From CFO to CEO - top 10 tips to get you there

From CFO to CEO - top 10 tips to get you there

It's a well trodden path, and for many chief financial officers, the top finance job is the stepping stone to the ultimate prize: chief executive. But while the qualities and values associated with the CFO – integrity, reliability, independence – are invaluable, the CEO's role requires more. From setting strategy to building and motivating teams, even the most capable finance chief will find the transition a challenge. So what are the key tricks to make the jump to the corner office?

1. Building internal influence

According to a recent McKinsey study, most of the UK chief executives with a CFO background who moved to the top job between 2000 and 2006 did so within the same company. "It's not easy going from CFO of company A to CEO of company B," says Peter Williams, former CFO turned CEO of Selfridges and current interim chairman at Blacks Leisure.

"But if you've got some operational experience then perhaps it's easier, but it will usually be a smoother path to move from CFO to CEO within your current company. Not everyone makes that change well, true – and it becomes about being comfortable with the numbers but really being interested in what the business is doing more broadly."

2. Embrace uncertainty

"Finance can be quite structured and calculable, and some finance people are in that mindset," says Kai Peters, chief executive of Ashridge Business School. "Others, of course, are not and they will find it significantly easier to make the transition. But accepting the complexity and uncertainty of a changing environment and letting intuition and best guesses replace certainty will make a major difference."

This might seem anathema to some finance chiefs, but embracing change and uncertainty can be liberating. After all, no business can thrive without accepting risk.

3. Visualise your company's success

"The cliché is that FDs are good as chief execs in struggling businesses since they focus on cost reduction, but they don't do well in growing businesses as the don't have the vision," says Mark Freebairn at Odgers Berndtson.

"But look at the number of FDs who have taken the step up to the CEO's role and are doing good jobs in growing businesses. My best example is Jeremy Darroch at Sky. Retail FD, then BSkyB CFO, then CEO."

Demonstrating that vision while a chief financial officer, for instance, developing and implementing major projects and strategies, is the best possible calling card for any potential CEO.

4. Go global "Quite often an experience in working internationally and living in different parts of the world or being involved in extensive long term projects on an international basis can be hugely beneficial."

Finnish executive Hannu Ryopponen has held CFO jobs across the world and is a firm believer in the importance of striking out for the territory.

"Doing that, along with pursuing a broad experience base either through participation in large projects or previous 'line' experience can be critical in making that step up."

Ryoponen's experience of bolshie US investors and silent Swiss analysts when he was a CFO prepared him for the diverse audience the CEO must engage with.

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