Insight & Analysis

How to become a CFO

Published: Mar 2017

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. Treasurers face a number of obstacles when it comes to making the move to CFO: 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.

Naturally there are a number of differences between the roles of treasurer and CFO. As Mike Tucker, Managing Director of Cadence Search 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.”

Be prepared

In practice, many treasury professionals do go on to become CFOs – and there are a number of steps that treasurers can take to improve their chances of doing so, from gaining business exposure to building confidence.

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.”

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. These include making sure that they have the required professional accounting knowledge, as well as gaining controlling experience and benefiting from some business exposure – either directly or indirectly.

Jennifer Ceran, CFO of Smartsheet and the former treasurer of eBay, agrees that treasurers should get 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.”

Mustafa Kilic, CFO of Groupe SEB in Turkey, 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.

Technical skills and experience are crucial – but 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.”

While many treasurers do aspire to advance to CFO, however, it is worth remembering in the meantime that the role of treasurer can itself be highly rewarding. As Ceran concludes, treasury is “a role where you can make a very positive impact, while potentially having a better work/life balance than the CFO.”

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