10 Essential Tips for Becoming a CFO

Illustration of a female team leader surrounded by male colleagues in an office

After eight years of being the company's main accountant, a few things have happened: you were too apprehensive in throwing your name in the hat for the next CFO, you failed to improve your skillset to actually serve as a CFO, and you did not learn why your colleague was promoted to this position, and you were not.

Suffice it to say, it is not easy becoming an executive. It is a highly competitive field, demanding the cream of the crop, a talent pool that has the vision to advance the company to levels unseen before – at least from a financial perspective. Not everyone has it in them to be top dog and have the weight of the corporation on their shoulders.

Do you want to know how to become a CFO? Then it is time to change course, unleash a new strategy and adopt some of these tips to get hired as the next chief financial officer of Acme Corporation.

1. Get the Qualifications

To become a chief financial officer, you need five basic qualifications:

  • at least 10 years of experience in a senior position
  • a certified public accountant designation
  • a master's degree in accounting, business or finance
  • the latest knowledge of current accounting and financial accounting computer applications
  • impeccable communication, organisational and analytical skills.

Of course, that is just the elementary requirements of becoming the top numbers man or woman in the firm.

Since studies show that most CFOs are hired internally, it is imperative that candidates maintain a successful pattern in risk management, financial modelling, strategic planning and regulatory compliance. Ultimately, any CFO first showcased their expertise as operations manager, finance director or director of administration first before receiving that huge promotion.

2. Learn Related Skills

Every CFO must have basic skills to be an effective executive, such as attention to detail, leadership, problem-solving, work ethic and visionary. But there are some additional and more complicated skills that all CFOs need to possess, whether they are applying for the job or they wish to excel in their role.

Some of these include:

  • payroll and tax administration
  • cost accounting
  • commercial, contract and tax law
  • financial management
  • compliance supervision
  • internal auditing.

Similar to a CEO or a chief operations officer, CFOs should attain both the soft and hard skills – business, accounting or finance – to allow them to go above and beyond in their call of duty.

A 2012 Ernst & Young study of 800 CFOs found that 79% agreed their expertise and experience heightened the demand for these professionals to serve on board-level roles.

3. Take Risks

Some of the most successful businesspeople will say that the three most important things that contributed to their success were hard work, knowledge and luck. While our careers are too important to be left to fate, oftentimes a road less travelled could be the path to a rewarding job.

Put simply: you may need to take risks before you land that lucrative role as CFO.

So, this might consist of making decisions that could be contrary to what a lot of people would. Heck, this might involve turning down an initial job offer as CFO if you believe you are not ready. Indeed, if you do not have sufficient skills or enough ambition or the right experience (for now), then it may not be fruitful for you or the company to become its CFO.

4. Network with the Right People

Networking is a lost art form. A lot of young professionals think that all you need to do is use LinkedIn or connect on Facebook to network with people in your industry. It may seem archaic to millennial or generation Z talent, but face-to-face networking is the way to go. Indeed, there is nothing better than face-to-face, physical and in-person contact when you want to meet other professionals in your niche.

After all, it's highly unlikely that someone is going to ask you to join their multimillion-dollar accounting firm by following you on Twitter and then reading your tweets about the latest Avengers movie.

5. Live in Reality

Let's be honest: it may be contrary to what your parents or teachers told you growing up, but you cannot become the head of a company on your first day. You may think you can do a better job than the boss when you are interning, but there's no way you can because you do not fathom the inner workings of the business. And, most importantly, you do not have the experience to be an executive.

If your endgame is a top executive role, then stay humble, work your way up the ladder and do what is necessary to achieve this goal. Whatever you do, do not think that you will just be given the job because you are John Doe.

6. Become the Finance King or Queen

Will you become an industry-recognised veteran as soon as you graduate? No – and you should not expect it either. That said, you could become such a prominent figure as time goes by.

And, no, it will not just be thrown into your lap, either.

Obtaining a reputation as the go-to source for nearly everything in your sector requires acumen, genuine success and name recognition. As an example, if you were tapped to turn a company's finances around while still meeting the company's advancement objectives, then this will make business headlines, which means your name will be mentioned on numerous occasions.

Look at Bob Iger, the current CEO of Disney. He was able to turn that company around and turn it into an entertainment juggernaut by acquiring iconic brands like Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel and even ESPN until it metastasised into a news network. He made the company billions, and he will likely be in demand by other corporations that want to turn their fortunes around.

7. Know Your Technology

Technology is now an integral aspect of finance. The days of just solely relying on Microsoft Excel spreadsheets are coming to an end. Nowadays, there are a whole host of computer programs to incorporate into your daily routine, from QuickBooks Enterprise to ADP Workforce Now.

Then, there are other technological advancements that are being utilised by financial experts, such as cloud computing, big data analysis and mobile devices.

Without this knowledge, it might be too hard to steer a company in the right direction.

8. Remain Motivated

It is not easy to advance into an executive position. This is immensely difficult and achieved by a small percentage of internal employees and external candidates. Disappointment is ubiquitous when you desire to climb the ladder at the enterprise you have worked at for the last nine years.

The important thing is to remain motivated and to determine what may have gone wrong.

  • Do you not have enough credentials?
  • Do you lack a key skill?
  • Is there a qualification that you failed to list on your application?
  • What can you do to improve your chances of landing the job?

It is always better to perform some introspection, snoop around and stay positive than to mope and be resentful. This negative behaviour will not get you very far in your professional – or your personal – life.

9. Adopt a Vision for the Future

To be a successful chief executive these days, you will need a vision for the future. Unfortunately, these are not the good old days when the status quo remained supreme. Look at McDonald's, home of the Big Mac and Quarter-Pounder. Ditto for Apple. These companies failed to innovate for far too long, and it was tumbling until the company took on some new blood.

You cannot just be good at balancing a budget or being a company man/woman – you need to have an idea that could resuscitate a dying brand or rejuvenate a fledgeling enterprise.

10. Prove Your Worth

This is life; nothing will be handed to you for free. As the economic principle dictates, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. In other words, you need to prove your worth, work hard for a position and continue to showcase why you are ready for a job or why you were chosen for this role.

For many people, the labour market is an eternal struggle, a perpetual competition with hundreds of others who are vying for the same post. You always need to be one step ahead of your rivals. This could consist of one extra certification, two additional years overseas or a language that the others do not speak.

Your human capital, integrated with your vision for the future, must always exceed your competitors. That is the primary way of career advancement.

Chief accountant or director of financial operations – there is always a path to CFO stardom before actually advancing to executive capacity. In today's market, CFO requirements are exhaustive, fierce and highly technical, which are crucial for corporations and small businesses competing in the global economy.

So, knowing how to get promoted internally or hired externally for this employment opportunity is one thing, but employing tactics to fulfil this role efficiently and competently is another.

In the end, we have just one question: are you ready for the challenge?