What is the secret to success for the modern CFO? According to Pat Yarrington, CFO of Chevron: “With an increasingly integrated world economy, be prepared to respond to higher levels of both risk and opportunity. A strong balance sheet is a tremendous asset when managing through periods of volatility.” If that quote inspires you rather than making you feel stupid or tired, you speak the language of finance, and you may have what it takes to become a CFO.
In this article, we’ll cover:
CFOs are, in short, money people with leadership skills. These top-level executives deal with accounts, taxes, financial reporting, and the management of people. The role of the CFO is to make decisions to meet financial goals, balancing long-term investments with short-term strategy to keep the cash flow moving and the company solvent.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted an average starting salary for 2019 MBA graduates of $84,580—provided those graduates found jobs in computer science, engineering, science, or business. (
Students considering an MBA or graduate business degree can choose from varied career paths, including those focused on financial management, data analytics, market research, healthcare management, and operations management. The analytical skills and problem-solving techniques gained from graduate level business degrees are in high demand across business sectors. ( )
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Pretty much every large company needs a CFO, not only to keep the money in order but also to help stimulate growth. CFOs do a lot more than manage accounts and answer to the chief executive officer.
In addition to broad education requirements—which include a bachelor’s degree and potentially an MBA—a good CFO can benefit from specialization. In “How to Hire a CFO Superstar,” the Pacific Crest Group observes: “The more experienced CFOs become, the more they tend to specialize in specific industries.” Specialization is a useful tool for good CFOs because it provides a competitive edge. Knowledge, as they say, is power.
According to Business Insider, the eight most popular degrees for top CFOs are:
Worth noting: only 37 percent of the CFOs Business Insider polled had an MBA. That was by far the most common degree held, but it’s far from universal. The takeaway: an MBA could help you become a CFO, but it’s not essential. An executive training program or certificate program can also advance your prospects.
What appears to be more important than any particular degree, however, is knowledge gained through experience—though it is tough to get experience without a degree, creating a classic chicken-and-egg paradox. According to the Association of Certified Chief Financial Officers, “A deep understanding of business is a must because a good CFO is more than just a ‘numbers guy.’ He should immerse himself in the operations of the company and have a macro view of the numbers, drivers, and pains.”
There are no set licensure or accreditation requirements for becoming a CFO. Being a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) can help, though it is not as necessary as it once was. Leadership and decision-making skills are more highly valued today than the degree.
Becoming a CPA involves:
MBAs can be expensive. Check whether your employer will pay your way; some do, although they usually require a commitment to remain with the company for a fixed time after graduation. You could also look into online programs, which can help cut costs (by eliminating the cost of relocation and potential job loss) and allow for more flexibility. Another plus to getting an MBA is it will prepare you for other careers, such as financial analyst.
Finally, some CFOs hold a CMA (Certified Management Accountant) degree.
There is, at most, one CFO at every company, which explains why there aren’t tons of online resources for CFOs: there simply aren’t enough CFOs to create the demand. A quick Google search can uncover quite a few good materials for aspiring executives. This list of finance scholarships might be helpful to aspiring CFOs entering undergraduate or graduate school.
There is also a wide array of books on the market that can provide insight into leadership and business strategy.
Some useful organizations include:
CFO is a position most people reach only after years, if not decades, of experience in the business world, including a significant stretch as a senior manager. Successful CFOs are constantly training to improve their technical and people skills in order to optimize their résumés and prepare them for increased responsibility.
Where do you go from CFO? There aren’t a lot of higher positions in the finance world. King of Goldman Sachs, maybe? Fed chair? Mr. Monopoly? After a stint in this grueling position, you may want to escape to a remote paradise for a year or three. You should be able to afford that if you’re so inclined. Conversely, you may aim for the role of CEO. It’s not an uncommon transition. But that’s another story.
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