How to prepare for your first CFO role

Moving into the role of CFO for the first time can feel like a significant step. However, according to Alex Da Silva, a Partner at Gerard Daniels, many other criteria beyond experience can prepare candidates to move into this type of role.


Alex da Silva
Given the governance requirements of CFOs businesses do tend to favour proven experience, but the transition to CFO is one that the right senior finance executives can certainly make without prior experience,
Alex da Silva- Partner
Having the right qualifications, relevant experience and the backing of a good network puts candidates in a much stronger position to be appointed, and to be effective as first time CFOs

Here we take a deeper look at what it takes to land your first CFO role, and how candidates can prepare.

1. Qualifications

The first and most fundamental box to tick is having suitable qualifications. “Businesses need to know that an incoming CFO is suitably qualified, either as a designated accountant or as a finance professional,” says Alex.

According to the latest DNA of a CFO report, over 40 per cent of Australian CFOs hold a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), a Chartered Accountant (CA) qualification or equivalent, while 57 per cent hold a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Other internationally recognised qualifications include Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and the ACCA Qualification.

2. Technical skills and financial hygiene

As a baseline all aspiring CFOs must have a strong foundation of technical accounting skills and financial hygiene. For example, this may include the ability to

  • Produce timely, quality financial information and analytics to support effective business decision making
  • Establish and manage robust and healthy financial systems and processes
  • Oversee effective and risk-appropriate financial planning and cash flow monitoring processes.

“Although the role of CFO extends far beyond this remit, a solid foundation in these areas is a must for any CFO,” says Alex.

3. Leadership skills

Once qualifications and technical capability have been established, businesses may look to assess a candidate’s leadership skills and experience. “Leadership underpins all aspects of the CFO role and it becomes even more important for individuals without board level experience,” says Alex. “So just like any other c-suite appointment, CFOs must be demonstrating strong leadership skills, long before they have the opportunity to formally lead.”

Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is another important leadership quality for aspiring CFOs. “The ability to connect with people and to lead effectively comes with a certain level of empathy and EQ,” Alex continues. “But the good thing about EQ is that it can be a learned skill, so it is something people can work on and improve.”

4. Relationships

Strong networks and relationships are another success factor for incoming CFOs. “Today companies aren’t looking for the smartest person in the room, they’re looking for the person that can connect with the most people in that room,” Alex says.

One of the smartest things any aspiring CFO can to do early in their career is start building networks and relationships.

“As you start to build your career in readiness for CFO roles you will need to have good networks in place, and to have mentors already working at that level to offer guidance and support you in making key decisions,” says Alex. “You can’t just go out and get those relationships when the time comes to rely on them.”

Having strong existing networks also gives prospective employers greater confidence in a first time CFO’s ability to hit the ground running, knowing they have the support they need to be effective in their new role.

5. Commercial experience

To transition into CFO roles candidates must also be able to demonstrate strong commercial experience in areas like strategic and analytical thinking, networking and negotiation. “Companies no longer need CFOs to be in the back office producing reports and crunching numbers,” Alex explains. “CFOs need to be front and centre, working with the business, making and guiding key decisions.”

To assess commercial acumen businesses will look closely at where candidates have been, and what their prior experience allows them to bring to a new CFO role. “Beyond typical finance skills, CFOs must be able to show that they have negotiated financially advantageous terms on deals, successfully delivered other senior operational roles, or that they have been instrumental in raising significant finance or funds,” says Alex.

“Ultimately, if you lack CFO experience but you tick all of the right boxes in terms of skills, qualifications, attributes and broad experience, and you have the confidence to take on this role, then you are probably well placed to make the transition,” Alex concludes.

For advice on your readiness for CFO roles, or support appointing your next CFO, talk to Gerard Daniels today.

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