insight magazine

CFO to CEO? 4 Moves to Make It Happen

These tips can help you make the C-suite career move many dream of. By Editorial Staff | Digital Exclusive - 2018

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For many CFOs, the aspirational next step along their career path is becoming CEO. In a Robert Half Management Resources survey, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of CFOs said they were either somewhat or very motivated to be the CEO at their company.

It’s only natural for CFOs to aspire to the top leadership job. Excellent fiscal management skills, ideas for improving business efficiency and controlling costs, broad and deep economic and business awareness, and experience with investor stakeholder management are just some of the attributes these executives can bring to the CEO position.

But CFOs face stiff competition for the CEO’s seat. An executive vice president, the chief operating officer (COO), and the chief information officer (CIO) are often top contenders. Of course, there might be external candidates in the mix as well.

So, if you’re a senior-level finance exec who’s eager to take the helm at your company someday, you need to take steps now that can help improve your odds of being considered for the CEO role when the opportunity arises.

1. Deepen Relationships Throughout the Organization

CFOs are expected to weigh in on a wide range of business matters facing the organization, including compliance and regulatory issues, internal controls, taxes, major transactions, and other significant changes. And in recent years, most CFOs have seen their influence expand beyond the accounting and finance function. Unfortunately, those in the position of selecting the next CEO might not realize how well-rounded the company’s CFO can be.

Step up your efforts to build a solid understanding of how other teams in the business operate on a day-to-day basis and look for opportunities to help support and collaborate with other top executives in the organization. For example, in many companies today, the CFO and CIO work together regularly to make decisions about technology investments and manage risks.

Strengthening your relationship with the firm’s general counsel can be beneficial, too. You can deepen your knowledge of issues such as intellectual property, contracts, and business litigation — matters that every CEO should understand well.

2. Prepare Your Successor

Being indispensable is not necessarily a positive thing when you’re aiming for the next rung on the corporate ladder. High-performing CFOs could be skipped over for a promotion simply because the organization feels it can’t do without them in their current role.

One way to neutralize this obstacle is to groom a successor, which will help to ensure continuity in the finance department. It’s important to be proactive about this process, anyway, because it can take time to find and prepare a promising candidate for a leadership role.

3. Network With Other Executives

The more industry leaders you have within your circle, the more you’ll learn about accepting the CEO’s mantle. The CEO’s responsibilities are diverse — and heavy. To handle them adeptly requires not only a thorough understanding of the entire organization, as explained earlier, but also the landscape in which the business operates. That includes the company’s industry and key markets, as well as any dynamics — economic, regulatory, technological, and more — that could impact its operations.

Successful senior executives stay informed and keep pace with change by networking with peers. Take time to attend or contribute to industry events, get involved with relevant professional organizations (You’ve heard of the Illinois CPA Society, right?), cultivate a strong professional network, and raise your visibility online by participating in social media outlets such as LinkedIn and Twitter. More than half of CFOs (54 percent) surveyed said staying on top of professional and industry trends is a key benefit of using these platforms.

Consultants also can provide valuable insights and best practices they’ve acquired through their work for various organizations. So, building a rapport with the consultants your business engages — and inviting them into your professional network — can be well worth the effort.

4. Try Consulting

If the CEO job in your organization is unlikely to be available anytime soon, or you just want to explore other career options, you might want to consider taking the consulting path, too.

Working as an interim CFO is an opportunity to take on new professional challenges, acquire more knowledge, hone existing skills, and expand your network. Your experiences as a consultant should open the door to new career opportunities. For instance, the exposure and relationships you gain could make you a top-of-mind candidate for a CEO role in the future.

Not all CFOs want to be their company’s leader. But if you’re one who does, you need to begin laying the foundation now that will support you as you climb the corporate ladder, allowing you to reach the top role when the time is right.

This article originally appeared as “CFO to CEO: 4 Tips for Making the Move” in the July/August 2018 issue of CPA Voice from the Ohio Society of CPAs. It has been modified for INSIGHT magazine.