Accountants tend to think of the Chief Financial Officer position as the pinnacle of their professional career – but there are options outside of that trajectory for financial professionals who are interested in a different kind of executive position.
The emphasis on and understanding of financial performance lays a solid groundwork for a Chief Executive Officer as well. Insights gleaned from the mechanics of financial reporting, and from the CFO role, in understanding how the budget contributes to organizational objectives may enrich larger operational strategies. Executives may even find that a move from CFO to CEO can almost be thought of as a natural progression.
Nevertheless, the switch from the financial function to the broader leadership team takes intentionality. If becoming a CEO is something that you have thought of, you may want to consider the following concrete action items to help make the transition from the finance world a little easier.
Work With Mentors
No matter where your career path leads, chances are someone has paved a similar route before. If you have thought about leaving the financial field for a CEO position, connect with executives that you know and trust who can provide advice and counsel to you on the journey. Speak with individuals who have made the transition from CFO to CEO (or a similar transition) and know what the path looks like, CEOs you’ve worked for in the past, and/or your current CEO. As a matter of fact, your current CEO should be a strong (if not the strongest) resource and advocate for you – good CEOs know how to develop their team members to become CEOs themselves (something to remember when you’re in the #1 chair someday). The conversations you have with your mentors may illuminate steps or considerations that hadn’t occurred to you previously. Mentors may also connect you with a broader network to tap into for insight and potential leadership opportunities.
Broaden Your Knowledge Base
Obviously, as CFO you’re responsible for the finance function – but if you want to become a CEO, you need to be actively engaged with the other areas of the business as well, and have a complete understanding of the business as a whole. If you aren’t already, spend time with your peers in the organization to learn about their areas of the business, what they do and how they do it, where the pain points are, how they’re addressing them, etc. Consider what you may also glean from individuals in roles outside of your organization as well; after all, every company operates a little differently, and if you are not aiming to be the CEO of your current organization, you’ll need to consider the variety of challenges that are affecting other companies in your market.
Expand Your Scope of Responsibilities
Once you’re in the CEO chair, you’re going to be overseeing all of the company’s operations. So, in addition to broadening your knowledge base as mentioned above, you’ll want to take the next step and seek out opportunities to take on responsibilities outside of finance. What responsibilities you take on may reflect the conversations you have had with peers within your organization or that you have picked up from your network. Once you have identified the areas of the business or business needs that aren’t currently being addressed or managed, put together a plan for how you can take on responsibility for them. Present that plan to your CEO, which will be another opportunity to communicate your desire to make the transition. Again, your CEO should be a true advocate for you in this process and may be able to find other responsibilities outside of your plan that help expand your executive skillset.
Pull Yourself Out of the Weeds
Finance executives, particularly in small and middle-market companies, tend to be fairly hands-on. As you contemplate an ascent to the CEO chair, keep in mind that effective CEOs aren’t actively managing any one functional area of the business — they’re overseeing members of a senior team who are managing all of the functions on a day-to-day basis. The ability to manage, as opposed to do, is important. In your current role, start focusing more on delegating and managing, and getting yourself into this mindset. Find a mentor – perhaps a past manager of yours – that appears to be getting the most out of their team, and see what tips you may be able to put into practice for your direct reports.
Think of yourself and carry yourself as the face of your company, just like a CEO. Strong chief executives spend just as much time (if not more) out in the business community networking and promoting their companies as they do behind their desks. Find opportunities to be external — schedule lunch and dinner meetings with peers, attend networking events, speak on industry panels, etc. You may even find opportunities to be more market-facing while doing community work, such as becoming a member of a local not-for-profit’s board of directors. Wherever other chief executives are, consider how you can be there, too.
You don’t necessarily need to (and in many cases shouldn’t) move directly from the CFO to the CEO chair; there can be steps in between. For example, if you’re a CFO responsible solely for the finance function of your company, you can take on additional responsibility for human resources, and then information technology, and then perhaps move into either a Chief Administrative Officer or Chief Operating Officer position, and then make the move into the CEO position. There are many paths to the top, and you don’t need to cover all of the ground in a single leap. Work with your CEO and look for opportunities to expand your role or even be promoted internally. If the opportunities don’t exist internally or you face resistance to expanding your responsibilities from your current CEO, you may want to consider beginning a formal job search and looking externally.
A move from the CFO to the CEO chair is not nearly as difficult, daunting or unlikely as it may seem. We’ve seen it happen frequently, and it may be much more commonplace in coming years. Finance executives that want to run a company will have opportunities to do so by positioning themselves appropriately and following the advice given above. If you’re in this group, just remember that you need to take ownership of the process — if you don’t manage your career, no one will.