The career path of accounting and finance professionals can often vary in several ways. Most corporate accountants set out with the ultimate goal of becoming a Controller within a public or private business. A few will gain the knowledge and skills needed to obtain the CFO title and succeed. 

Even rarer are CFOs who move on to the company’s top position — the CEO. This article will discuss the various skills needed to move from a position as Controller to one as CFO and from there to CEO.

Controller to CFO: How to Get There

Generally, strict knowledge of accounting and finance principles isn’t enough to obtain a CFO title. CFOs are expected to have a wide range of skills that aren’t all based on the nuts and bolts of financial reporting, budgeting, and forecasting. 

Since they aren’t digging in the financial weeds, they’ll need to manage a team that is — plus take on additional responsibilities. To ascend from Controller to CFO, consider these traits and determine how you can apply them to obtain the coveted CFO position:

1. Leadership

Leadership is a soft skill that Controllers can develop through their experience, both in the office and outside of it. 

Good leaders can motivate staff, communicate their vision, and act on it. To become a leader, you’ll need to be the go-to person for answering questions and driving insight into business processes. Your team should look to you for direction on the outcome of their responsibilities.

2. Have a Strategy

It’s not enough to take the reins of a CFO role and accept the status quo. You should be able to pinpoint what is holding back the business and take strides to improve it. 

A well-developed strategy establishes short- and long-term goals that teams are driven to meet. With no corporate financial plan, the company could find itself sailing in rough waters.

3. Develop Both Internal and External Relationships

You can’t succeed in a CFO role without being able to develop and retain internal and external relationships. As the CFO, you’re expected to work with other C-suite executives and your team while cultivating external connections with the company’s investors and Board of Directors. 

Each individual you work with will have their own goals and expectations that they seek to meet. Managing those expectations in a way that benefits the company will be paramount.

4. Stay on Top of New Trends

Education for a CFO doesn’t stop with degrees, work experience, and certifications. There are new trends that are developing every day in business. Understanding those trends and applying them to the company is mandatory for staying relevant in today’s business environment.

CFO to CEO: A Tough Road

It’s rare for a CFO to become the number one leader in the organization — the CEO. However, it’s a growing trend, especially in banking, insurance, consumer goods, and resources and utilities. 

Numbers traditionally drive banking and insurance, so these are the most accessible types of companies in which a CFO may be promoted to the CEO role. CFOs who aspire to the top should ensure they work on these skills.

1. Know Your Company (and Industry) Inside and Out

A CFO who is determined to become the next CEO can’t sit in a silo. Instead, they must actively seek to understand the entire workings of the company, including product development, sales, and technology. 

If the CFO doesn’t understand the goods or services that the company sells, they won’t be able to describe them effectively to customers. 

Likewise, the CFO must understand the dynamics of the industry in which it operates. They’ll need to determine why customers choose one company over another and analyze the competition’s products. External factors, such as market movements and economics, all play a role in the company’s overall success.

2. Allocate Resources Well

The CEO is required to know the pain points of each part of the organization. If the sales department is struggling due to a lack of knowledge or effective sales agents, more resources will be required to beef up the department. 

A good CEO will need to constantly monitor the strengths of each of the company’s divisions to make sure they have the capital (human and otherwise) to be ahead of the game.

3. Pay Attention to the Current CEO

Identify the ways that the current CEO is effective within the company. These may include excellent decision-making skills, a strong vision, or customer relationship prowess. A CFO who wants to become CEO will need to hone in and develop these skills. 

Concurrently, the CFO should also determine the areas of weakness exhibited by the current CEO and work to present themselves as competent in these areas.

4. Fill in Knowledge Gaps

Technical knowledge remains vital throughout a career, and recognizing your lack of expertise in certain subjects can enhance your potential for promotion. While CFOs are usually skilled in leadership, building better cross-functional skills can improve their chances of becoming the next CEO. 

To do so, consider courses in executive leadership, marketing, and technology. Embarking on a quest for practical knowledge and skills can make a CFO a more likely choice for the top role in their organization. 

Learn More About Careers in Our Community

Looking to learn more about Careers? Controllers Council is a national community and platform of Controllers, Accounting and Finance professionals focused on accounting best practices, information and resources, recognition and networking. Membership has many features and benefits to propel your career and expertise, and to be an active participant in our exciting community. The Controllers Council Forum allows members to pose questions about advancing your career and other topics. Become a member today.

Meet the SVP Finance – Interview Series – Mike PolahaWebinar Thursday, July 7

This interview in the series will feature Michael Polaha, SVP Finance Solutions and Technology at BlackLine, and former SVP Finance Technology at Fortune 500 Johnson & Johnson, and member of the Controllers Council Advisory Board. Controllers Council Board Executive Director Neil Brown will moderate.