Finance strategy 7 min read

The path to CFO: CFO skills and qualifications

Elizabeth Dulcich

The title “Chief Financial Officer” could mean different things to different people. Sometimes, the CFO is the sole member of the finance department in a company, handling all bookkeeping and reporting duties themselves. Other times, the CFO is the head of a team of dozens of people and oversees all the financial activities but does not handle day-to-day accounting. 

What’s clear is that the role of CFO has evolved over the years. So, too, have the skills and qualifications required for the position. Now there are many paths to the CFO role.

Gone are the days when CFOs were simply crunching numbers. Today, the CFO takes on a much more strategic and entrepreneurial role in the company. In some cases, the CFO is even involved in legal, HR, and operational matters! This article will delve into the skills and qualifications needed to be successful in the CFO role.

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What is a modern CFO?

Previously, the CFO was tasked with accomplishing the basics: bookkeeping, reporting, monitoring the company’s cash flow. They were not expected to help with business strategy. Today’s CFOs, however, are charged with many more responsibilities. In fact, the breadth of a CFO’s role today is larger than ever!

According to Jean-Baptiste Cousin from SMASH Group, the CFO role has evolved:

“Where it used to be more about figures and numbers, now the job is to be a business partner. A lot of the accounting and bookkeeping is automated these days or totally outsourced.”

Using their financial expertise, CFOs should provide strategic advice and communicate important financial information. This advice and information will help the other company directors and board members make decisions and steer the company in the right direction. 

A modern CFO is equipped with solid experience in the financial sector and the soft skills necessary to tackle all the responsibilities thrown their way.

What qualifications do CFOs need?

While the path to CFO can look different for everyone, there are certainly commonalities that appear. In terms of education, there are especially useful undergraduate degrees, advanced degrees, and other certifications that will help prepare a future CFO for the road ahead.

Education

University degrees are required for the vast majority of CFO positions. There are certainly exceptions, of course, and times are changing. But for now and the foreseeable future, a Bachelor’s degree is a general requirement for the job.

While it is not mandatory to choose a finance field for undergraduate study, this course of action is the most likely to help future CFOs advance in their careers.

Undergraduate degree

CFOs usually have Bachelor’s degrees in the following areas:

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Economics
  • Business 
  • Management

There are no hard and fast rules about which major or specialization a student must choose in order to eventually become a CFO. But finance-related topics will set them up for success and eliminate the necessity of taking more courses down the line to cover their knowledge gaps. 

There still remains some controversy whether a background in accounting is absolutely necessary for a CFO. It is not unheard of for a CFO to have an undergraduate degree in something unrelated to finance, as long as their Bachelor’s degree is supplemented with a Master’s degree or certification.

Advanced degree

Some future CFOs take their education one step further and choose to pursue a Master’s degree. This is not a strict requirement, but it is very helpful in order to gain the relevant skills and knowledge.

MBAs (Master of Business Administration) are the most common Master’s degrees among CFOs. MBAs are so popular (and useful!) precisely because the CFO role has expanded far beyond just accounting and reporting. Now, CFOs are expected to know much more about business and strategy than they previously were.

An MBA will provide general business knowledge and management training, two crucial facets of the CFO role today. According to a survey of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies, 50% of CFOs surveyed had an MBA, while 33.6% had CPAs. 10.4% of CFOs in the survey had both MBAs and CPAs under their belts. 

Master’s degrees in Finance or Accounting are also popular and useful.

Certifications and accreditations

In addition to, or instead of, a Master’s degree, an aspiring CFO can study for a special accreditation or certification to supplement their finance knowledge. 

Many CFOs begin their careers in accounting, which explains the high rate of CPAs (Certified Public Accountants) among them. But this is not the only path to CFO! 

Here are some certifications or accreditations that are useful in the CFO role:

…and there are more certifications out there, depending on your area of interest. These certifications prepare candidates for specialized roles and help them develop their skills even further. 

A combination of advanced degree and/or certification, in addition to a Bachelor’s degree, helps build the knowledge base needed to be a successful CFO.

Experience

There’s no way around it: a prerequisite to becoming a CFO is years of relevant experience. A proven track record of success is non-negotiable. 

Technical experience

Aspiring CFOs must put in the work to understand the numbers. Even though modern CFOs focus on business strategy, they still need experience on the ground with accounting, auditing, budgeting, financial analysis, or another technical role. 

But working your way up through the ranks on the finance team isn’t the only path to CFO. 

Business experience

From the CFO Yeah! Podcast, Dan Wells from GrowCFO explains how experience in other areas, rather than ascending up the finance function, could be an asset:

"When you look at the CFO being the co-pilot to the CEO and delivering the business plan, there's a lot of knowledge in there around fundraising, implementing change and getting involved in strategic decisions — being that external voice. And there's a lot of things in there which you're not really exposed to in junior finance roles.”

This is a good reminder that CFOs need to be well-rounded. They need both technical experience and general business experience in order to be the best strategic partner. 

To gain this experience outside of the finance function, try to work on cross-functional projects or job shadow a colleague in operations or another department. Business and financial experience is must-have for CFOs.

What qualities and soft skills do CFOs need?

Along with a solid education and relevant experience, a CFO must have soft skills that help them with the other parts of their job that are not strictly related to numbers. New CFOs will learn that some of these soft skills are developed over time, but others should already be in their arsenal before the first day on the job.

Just like a patient judges a doctor on their bedside manner, so, too, are CFOs judged by what others see: their soft skills (rather than accounting acumen). 

The following list of soft skills for CFOs is not exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of the diverse qualities that are needed to fulfill the CFO role.

Communication

Like any good leader, a CFO needs to be able to communicate well. This is true both internally within the company and externally to outsiders. A good CFO:

  • Communicates effectively with their team
  • Communicates with the rest of the company about the team’s activities and strategic decisions
  • Acts as the face of the company in all external financial matters: public speaking engagements, meetings with investors and board members, and as the finance ambassador for the company

The CFO must also build relationships outside of the C-suite. Collaboration is key!

Vision

CFOs are big-picture thinkers. They look at the company’s position and make strategic and data-driven decisions based on the available data. Looking ahead into the future and evaluating risk are crucial components of a CFO’s skillset. Analytical thinking is also part of this skillset, and the driver for the company’s growth strategy.

Leadership

An effective CFO will take the company, and their team, to the next level. CFOs must be able to set goals and lead the team (and fellow company directors) towards accomplishing those goals.

The CFO is in charge of building a solid finance team and knowing where the gaps are. Part of being a good leader is understanding your own blind spots and recognizing when to outsource or hire someone to fill the gaps.

Flexibility

This one goes without saying, especially in 2022. CFOs must be able to adapt quickly to any changes that are thrown their way. Forecasting and reforecasting are essential in this regard. Remaining flexible is a good way to cushion any unforeseen circumstances and build resilience through tough times.

Tech-savvy

CFOs do not necessarily have to be especially tech-savvy themselves. Rather, it is imperative that they embrace technology, such as digitalization and automation. If we have learned anything from 2020 and beyond, it is that technology is a transformative agent that allows teams to be flexible (see above!).

CFOs should move towards technology, not run away from it. Finance teams are increasingly adopting digital tools and automating processes. The CFO should lead this charge and not be afraid of digital transformation.

A new image of the CFO

An outdated image of the CFO is that of the company police officer: risk-averse, playing by the book, and always saying no. The modern CFO facilitates growth, creates value, and understands the business model, building the finance function while providing strategic support to the CEO.

The best way for the modern CFO to handle all these responsibilities is to come equipped with the necessary skills and qualifications: a solid education, relevant finance and business experience, and the soft skills to be able to tackle the human side of the job.

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Elizabeth Dulcich

Elizabeth is a content marketer and copywriter living in Paris. She loves reading, yoga, and hiking in her native Pacific Northwest.