How to Become a CFO, According to CFOs

How to Become a CFO, According to CFOs

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire
4-minute read

A chief financial officer, or CFO, is the senior executive in charge of a company’s finances. CFOs manage cash flow and financial planning and make recommendations to optimize an organization’s financial health. The role also includes acting as a strategic advisor to the CEO, being a team leader to other employees and interacting with third parties in all matters relating to company finances.

Becoming the top financial executive at a company isn’t easy. But learning from CFOs who have achieved this position will help aspiring CFOs prepare for the journey. Grow Wire asked nine CFOs -- from industries such as logistics, entertainment, sports, consumer products and financial services -- to fill out a short questionnaire about their career paths and give advice to professionals aiming to be in their shoes.

Their answers provide a roadmap for aspiring CFOs full of career tips, business lessons and strategies to reach the top. 

What degree does a CFO need?

College is a must if you want to become a CFO. All of the CFOs we talked to received an undergraduate degree, and 88% have their master’s degree. But a master’s degree should be pursued after you've gotten a few years of real-world experience.

All of the CFOs we talked to received an undergraduate degree, and 88% have their master’s degree.

“Having a CPA or MBA is often a requirement to become a CFO,” said Damian Greco, CFO and managing partner at Promenade Capital Partners. “Getting one or both will be something to consider.”

It’s worth noting that the path to becoming a CFO is different for everyone. Some people set out to become a CFO and take a strategic path to get there. Others study and excel in related financial fields before transitioning to the role later in life. 

How long does it take to become a CFO?

Of the nine CFOs we spoke with, the shortest time it took any of them to become a CFO was five and a half years. The longest was more than 20 years. On average, it took the individuals we interviewed 14 years to become a CFO.

On average, it took the individuals we interviewed 14 years to become a CFO.

Michael Watson became CFO of Treehouse Island Inc. in five and a half years by “taking calculated risks," he explained. After college, Watson worked as an investment analyst and manager and then got an MBA before joining Treehouse, a technology education startup, as its CFO in 2012. 

If you’re after the CFO title, “joining a startup is probably the fastest way,” he said. 

Eric Briggs, CFO of Macro media company, worked in investment banking and held executive positions in global business advisory firms before taking the CFO title at Macro 20 years after receiving his undergraduate degree.  

What is a typical CFO career path?

Each of our respondents worked at other companies before taking their first job as a CFO. However, when asked how important it is to have worked at multiple companies, they rated this 3.2 on a scale of one to five, with five being “very important.” 

The questionnaire also asked about the most important person to impress at your company while you’re aiming to become a CFO. Seventy-seven percent of CFOs said your immediate boss. One respondent said your boss's boss, and another selected the company CFO.

When asked about the most important person to impress at your company while aiming to become a CFO, 77% of CFOs said your immediate boss. 

Additionally, “be sure and have clear career advancement and development plans in place," said Chris Whitfield, CFO of Mana Nutrition. “Share it with your CFO, and get his or her input on the plan.”  

What makes a great CFO?

CFOs ranked the following skills in terms of their importance (five being most important and one being least important). 

Leadership is the highest-rated skill. Our CFO respondents advised mastering leadership tactics, and then enhancing them, during your journey to the CFO position.

“A boss told me I had to adjust my leadership style to get to the C-suite," said Jennifer Cabalquinto, CFO of the Golden State Warriors. “I had to develop more nuanced influencing skills and a more collaborative leadership style.”

Accounting and tax knowledge came in a close second in CFOs’ ranking of important skills. The results also suggest that secondary skills like time management, business development, sales, networking and knowledge of business automation tools are important, too.  

“I depended too much on being the best within the finance, operations and technology disciplines but not enough on networking, sales and business development,” said Whitfield of his path to the CFO role. 

One thing you needn’t worry about is touching up that golf game. The active CFOs we contacted agree that nobody cares how many strokes it takes you to finish the back nine.

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What experience do you need to be a CFO?

Today’s CFOs are multi-faceted execs who must understand many aspects of a business.

“Once you have mastered the technical skills of your profession (tax and accounting), improve your cross-functional understanding and leadership skills," said Jane Trenery, CFO of ThankYou. "This will help you confidently step out of the journals and into the boardroom."

Respondents like Dylan Ross, CFO of Crane Worldwide Logistics, worked in non-finance roles to gain an understanding of the "levers" that made the business work before becoming CFOs.

Some respondents worked in non-finance roles to gain an understanding of the "levers" that make business work before becoming CFOs.

“I took a role as director of our business unit in Brazil," Ross said. "That allowed me to learn the key levers of the business, how to manage my team and client relationships while also generating a fair return."

Additionally, if you're mid-career, be "willing to make lateral moves to build new skills, relationships and business understanding,” said Pamela Yanchik Connealy, CFO of microlending giant Kiva

🌱 The bottom line

Becoming a CFO takes high-level financial knowledge, leadership skills and years of hard work. But it’s doable -- and via numerous avenues. With forethought to their overall career path, aspiring CFOs can become execs who are trusted strategic advisors well-versed in the elements of business and capable of leading teams.