How to go from CFO to CEO

Posted: Apr 09  |  By: Parker + Lynch

What’s the next career move for a chief financial officer? Many believe the logical next step is straight into the top job: chief executive officer. With finance playing an ever-increasing role in corporate strategy, a CFOs portfolio of skills may serve the CEO role well. But only about one-fifth of all CEOs in the U.K. and the U.S. followed that path. To make the leap from CFO to CEO, you’ll need to be perceived as more than “just a numbers person.” Here’s how to start.

Strategic mindset

The role of CFO has become increasingly strategic over the years, but CFOs tend to be focused on providing insight and analysis, ensuring that business decisions are grounded in sound financial criteria and cognizant of rules and regulations. It’s a vital role, but a CEO must be comfortable making decisions even when there are not clear-cut answers.

A strategic mindset is an often-underdeveloped skill, but successful CEOs make time for focused strategic thinking on a regular basis. Set aside time alone, away from phone calls, emails and other competition for your time and attention. Schedule it on a weekly or monthly basis and use this time to reflect, research, ideate and dream.

This practice can be challenging at first, but it will enhance your ability to communicate a well-articulated strategy throughout the organization and apply a fresh approach to addressing challenges.

Willing to take risks

It should come as no surprise that 50% of CFOs have public accounting backgrounds. Public accounting firms provide an excellent foundation for discipline, organization and the ability to present financial information appropriately, but this career path can also lead to a propensity to see things in black and white and focus on risk management.

CEOS, on the other hand, must be able to take calculated risks when necessary. Their role is often focused on fostering and managing innovation. Risk taking and being willing to fail is so vital in some organizations that leaders actually look for ways to encourage these innovative behaviors in their employees.

If you weren’t born with a naturally high tolerance for risk, remember that risk-taking doesn’t mean making rash decisions. Collect enough information and develop a solid strategy before diving in. Every experiment won’t pan out, but if you start small with things that don’t have huge potential negative consequences, you’ll acclimate yourself to taking risks and failing forward.

Social leadership

The term social leadership was coined by Professor Jaume Filella, and it is the ability to inspire, influence and motivate others. A CFO may have been able to rise to their current position based on technical competence, but to go further, you’ll need to demonstrate more competency in people and relationships.

A social leader:

  • Guides people to what they should think about rather than telling people what to do
  • Addresses difficult issues and says what needs to be said
  • Faces challenges and uncertainty with confidence to provide a steadying influence for others
  • Is sensitive to non-verbal clues
  • Can interact comfortably with a diverse group of people
  • Shares the company’s values, purpose, mission and vision

Making a move from CFO to CEO starts with the self-awareness to get out of your existing comfort zone to develop a broader array of leadership strengths. Look closely at the current CEO’s role, experience, responsibilities and skill set. Adopt personalized strategies to build those leadership characteristics in yourself. It may require taking on new challenges to gain more diverse experience and expand your current reach within the organization.

For help navigating this jump, or deciding whether or not it’s right for you, contact Parker + Lynch. Check out our infographic below to see the top accounting and finance jobs for this year.

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