studying for an MBA, working in general management, and then seeking commercial roles that would lead to becoming CEO.
Although Gavin’s path looks carefully planned, Adrian soon discovers that Gavin started out as a law student, fell into accountancy, and even became a kids’ entertainer before settling on the right path for him -- he now openly states that he’s ‘an accountant that never should’ve been an accountant’.
An accountant by training -- trained with Grant Thornton and moved through corporate finance and corporate restructuring.
Completed an MBA, because Gavin didn't want to effectively lock himself into an accounting firm.
Took a series of financial roles, which culminated with a role at Channel Four.
Moved into SMB.
Ten years ago had his first job in hospitality as finance director of a bigger restaurant group.
Moved to another restaurant group in general management.
Eight or nine years ago sought commercial roles and followed a general management career path.
Now CEO at Rosa’s Thai Cafe.
Gavin asked the team what direction they would like to take when the world’s viral challenge began. He decided to support their decision, and perhaps together with the confidence afforded from his accountancy background, he led Rosa’s to tremendous growth.
In the podcast, Gavin says, “The team said look, we want to continue working, so we kept more than half of our state open for delivery. And yeah, that proved to be hugely successful. We were really fortunate. We've opened six new restaurants over the last 15 months, and we opened a number of delivery-only kitchens as well. We were able to have great support from landlords, other suppliers, and partners. But I think we were good citizens too. It could have been a lot worse, it was not fun. But it could have been a lot worse.”
Adrian asked, “Do you think as a CEO from a finance background that you are better equipped to deal with some of that uncertainty and risk than perhaps someone who has come from a solely commercial or operations role?”
Gavin replied, “I think, almost undoubtedly. So I think it has really made me pause for thought that some of the structures, some of the discipline, yes, the ability to deal with complexity and uncertainty definitely came from that. Where I actually had the biggest advantage, I think, was that I was at Wahaca when it was hard; they had a totally blameless incident with norovirus and the sort of crisis management element of that, and what we put in place helped with Rosa’s. I was responsible for coordinating that response and many of the areas that ultimately were challenging at that time. So yeah, it was that experience as much as the financial background, I think, that helped. Undoubtedly, undoubtedly, it helped.”
Identifying a path to the boardroom doesn’t automatically mean success.
Finance professionals who have obtained CFO and CEO roles have usually driven their career themselves -- at no point did they take a passive role, and developing an early CEO/CFO mindset is the best way to achieve your career goals.
To develop that mindset, align yourself with key people both within and external to the business who can not only mentor you but provide a door to opportunities.
As you put yourself forward and drive your career, you may make a wrong move along the way -- a sector that doesn’t suit you or a role you’re not quite ready for -- but remember that risk-taking is all part of developing your career.
Likewise, it’s important to move on once you’ve achieved everything you can in your current role; try to build your experience and gain achievements to pursue your senior leadership ambition.
Unfortunately, in some cases, it can be challenging to move from an accountancy position into a more commercially focused role. Employers often don’t consider that the skills are transferable or that accountants are business-minded enough to take such a step.
It’s essential to do your research here: join a business where the senior professionals are from an accounting background or research the senior team members to spot any synergies.
By researching the company, you might be able to precisely align your skills and previous achievements to their organisational goals or challenges.
Be clear at the interview stage about career ambitions. It may mean missing out on a role, but ultimately it’s more important that the position you eventually secure supports your aspirational journey.
As you get closer to an executive position, it will become more and more apparent that the competing candidates are from other professional disciplines: commercial, operations, or sales.
If you’ve geared your career path towards senior leadership and gained relevant business experience in your finance roles, you should be able to see off these challenges. It will be essential to evidence your interest and involvement in the more commercial aspects of finance from early on in your career and your eagerness to support an organisation’s growth and success.
Whether you choose a traditional route to CFO or become a CEO, you’ll position yourself for success if you follow a tried and tested method:
Commercial mind -- you’ll need to develop your understanding of broader organisational goals, challenges, and opportunities.
Risks and decisions -- be prepared to take educated risks and make decisions on both projects and your career moves.
Increase the breadth and depth of experience -- work on different assignments to increase knowledge and understand your strengths and areas of interest.
Combine finance and leadership qualifications -- leaders choose MBAs and other courses to strengthen strategic skills.
Aim to excel -- senior team members have phenomenal track records that are quantifiable.
Find a mentor -- align yourself as closely as possible with the business.
“Finding the right mentor can be hugely influential in helping you achieve your ambition of becoming a senior leader. The closer you can align yourself to decision-makers, the more you can learn about the business and the more they can learn of your abilities. Opportunities do not present themselves - they are often sought.” Adrian O’Connor, Founding Partner, Global Accounting Network.
If you’re ready to get started on your senior leadership journey, then you can follow the following steps with the help of Global Accounting Network:
Build internally - use the tips in this guide to start increasing your breadth of knowledge and qualifications. Aim to capitalise on opportunities and excel in building achievements - don’t forget the importance of a mentor.
Apply for internal roles and promotions -- push yourself to take on a higher role with more responsibility, skill, or leadership elements.
Apply for a new senior role - once you’re ready, you can talk to Global Accounting Network about your next step.
Plan your career with Global Accounting Network -- partnering with a skilled, specialist finance recruitment provider can accelerate your route to CEO.
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