Do you want to make the leap from certified public accountant (CPA) to chief financial officer (CFO)? This journey is a path filled with growth, challenges, and profound learning opportunities. Life as a CFO is also incredibly rewarding, as you’ll be at the helm of an organization’s financial health. 

While your path will be unique, there are some common milestones you’ll need to surpass as you strive to expand your skill set. Here’s a glimpse into the typical career trajectory that starts in public accounting firms, transitions through corporate accounting, and culminates in the CFO suite. 

The Typical CPA Journey

If you haven’t become a certified public accountant, you’ll need to start there. Obtaining a quality education from a reputable program will lay the foundation for future success and help you land your first job. 

Most CPAs kick-start their careers in public accounting firms, where they hone their skills in auditing, tax preparation, and financial reporting. This pivotal stage in your career will give you an opportunity to learn practical abilities and build important relationships. 

For many CPAs, the next leap involves moving to corporate accounting. In this role, you will take on responsibilities like bookkeeping, financial reporting, tax, audit, and financial planning and analysis (FP&A). Instead of serving many different clients, you will dedicate your talents to the needs of a single entity while working with a team of other CPAs. 

The Interim Step: Becoming a Controller

Your specific journey up the corporate ladder will vary depending on the size of the organization you work for. Some businesses have a hierarchy of junior and senior CPAs. However, virtually every major organization has a controller — a role that represents the next major milestone on your path to the financial C-suite. Some companies have a separate controller for each entity they manage.

Controllers control the day-to-day accounting functions, providing leadership in financial reporting, budgeting, and accounting operations. This role demands a blend of technical expertise and managerial skills, serving as an excellent proving ground for CPAs aiming for the CFO role. 

Broadening Your Skill Set 

Your path to becoming a chief financial officer begins long before you obtain the title of controller. From day one, you should strive to sharpen your existing abilities while expanding your skills beyond the confines of accounting. Here are the areas to focus on:

Strategic Thinking

As a certified public accountant working within a major corporation, you have the luxury of focusing on a core set of responsibilities. However, CFOs have to view a company’s financial landscape holistically. This involves understanding market dynamics, identifying growth opportunities, and making informed decisions that align with the company’s long-term objectives.

As a CPA, seek to get involved in strategic planning and decision-making processes. You can do this by participating in cross-departmental projects that offer a glimpse into the broader business environment. 

Leadership and Communication

To be a successful leader, you need much more than just financial acumen. The role of a CFO demands high emotional intelligence and strong communication skills. Aspiring CFOs must be able to inspire and manage teams, communicate complex financial information to non-financial stakeholders, and cultivate relationships across all levels of the organization.

Proactively seek out leadership development programs and other opportunities to step outside of your comfort zone. Early in your career, demonstrate a willingness to learn, take responsibility, and support your team. You may also need to seek leadership roles outside of the finance department. 

Understanding of Technology

In today’s digital age, a deep understanding of technology and its impacts on finance is indispensable. This includes knowledge of financial management software, data analytics, and cybersecurity. 

Once you join a corporate accounting team, familiarize yourself with the tools and solutions the business uses. If possible, obtain independent certifications in the use of that technology — this showcases your desire to exceed the minimum standards. Enhancing your proficiency with tools of the trade can also give you a competitive edge when applying for promotional opportunities and collaborating with other departments. 

Taking the Next Steps to CFO

Transitioning to a CFO role requires not just the right skill set but also a breadth of experience. Once you get settled in your CPA position, find a mentor who is already in a finance leadership role. A mentor can offer guidance, share experiences, and provide feedback that aids in your personal and professional development. Networking with professional associations and attending industry conferences can open doors too. 

The most important thing you can do to support your long-term career goals is to start pursuing them. Jump into the world of corporate accounting and focus on becoming a dynamic, well-rounded financial professional. Prepare for opportunities so you can seize them whenever they present themselves. Most of all, be diligent, and you will evolve into a leader who can steer your organization to financial excellence.

Additional CFO Career Resources

CPE Changes to Expect in 2024

How to Chart Your Finance Leadership Career Path

The Future of Corporate Finance Leadership: Skills for Controllers and CFOs