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The Journey to CFO

As with any executive role, being a CFO involves a long-term commitment and careful planning along the way. The best route for you depends on your personal situation and preferences, but there are certain traits that will work to your advantage anyways.


  1. Curiosity

Robin Washington, CFO of Gilead Sciences Inc., attributes her career success to her “deep curiosity to learn.” Curiosity is the desire to discover or understand something new, which is quite vital for aspiring CFOs’ professional growth and success.


Holly Koeppel, the CFO of American Electric Power Company, for example, began her career in the energy industry as a regulatory affairs expert just as the industry was about to deregulate. In reaction to this transformational industry change, her curiosity motivated her to acquire skills from different experts and areas. She was able to proactively innovate and provide new commodities and capabilities to her company through this period by reaching out to industries to learn how to operate in a deregulated environment.


Curiosity, whether innate or cultivated, is essential for driving encounters that generate the various knowledge that a CFO candidate needs. On the other hand, curiosity is a necessary trait of a CFO, a role that continuously presents new and complex scenarios for its holder to grasp.


2. Courage


Courage is the willingness to face uncertainty and perhaps danger. Elisha Finney, CFO of Varian Medical Systems, initially specialized in insurance and risk management. With the advice of her supervisor, she enrolled in an MBA program to broaden her knowledge. Upon her return to work, she requested a transfer from risk manager to treasury manager. By acting courageously and stepping out of her comfort zone, Elisha was able to build the experiences needed to become a successful CFO. This courage to take on new roles was a differentiating factor in her career and in the careers of many other CFOs.


Susan Wang, the retired CFO of Solectron and a board member for several companies, says she never turned down a new challenge in her early career. The challenges were always beneficial in expanding and shaping the talents necessary to be a successful CFO.


Similarly, Ahold’s CFO, Kimberly Ross, was always eager to go above and beyond, even if it meant taking on international assignments. The courageous mindset frequently necessitates an optimistic outlook that sees opportunities and rewards beyond the immediate risks.


3. Perseverance to mastery


The desire for mastery and the determination to persevere to succeed are traits that many CFOs hold. Robin Washington never imagined she would be a CFO. In the second year of her English degree, she began to shift her focus to accounting, earning a C in the subject. Despite her belief that it was a difficult subject, she was determined to master it in the following semesters through sheer determination.


She emphasizes that her early success was largely due to her perseverance and studying something that was initially difficult for her. After joining a public accounting firm in audit, Robin took part in an internship at a company’s tax division to gain deeper exposure to a different type of finance. This gave her a better understanding of finance’s broader role in the businesses, putting her on the path to becoming a CFO. Perseverance is vital to fulfilling the drive to mastery.


4. Confidence and self-assurance


Given that the CFO of a significant corporation is the company’s primary representative to investors and analysts, the CFO must be self-assured and confident. Self-assurance is a skill that may be learned through experience.


5. Ethical responsibility


Shuffle Master’s CFO, Coreen Sawdon, believes CFOs must speak up and stick to their guns when it comes to exercising their responsibility to shareholders and the firm. The CFO must be the truth-teller to the CEO, the board of directors, and the company’s investors, combining ethical responsibility and the courage to stand for what is right.


According to Sharon McCollam, an executive president, chief operating officer, and CFO of Williams-Sonoma Inc., every individual should create a strong personal code of ethics rather than simply adopting an organizational code of ethics. Early in her career, there were many times when McCollam’s personal code of ethics was challenged, forcing her to take a clear stand even if it meant jeopardizing her employment. But, in the end, it never did. It actually defined her, and she believes it became a foundation of much of her success as a CFO. The trait of “ethically saying what you mean; and doing what you say” is highly desirable in a CFO.


Lessons for Future Generations of CFOs

Charles Holley, an independent senior advisor at Deloitte and retired CFO of Walmart, claims that his enthusiasm for international business was the single most important factor in his success. Even during his 10-plus years in public accounting, he continued to be on the lookout for an opportunity for international work. This opportunity came when Tandy Corporation hired Holley as the director of finance and accounting for their international operations.


Subsequently, Holley was asked to become the managing director of one of Tandy’s consumer electronics divisions in Europe. Hesitant to leave his home and abandon finance, accepting the role was a significant career step for him. He was able to expand his international expertise to the next level and gain the operational experience of running a company.


In 1994 when Walmart was searching for a CFO for its new international division, Holley’s combination of finance, international, and operational skill sets made him an attractive prospect. From there, Holley continued to progress by adding corporate controller and treasurer to his career portfolio, which included responsibilities for tax, investor relations, and risk, before becoming the CFO of Walmart in 2010.


In retrospect, Holley highlights two primary interconnected lessons he learned from his journey to CFO which are particularly relevant to the future generation of CFOs.

  • The importance of constantly seeking to expand your skillset and experiences. The next generation of CFOs, in his perspective, should not only have experience in international business and operations, but also a thorough understanding of digital and other technologies. Tomorrow’s skill set may be different, therefore aspiring CFOs should either have or develop a desire for continuous learning.

  • The willingness to take some calculated career risks. If you aspire to the CFO role, you must be willing to further yourself and be open to opportunities that could broaden your talents and experiences. Don’t be reluctant by the possibility of a lateral move, in most cases, the typical climb to the CFO position of a large organization is no longer via the traditional ladder, but one stair step at a time.


As the CFO’s role evolves beyond its traditional responsibilities, the career journey to CFO is also shifting from the traditional route of back-office finance and accounting.

Many young finance professionals aspire to become CFOs, yet it is important to note that there is no one route to this achievement.