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Make the Transition from CFO to CEO

John FidlerBy John Fidler

Many CPAs may think achieving the chief financial officer (CFO) position will be the pinnacle of their professional career, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Those who have the ambition and drive to manage their careers appropriately could, in fact, find themselves in the chief executive officer (CEO) chair. The strongest CEOs are those who are the most fiscally responsible, so the move from CFO to CEO should be thought of as a natural progression. Below are my thoughts on making this transition, along with some concrete action items.

Work with Mentors

As with other areas of your career, mentors provide advice and counsel to you along your journey. These should include executives that you know and trust, those who have made the transition from CFO to CEO (or a similar transition) and know what the path looks like, CEOs you’ve worked for in the past and/or your current CEO. As a matter of fact, your current CEO should be a strong (if not the strongest) resource and advocate for you. Good CEOs know how to develop their team members to become CEOs themselves – something to remember when you’re in the top spot someday.

Action Item: Identify your mentors and begin having these conversations.

Broaden Your Knowledge Base

One executive handing over work to another executive.As CFO, you’re responsible for the finance function. But if you want to become a CEO, you need to be engaged with other areas of the business as well and have a complete understanding of the business as a whole.

Action Item: If you aren’t doing so already, spend time with your peers in the organization to learn about their areas of the business, what they do and how they do it, where the pain points are, how they’re addressing them, and so on.

Expand Your Scope of Responsibilities

Once you’re in the CEO chair, you’re going to be overseeing all of the company’s operations. In addition to broadening your knowledge base as mentioned above, you’ll want to take the next step and seek out opportunities to take on responsibilities outside of the finance function.

Action Item: Identify areas of the business or areas of need that aren’t currently being addressed or managed, and put together a plan for how you can take on responsibility for them. Ask your CEO about taking on additional responsibilities.

Pull Yourself Out of the Weeds

Finance executives, particularly in small- and middle-market companies, tend to be fairly hands-on. As you contemplate an ascent to CEO, keep in mind that effective CEOs don’t actively manage any one functional area of the business: CEOs oversee members of the senior team who are managing the functions on a day-to-day basis. The ability to manage, as opposed to do, is important.

Action Item: In your current role, start focusing on delegating and managing. Get yourself into this mindset.

Become Market-Facing

Begin to carry yourself as the face of your company, just like a CEO. Strong chief executives spend just as much time (if not more) in the business community networking and advertising their companies as they do behind their desks.

Action Item: Find opportunities to be external. Schedule lunch and dinner meetings, attend networking events, speak on industry panels, and so on.

Don’t Rush

You don’t necessarily need to (and in many cases shouldn’t) move directly from the CFO to the CEO chair. There can be steps in between. For example, if you’re a CFO responsible solely for the finance function of your company, you can take on additional responsibility for human resources, and then information technology, and then perhaps move into either a chief administrative officer or chief operating officer position, and then make the move to CEO. There are many paths to the top, and you don’t need to cover all of the ground in a single leap.

Action Item: Again, work with your CEO to identify opportunities to expand your role or be promoted internally. If the opportunities don’t exist internally, you may want to consider beginning a formal job search and looking externally.

A move from CFO to CEO is not nearly as difficult, daunting, or unlikely as it may have once seemed. In my opinion, the transition will become much more commonplace in coming years. Finance executives who want to run a company will have opportunities to do so by positioning themselves appropriately. If you’re in this group, just remember that you need to take ownership of the process. If you don’t manage your career, no one will.

John Fidler is a business development executive for CBIZ Inc. in Plymouth Meeting. He can be reached at john.fidler@cbiz.com.

Learn more about enhancing your CFO skill set at PICPA’s 2021 CFOs and Controllers Conference on March 18-19. Also, sign up today for weekly professional and technical updates from PICPA's blogs, podcasts, and discussion board topics by completing this form.

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