Motivation and Preparation Can Pave the Path to CFO: How Enterprising CPAs Can Land a Coveted Finance Leadership Job

By Murphy, Maria L. | Journal of Accountancy, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Motivation and Preparation Can Pave the Path to CFO: How Enterprising CPAs Can Land a Coveted Finance Leadership Job


Murphy, Maria L., Journal of Accountancy


Demand for talented and experienced CPAs is high. As CPAs consider their career paths, many aspire to become a CFO in industry. A limited number of these positions are available, and the competition is intense.

How can candidates best prepare themselves for the CFO role? Here is what some successful CPAs who have attained the position have to say.

SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE

CPAs with designs on a CFO position need to distinguish themselves with skills that go far beyond the basic foundation of accounting competencies. The significance of these skills varies based on the company's size and industry, but all of them should be considered in a self-assessment to prepare for a career move. It is important to develop experience in a specialized area or master knowledge of a subject that makes you valuable and helps you stand out from the crowd.

Michael Dinkins, CPA, the CFO of Texas-based medical technology manufacturer Greatbatch, said that in choosing a CFO, there are two equally important and necessary parts to the decision--"Can Do" and "Can Fit." "Can Do" covers the required knowledge, experiences, and strengths a candidate must have to meet the needs of the business. "Can Fit" covers the ability to collaborate, build working relationships, and influence others to get things done.

BUSINESS AND OPERATIONAL EXPERIENCE

If you do not understand the business of the company, you cannot be an effective CFO. One of the most important responsibilities for these leaders is to create and implement company strategies and policies and to define the organization's future direction. This requires an entrepreneurial perspective about where the organization is and where it is going. Leaders must be able to provide analysis to change behavior. To do this effectively, you must build a collaborative relationship with operational colleagues.

Some CPAs have strong accounting and finance backgrounds but no operational experience. To get it, aspiring CPAs can volunteer for projects outside of finance, take lateral positions in different areas, and seek out and visit others who work in operational areas such as manufacturing and sales. CPAs can broaden their perspectives by asking questions, even if it is uncomfortable; reading contracts from a business perspective; and attending and participating in meetings.

"If you stay in a staff position working with other finance people, that's a very difficult way to get to a CFO seat," Dinkins said. "You have to get into the operating positions ... and hopefully at a divisional or plant level be responsible for a P&L or portion of one, and show that you have successfully worked with people in that operational environment."

Valuable relationships also can be developed by educating other, departments on how their performance and results become part of the organization's overall financial results.

PEOPLE SKILLS AND NEGOTIATION

Effectiveness in leadership roles requires being open with other employees. A positive attitude and enthusiasm are essential. Having an executive presence is critical, as you will be dealing with customers and shareholders, bankers and lawyers, partners, and boards of directors. But while it's important to be able to speak the language of the boardroom, you must also be able to alter your behavior and learn different ways to communicate with all levels of an organization, and to build relationships with people with different levels of education and experience.

Jenine Dalrymple, CPA, CGMA, the CFO at Tucson, Ariz.-based mining contractor Southwest Energy LLC, learned about the business by leaving her office and traveling to the locations where the company's miners were working. Her background and education were very different from theirs, but she gained their trust by showing a personal interest in what they did and by asking them questions.

"I learned about employees' problems in the field that I could fix," she said. …

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