How to be a CFO | Career guide

Gerald Lombardo

Gerald Lombardo
December 26, 2022 7 min read

The CFO position has changed radically over the course of the last two decades. In the past a company’s Chief Financial Officer was defined almost more like a business’s chief accountant whereas today, CFOs are innovating new business models, optimizing technologies, and making huge proactive contributions. No wonder the growing interest from young finance professionals. If this includes you, Popl is here to help. Here’s what you need to know about how to be a CFO.

how to be a CFO

What is a CFO?

A Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is a senior executive responsible for managing the financial activities of an organization. The CFO's duties typically include financial planning and analysis, budgeting and forecasting, financial reporting, and managing relationships with financial institutions and other financial partners. The CFO may also be responsible for developing and implementing financial strategies, and for ensuring that the organization's financial practices are in compliance with relevant laws and regulations. CFOs often work closely with the CEO and other senior executives to make strategic financial decisions for the organization.

What does a CFO do?

A CFO’s responsibilities depend on the size of the company and, of course, the dynamics of the specific company. But, in general, the role of Chief Executive Officer is reserved for larger corporations and, as such, involves much more than just, say, advanced accounting work. Typical CFO responsibilities include things like the following:

  • Financial planning and analysis: The CFO is responsible for developing and implementing financial plans and budgets, as well as analyzing the organization's financial performance and making recommendations for improvement.
  • Financial reporting: The CFO is responsible for preparing financial reports for internal and external stakeholders, including the board of directors, shareholders, and regulatory agencies.
  • Budgeting and forecasting: The CFO is responsible for developing and managing the organization's budget, and for forecasting future financial performance.
  • Managing relationships with financial institutions: The CFO is responsible for managing relationships with banks, investors, and other financial institutions, including negotiating loans and other financing arrangements.
  • Developing and implementing financial strategies: The CFO works with the CEO and other senior executives to develop and implement financial strategies that support the overall goals of the organization.
  • Ensuring compliance with laws and regulations: The CFO is responsible for ensuring that the organization's financial practices are in compliance with relevant laws and regulations, including tax laws and accounting standards.

How to become a CFO

Chief Financial Officer

Unlike some of the other C-level roles which can be earned and achieved through non traditional methods, the CFO role usually requires a more “credentialed” background. This often means impressive academic credentials and specific training.

Here are some actions you can take to help become a CFO:

  • Earn at least a bachelor's degree in finance, accounting, or a related field: Most CFOs have at least a bachelor's degree in a field such as finance, accounting, business, or economics.
  • Gain work experience: Many CFOs have several years of work experience in finance-related roles before being promoted to the CFO position. This may include positions such as financial analyst, controller, or treasurer.
  • Obtain professional certification: Some CFOs choose to obtain professional certifications such as the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. These certifications can help to demonstrate your expertise and commitment to the field.
  • Develop your leadership and management skills: CFOs are often responsible for leading and managing a team of finance professionals, so it is important to develop your leadership and management skills. You can do this through on-the-job experience, professional development courses, or by earning a master's degree in business administration (MBA).
  • Network and build relationships: Building relationships with industry professionals and decision-makers can help you to learn about opportunities for advancement and increase your chances of being considered for a CFO position.
  • Keep learning and staying current: The finance and business landscape is constantly changing, so it is important to keep learning and staying current on developments in the field. This may include taking professional development courses or earning additional certifications.

CFO skills

Being a great CFO means not just in-the-weeds financial skills and knowledge, but also high-level leadership skills and the essential ability to understand big-picture goals. Here are some skills important to the best CFOs:

  • Strong financial acumen: CFOs should have a deep understanding of finance and accounting principles, as well as the ability to analyze and interpret financial data.
  • Strategic thinking: CFOs should be able to think strategically and consider the long-term financial implications of business decisions.
  • Strong communication skills: CFOs should be able to effectively communicate financial information to a variety of stakeholders, including the board of directors, shareholders, and regulatory agencies.
  • Leadership and management skills: CFOs are often responsible for leading and managing a team of finance professionals, so strong leadership and management skills are essential.
  • Adaptability: The business and finance landscape is constantly changing, so CFOs should be able to adapt to new situations and challenges.
  • Attention to detail: CFOs should be detail-oriented and have strong analytical skills in order to accurately analyze and interpret financial data.
  • Problem-solving skills: CFOs should be able to identify and solve financial problems in a timely and effective manner.
  • Ethics: CFOs should have a strong sense of ethics and be committed to acting with integrity in all financial matters.

How much do CFOs make?

The salary of a CFO can vary widely depending on a variety of factors, including the size and industry of the organization, the CFO's level of experience and education, and the location of the company. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for financial managers, including CFOs, was $129,890 in May 2020. The top 10% of financial managers earned more than $208,000 per year, while the bottom 10% earned less than $70,530.

CFOs at larger organizations or in industries with high demand for financial management expertise may earn higher salaries. In addition, CFOs who have advanced degrees, such as a master's in business administration (MBA), may also earn higher salaries.

It is important to note that the salary of a CFO may also include additional compensation, such as bonuses and stock options, depending on the company's policies and the individual's performance.

Famous Chief Financial Officers

While some CFOs may not get the “face-time” they deserve, there are still plenty of well-known (and critically important) Chief Financial Officers who aspiring CFOs can look to for wisdom and inspiration:

  • Dhivya Suryadevara: Dhivya Suryadevara is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of General Motors (GM), a global automobile manufacturer. She was appointed to this role in 2019 and is the first woman to hold this position in GM's history. Prior to joining GM, Suryadevara held several leadership roles in finance and strategy at companies such as eBay, Deloitte, and Goldman Sachs. Suryadevara has a bachelor's degree in commerce from Loyola College in Chennai, India, and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Michigan. She is also a certified public accountant (CPA). As CFO of GM, Suryadevara is responsible for managing the company's financial activities, including financial planning and analysis, budgeting and forecasting, financial reporting, and managing relationships with financial institutions and other financial partners.
  • Carol Tomé: Carol Tomé is the CFO of United Parcel Service (UPS), one of the world's largest package delivery companies. She is also the first woman to hold this position in the company's history.
  • Patrick Pichette: Patrick Pichette, the tech-world’s quintessential CFO played a key role in Google’s financial growth and expansion.
  • Peter Oppenheimer: Peter Oppenheimer is the former CFO of Apple, where he played a critical role in the company's financial growth and success.

Best resources for future CFOs

CFO

Here are some useful resources for those interested in becoming a Chief Financial Officer:

  • Professional associations: Joining a professional association, such as the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) or the Financial Executives International (FEI), can provide access to networking events, professional development opportunities, and other resources that can be helpful in your career as a CFO.
  • Online courses and certifications: There are many online courses and certifications that can help you build your knowledge and skills in finance and business. For example, you could earn a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.
  • Books and articles: Reading books and articles written by experienced CFOs or other financial experts can help you learn about best practices and gain valuable insights into the role of a CFO.
  • Professional development programs: Many organizations offer professional development programs specifically designed for aspiring CFOs. These programs may include courses, workshops, mentorship opportunities, and other resources to help you develop your skills and knowledge.
  • On-the-job experience: Gaining work experience in finance-related roles can be crucial for advancing your career as a CFO. Look for opportunities to take on additional responsibilities and learn as much as you can from more experienced colleagues.
  • Finally, it can be helpful to seek out a mentor who is a CFO or has experience in the role. A mentor can provide guidance and support as you develop your skills and pursue your career goals.

How to be a CFO | Conclusion

There you have it, everything you need to know about how to become a Chief Financial Officer. Remember that acquiring the position of CFO takes time, yes, but also diligence and focus. If financial topics and business innovation are interests of yours there’s no reason that the “process” of growing into the role of CFO isn’t something you should enjoy. Learn to love the process - learn to love the day-in-day out work of honing-your-skills, and if you focus on doing quality work daily you will undoubtedly arrive at any goal you set. 

Good luck!



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