Treasurers often aspire to move to a CFO role – but what obstacles should they be aware of and what steps can they take to improve their chances of success?
While many treasury professionals may aspire to the role of CFO, there are no guarantees that even a highly experienced treasurer will be successful in achieving this goal. While the two roles certainly share some common ground, treasurers should be aware that they may need to overcome some gaps in their skills and experience in order to be considered for a CFO role.
Mike Tucker, Managing Director of Cadence Search, points out that the responsibilities of the CFO are broad, encompassing all areas of financial management as well as a significant stake in leadership. “The role of the treasurer is increasingly varied but ultimately limited to the various financial risks the group is managing, be that cash, liquidity, FX, counterparty, etc,” he says. “Insurance and pensions are also (often) found on the treasurer’s table these days – and sometimes tax – but the profile is and always will be narrower than the CFO.”
Jennifer Ceran, CFO of Smartsheet and the former treasurer of eBay, similarly notes that the biggest obstacle treasurers face is that of being viewed as too narrow in their experience. “The board and the CEO want a CFO with broad experience,” she explains. “Sometimes you not only manage finance but also legal, IT and HR. If you have been a treasurer your entire career, not having other experience may hold you back from being considered.”
Nevertheless, many treasury professionals do go on to become CFOs. While every individual’s career path is unique, there are a number of steps that treasurers can take if they want to become CFO, from gaining business exposure to building confidence.
How the roles differ
Naturally there are a number of differences between the roles of treasurer and CFO. As Tucker points out, “at CFO level, you’re more often than not sitting on the board with a key stake in the strategic decisions the group is taking or going to take. Whilst the profile of the treasurer has undoubtedly risen in recent times, your strategic influence at the top table is currently limited and your responsibilities directly affected by strategic decisions above.”
According to Ceran, a treasurer needs “deep technical skills in the financial markets, a keen sense for risk and how to manage it, and a great partnership with the CFO.” A CFO, meanwhile, “needs broader technical skills beyond just treasurer, a strong grasp of business operations and an ability to translate strategy into execution”. She adds that all CFOs must also have a great partnership with the CEO.
Mustafa Kilic, CFO of Groupe SEB in Turkey, was previously head of regional treasury for Indesit. He cites a number of differences between the roles: “There are different skills and expertise required – yes, treasury is one of them, but planning, controlling and knowing the regulations and the environment is also quite important.” He notes that the CFO role is more strategic, with greater interaction with other departments, from marketing to logistics. Treasury, in comparison, is “more isolated”.
On a practical note, Kilic also points out that a CFO role requires more travel. “When I was working in treasury, I would not be meeting clients or suppliers very often – I was not that much involved with the other contracts that the business was signing,” he says. “Right now I spend almost 10% of my time with clients, suppliers and representing the company with different platforms.”
Nevertheless, there are also a number of similarities between the roles. Ceran says that both roles require an ability to sense risk around the corners and great communication skills – “particularly if one is a treasurer or CFO of a public company”. She adds that both roles require the ability to recruit and retail great talent.
Making the move: points to consider
Pieter de Kiewit, Owner of De Kiewit Treasurer Search, says that the following points are often discussed in conversations about making the move from treasurer to CFO:
If there are nine controllers for each treasurer, the treasurer has a less than 10% chance of making it to CFO.
Being a treasurer within company A and becoming a CFO in company B is virtually impossible. So take care if you are in an organisation that enables such a promotion.
There are many examples of treasurers making it to CFO, so it can be done.
If treasury has been your single job type, consider a lateral move to accounting or control before moving up again.
In board meetings, topics around management accounting, reporting and analysis get more attention. From a technical skill perspective, the aspiring CFO should cover these well to avoid being disqualified.
From a personal skills perspective, the competition – group controllers and chief accountants – are often more experienced people managers and have experience in multi-disciplinary management team meetings. These skills are appreciated in a CFO.
Preparation is key
Jason Wang, Group CFO of the largest Chinese baby nutrition company Biostime, previously held roles in treasury, including regional treasurer for Asia Pacific at Henkel. However, the leap from treasury to a CFO role did not happen in a single step.
“Before I became the CFO, I actually moved from a treasury role to a controller role, becoming the financial controller for China and Hong Kong at Henkel,” he explains. “It was a very important and critical experience to gain direct exposure to the accounting and controlling work, and also to gain closer contacts with business and operations colleagues.”
As well as taking the financial controller role, Wang also concurrently took a business role as interim general manager for Henkel’s detergent business in China – a move which he says was invaluable as a means of gaining direct business management experience. He was subsequently appointed CFO, Greater China at Henkel.
Wang says that when it comes to moving to a CFO role, there are several steps that treasurers can take to acquire valuable skills, knowledge and experience. Firstly, he says that treasurers should make sure that they have the required professional accounting knowledge. “In my case I had both the AICPA and ACCA qualification, which was very helpful,” he explains. “On the one hand, this put me in a better position when it came to making decisions about financial and accounting questions. It also enabled me to show a higher level of credibility in the organisation.”
Wang also regards controlling experience as important for treasurers who are looking to make this type of career move. “Within the financial organisation, as well as traditional finance functions such as treasury, tax, purchase-to-pay and order-to-cash, I think the controlling function is very important right now. To me it’s almost a must that you have this experience before you become the CFO. I have already encouraged all my treasury colleagues who want to become CFO to obtain this type of experience.”
In addition, Wang recommends that treasurers should make sure they have business exposure – either directly or indirectly. “Indirect exposure could be involvement in working capital management, supply chain finance or FX hedging within the treasurer role – all of these areas include interactions with the business, which is valuable experience when it comes to understanding the whole company’s value chain,” he says. “If possible, it is also valuable to have direct experience, for example by moving into a business controller role where you are in charge of financial planning and analysis (FP&A) and you become like a chief of staff for the business manager.”
Ceran agrees that treasurers should get their hands on experience in other areas, such as Accounting, FP&A, IR or a BU CFO role. “The IR and FP&A roles I held have helped me understand the bigger picture of the CFO role and prepared me to take on the role,” she says. “I would seek out mentoring from other CFOs, who may ultimately help you land that first job, or make you realise it’s not the job for you. I would also start building relationships with your potential future partners like auditors and legal firms.”
Meanwhile, Kilic adds that while treasurers have a strong understanding of a company’s cash flow, they should look beyond this to gain a better understanding of topics such as working capital, P&L and balance sheet management. “Most treasurers unfortunately may not have time to focus on the balance sheet and P&L side of the business, but this should be seen as essential,” he says.
Stepping outside the comfort zone
Jennifer Ceran, CFO at Smartsheet
“I graduated college in 1985 and spent my first two years on Wall Street as a financial analyst. After attending business school and graduating in 1989, I joined the Sara Lee Corporation as a Senior Financial Analyst in Corporate Development. I did not know what I wanted to do back then from a long-term career perspective so every 12-18 months or so, I moved to a different role in finance to explore the opportunities.
“In 1992, I rotated into the treasury department, and it was there I discovered my passion for the role. I loved that the treasury team had the visibility and responsibility for taking care of the company’s capital structure including its financial assets and liabilities all around the world, and associated risks. Essentially, I learned that the right capital structure is critical to a company functioning well in both good and bad economic times, and maximising shareholder value over the long term. Companies can have different optimal capital structures depending on their business model so it’s a balancing act of many factors and I loved the challenge of trying to figure out how to optimise it.
“I made the decision at that time that I aspired to be a treasurer someday. So I spent the next ten years rotating within treasury and doing two international treasury assignments. I wanted to learn everything I could to be ready for an opportunity when it came along.
“In early 2003 a recruiter contacted me for the treasurer role of eBay; at that time the company had just surpassed $1bn in revenue. I felt this was the perfect opportunity for me to take my experience and scale. For the next seven years, I was their treasurer and revenues grew to $14bn during my nearly ten years there. It was an exciting time. We were helping the company expand globally, making bold acquisitions like PayPal and Skype, managing sizable and growing FX, interest rate and operating risks, and dealing with an unplanned global financial crisis in 2008. After seven years in treasury, and navigating through the financial crisis, I asked our CFO to consider me for other finance leadership opportunities as I was ready to learn something new. When he offered me the investor relations and financial planning and analysis roles in 2010, I jumped at the opportunity.
“Then in 2012, after spending 25 years at big, multinational companies and now living in Silicon Valley where start-ups were offering challenging opportunities in emerging technologies, I got the start-up bug. A chance meeting with the co-founder of Box led me to moving to the then $50m revenue, fast-growing start-up. I joined as a VP of Finance to help them scale and get ready for an IPO. Box went public in January 2015, and I had the opportunity to help the founders and leadership team ring the bell at the NYSE.
“For most of my career, I never thought about being a CFO but I sometimes wondered if I was selling myself short by not stepping out of my comfort zone. It was around the time Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’ came out. She encouraged women to lean in and stop holding themselves back.
“In the summer of 2015 a recruiter contacted me about becoming the CFO of a sub $1bn market cap public company. I interviewed and got the job. Then nearly a year later, a recruiter called me about being the first CFO of Smartsheet, a small but fast private SaaS business in the emerging collaborative work management space. I loved the Smartsheet technology because it made it so much easier to do the work I do every day with my colleagues and partners. I joined Smartsheet to help them fulfil growing customer demand in a large market and to work with a very passionate and collaborative team.”
In addition, while technical skills and experience are crucial, soft skills may also play a role in determining whether an individual is suitable for the role of CFO. Ceran points out that the board and CEO must see you “as a CFO”. “There is an element of strong leadership, someone who can inspire and motivate,” she notes. “It is a perception thing but it’s important how you carry yourself.
“For me, I have also had to work on my self-confidence. You need to prepare yourself a bit for the discomfort of new things coming at you as a CFO and not having the answer right away. I have built a large network of former colleagues and other CFOs and rely on them for advice when I need it. They have been invaluable for me, and that is why I regularly help others when they call on me. It is a two way street.”
Treasury professionals can certainly make it to CFO – however, it is clear that they may first need to overcome some obstacles. By making strategic lateral moves in good time, and by taking the time to gain the right sort of skills and business exposure, treasurers can greatly improve their chances of becoming CFO.
Indeed, with treasury becoming more visible over the last few years, treasurers are arguably in a better position to achieve this than in the past. As Tucker remarks, “in my opinion the group treasurer is increasingly well equipped to move into a CFO role. The nature of their work means they are forward thinking. In an increasingly unpredictable world, I believe this is a huge asset as they are often better equipped to deal with rapid change – unlike those who are approaching the CFO role from a more traditional background.”
Finally, while many treasurers do have aspirations to advance to CFO, in the meantime it is worth remembering that the role of treasurer can itself be highly rewarding. As Ceran concludes, “the treasurer role is an extremely important and fulfilling one. Of all the functional roles below CFO, it was my favourite. It was my favourite because a lot of CFOs don’t really know treasury that well so they really value you. It was also a role where you can make a very positive impact, while potentially having a better work/life balance than the CFO.”