Paving your way to the CFO's job

Paving your way to the CFO's job

The title of chief financial officer tends to undersell a role that has become progressively more complex. At least that's the view of around two thirds of group finance chiefs surveyed by Ernst & Young earlier this year for a report.

When asked if the title "CFO" adequately described their work, 66 percent of those taking part answered in the negative. It was further confirmation – if any was needed - that finance is just part of the CFO equation.

"A great many CFOs combine their financial role with that of a chief operating officer," says Ernst & Young partner Les Clifford. "It has become a multi-faceted position."

But what does that mean for those within the finance function who aspire to one day step up to the top job? Well, they're certainly on the right career trajectory. The survey also found that 66 percent of current CFOs came up through the finance function. By extension the group finance chiefs of tomorrow will most likely be found within the ranks of today's regional and divisional FDs and financial controllers.

Arguably that's the way it should be. Senior finance staff within an organisation will certainly have the technical skills required of a CFO. Nevertheless anyone stepping into the shoes of the finance chief will inevitably be looking at whole raft of new and unfamiliar challenges. The question is how does the aspirant CFO acquire the necessary skills?

On the face of it, there isn't necessarily a yawning gap. Rob Edwards is group finance director for telecoms operation Saiph Group and FD for datacentre business Next Generation Data. In his view the role of regional or divisional FD provides a good platform to acquire experience that is relevant to a CFO or group FD position.

"It can be a big step up," he acknowledges. "But a good regional FD will not only have sound internal reporting skills, he will also have a thorough understanding of the business and how it operates at a regional level while also have an understanding of the rest of the group."

Roberts adds that some aspects of the group role will be unfamiliar. The FD who is accustomed to internal reporting will have to get to grips with an external communications role. In the case of a public company that will mean building relationships with analysts, shareholders, banks and bondholders. In the case of a private equity-backed business the concentration of interested parties will be much smaller but no less focused on the CFO's presentation of the numbers. Then there are the board responsibilities to be taken into account. "There will be a requirement to address the issues of good governance and risk management," Roberts adds.

Welcome challenges

That external-facing role may be a tough stretch for some, but many CFOs will see it as an extension of something they already do. However, once you step back from pure financial skills and begin to look at the broader range of experience and personal qualities required of a CFO, then it becomes apparent that we're looking at a considerable step change.

EY's report identifies nine attributes that are vital to the CFO. These include diverse finance skills and well developed commercial insight along with more specific requirements such direct experience of M&A transactions, major change projects and international markets. To a greater or lesser degree, experience of this kind is certainly something that can be picked up at regional or divisional level.

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