Have you got what it takes to be a top company’s CFO?

 Up-and-coming chief financial officers have a problem. Hitting targets is no longer enough. Today, they have to hit a moving target that refuses to stay in one industry or one country. Meanwhile, executive competencies are shifting as well.

In 1955 if you wanted to work for the world’s biggest companies, you could restrict your targets to US car and oil firms plus Du Pont. Today, emerging markets (EMs) like China and India are closing the gap on the US and EU, while Big Auto and Big Oil no longer monopolise the corporate Big League.

They have been joined at the top of the Fortune 500 by retailing (Walmart), technology (Apple), investment services (Berkshire Hathaway), health (McKesson, United Heath and CVS Health) and telecoms (AT&T).

You can focus on the right industry – perhaps healthcare – and still find the top spot in your sector goes to an outsider as major corporates may well hire a top CFO from another industry.

Admittedly some top hires are industry specialists, but it is increasingly common for top performers to move across two or three industries.

In broad terms, five competencies are required of Big League CFOs…

  • Organisational (delivery in areas like vision and mission)
  • Technical (how you do your core job)
  • Behavioural (how you interact with others)
  • Functional (a combination of technical and operational requirements)
  • Managerial (how you manage others)

Limited focus on accounting, finance and treasury is insufficient. Status as a chartered accountant is best supported by additional qualifications; e.g. an MBA or a doctorate in public policy.

Sharpening business risk fosters the quest for a safe pair of hands. Experience is therefore prized. But the right attitude is more important than the right age. Cognitive agility and self-development are crucial.

CFOs are also expected to be growth champions. Familiarity with mergers and acquisitions is helpful here.

Communication skill is demanded, too. Others might waffle. The CFO must add meat to the bone by supplying pertinent information.

As business interests multiply and markets and technologies change, CFOs are expected to deal with complexity, diversity and ambiguity.

Within EMs, additional skills are needed as these territories are prone to financial crises, intellectual property rights may be insecure and thorny government bureaucracies create challenges. Product quality can be unreliable, local talent may be scarce and credit assessment can be difficult.

The CFO Renaissance man (or woman) has to address all these issues – and more.

Digital competence was nice 10 years ago. Today it’s core competence.

Data scrutiny must be informed by insight. Studies suggest only 20% of data presented to a CFO is ‘structured’ (the numbers add up with no grey areas). The other 80% is ‘unstructured’ (it’s open to interpretation with CFOs trusted to get it right).

Closeness to the numbers means closeness to the business. CFOs have to take responsibility. Deniability is denied them. They cannot tell regulators “I didn’t know.”

So, assuming you’re up to it, what’s the attraction of a top CFO’s job?

Well, the wage gap with CEOs narrows all the time. Sometimes a CFO may think he’s got a thankless task, but it has its rewards.

 

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