Modern-day CFOs often find themselves in the hot seat as they lead organizations through change, whether it’s in the form of helping manage the turbulent waters of economic uncertainty or being constantly pushed and pulled into new areas of responsibility. But, trailblazing CFOs take a solutions-focused approach to challenges by treating the financial performance management of a company as a team sport.
To guide their team to success, finance leaders need to balance being both a player and a coach—and that isn’t always easy. How can modern finance leaders grow their skills and scale up their careers? Planful CFO Dan Fletcher shares the wisdom he’s gathered throughout his career and offers tips for finance leaders to stay agile and succeed in 2023 and beyond.
Accounting and compliance are core parts of a CFO’s role, so a degree in accounting and a CPA certification can get you started. But according to Dan, and others, it’s not enough.
“The best way to strengthen your learning and thrive as a CFO is to cross-pollinate,” Dan advises. Taking a multi-disciplinary, utility player approach to get broader finance experience, from mergers and acquisitions to planning, budgeting, forecasting, and analytics, can help leaders grow in their careers. Seizing the opportunity to learn and taking on new projects as a “continuation of school” can help finance leaders maintain a growth mindset.
It’s equally important to pivot and explore different aspects of business to understand how every player contributes to the team’s effort. For Dan, he moved into investing and later into private-equity operations to gain a broader understanding of what post-acquisition value creation looks like. This set the stage for working in a high-pressure environment with different business models in industries like construction, product distribution, medical devices, and even veterinary services.
In addition, Dan suggests paying close attention to technology and the impact it could have. When he started in 2007, finance and accounting industries were slower to adapt to technological transformation. But Dan observed how tech could optimize results, provide better outcomes, and help automate tasks. This learning proved vital and was perhaps the driving force in his move to the tech sector as CFO of Planful.
In essence, it’s the exploration and the learning, understanding, and practicing of new things that helps you thrive in the CFO role. Finance is a team sport: everyone must work together and towards the same goal to win. But teams are composed of individuals. And, like an individual athlete, practice pushes you to improve and add agility. Along the way, Dan advises, you build connections across teams, develop soft skills, and grow into the role of leader and coach.
CEOs and board members want a CFO who will help them sleep well at night. In other words, they want an individual who is consistently diligent and trustworthy with regard to compliance, spend and capitalization, covenants, and reporting to lenders. They want a teammate they can trust to come through on the day-to-day activities but also when they need it most.
It’s equally important for CFOs to have a fundamental grasp of accounting, tax, and compliance. Dan cautioned against placing too much emphasis on team members who come from a Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) background. While it’s certainly valuable, the background alone isn’t a definitive measure of success. It’s like stacking your team with players only good at one role: they’ll view every situation through the same lens. Finance requires a diverse set of perspectives and backgrounds to consider all the what-ifs and make better decisions.
Ultimately, Dan says, a CFO needs to be fundamentally sound and trustworthy. From there, CFO aspirants can upskill on their abilities to forecast, understand the industry, find and close acquisitions, take on digital transformations and changes in company culture, and lead the company through a major event like an IPO.
Just as someone with an FP&A background needs to become a well-rounded player, those with accounting backgrounds particularly need to upskill in three areas to grow into the CFO role:
It’s possible for accountants to feel under-skilled because they don’t have FP&A experience and for FP&A professionals to find themselves lacking in knowledge about compliance, taxes, or closing the books.
Don’t think of yourself as a minor league player; instead, recognize and seek out the skills you need to build expertise beyond just your current role. The key is to find the opportunities within your organization that will help you upskill in these three core areas and gain valuable experience. But, as Dan said, controllers and accounting manager roles are already busy and likely overworked. He suggests you channel your motivation by taking an online course after work or letting your CFO know about your long-term career growth plans and desire to become a CFO someday.
With buy-in from your CFO, you can get involved in stretch assignments like planning CapEx for a budgeting cycle or participating in workflow meetings in the budgeting process. This helps you learn the language and gain experience that you can leverage when you’re interviewing for a CFO role.
Innovation can be the difference between good and great. A good CFO does their job well—stays compliant, gets the annual budget approved by the board and adheres to it, and leads the company towards its goals. That is a commendable job. But to stand out as a clutch player and team leader, you need to practice longer, work harder, and go that extra mile.
A great CFO serves as a trusted advisor to not just the CEO but to other senior leaders across the company. They act as a thought partner who helps uncover opportunities and comes up with a plan. In addition, Dan says, a CFO’s greatness lies in breaking barriers and “doing more with less,” like making strategic investments that improve productivity or deploying financial performance management automation so finance and accounting teams have more time to help the business. That’s where financial performance management technology comes in to help automate manual processes, consolidate information in real-time, simplify collaboration with the business, and more.
Keep in mind that to be a great CFO, however, you first need to be a good one. If you don’t fulfill the standard requirements of the role, which are demanding, your innovation and ideas won’t have ground to stand on.
It’s highly likely that your first CFO role will come from someone within your network—a peer or mentor who is familiar with your sound reputation and trusts you. After all, a CFO can make or break a company, and a CEO will rarely risk their future on an unknown player.
Invest in relationships early in your career with authenticity and trust. As you grow, find a mentor who can guide you and introduce you to the right people. At the same time, offer your own time and expertise to mentor younger players as a way to pay it forward.
Remember: finance is a team sport. CFOs rely on players across the business to provide them with the right information and insights. The c-suite relies on an allstar CFO to bring strategic expertise and lead the charge on financial performance. Finance and accounting teams look to the CFO as a coach to consistently elevate their individual and team performance. And, good CFOs know they need the right network of fans to keep expanding their personal brands.
The most important thing is to make your move, and start down that path towards CFO today. As Yankee’s legend Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”