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The path to CFO can look different for everyone. Career progression could be part of a long-term succession plan, a career move across companies or the result of adding significant value in ways that others haven’t. Those with an eye on this C-suite role should understand what’s important to today's CFOs, so they can help them deliver on their leadership agenda. To do this, it can be important to successfully balance running your current functional area with bringing forward strategic ideas and insights that can demonstrate your broader enterprise perspective. This can mean helping your organization manage inflation and rising costs, take advantage of growth opportunities and emerge from this period of economic uncertainty in a stronger, healthier financial position.
You may have already made a name for yourself within — or outside of — finance. Now it can be important to become known for an additional role: strategic advisor. The board and C-suite should recognize your broad business acumen, not define you solely by today’s tactical or functional role. Your focus should include helping your current CFO continue to evolve the finance function, or your specific business area, while looking for ways to add more strategic value to your leadership team and enterprise. Continue to automate and add other efficiencies to your day-to-day so you can carve out time to add value in expanded ways.
Become the go-to source for data driven insights, trends and informed business decisions. This could include insights that support short-and long-term investment decisions, drive strategic cost reduction, enhance sustainability or achieve other corporate-wide strategic goals. Likewise, demonstrate leadership skills if you’re involved with a business transformation, such as moving enterprise resource planning (ERP) or other applications to the cloud. Think about whole company needs and implications, beyond your functional area.
Also, if you’ve spent your career predominantly in one part of the business, it can be important to gain experience in other areas — and with other people — for a broader perspective. Investor relations, financial, planning and analysis (FP&A), treasury and business unit-level CFO roles can be helpful focus areas to consider. Exposure to M&A, banking and capital markets, profit and loss management, technology transformations and even the customer and sales area can help you become a better strategic advisor to your CFO and C-suite.
Market volatility, inflationary pressure and the cost of capital can make for a business environment that requires quick and informed decisions. For the aspiring CFO, helping your enterprise navigate these uncertainties likely means working with teams to upgrade digital processes so you can react, adapt and report insights on a daily, weekly or monthly — not just quarterly — basis. You should harness data and emerging technologies to help make informed decisions about spending and investments, find growth opportunities, model the potential effects of market events and help your CFO and executive leadership team nimbly plan strategic moves.
Data and analytics, automation, AI and generative AI (GenAI) as well as other emerging technologies can be key differentiators for those seeking richer insights and smarter, more agile business decisions. Conventional AI and GenAI are already helping some companies forecast market conditions, generate insights from large volumes of data, automate high-volume tasks and revolutionize how work gets done. Its potential will likely continue to grow. Consider taking a leading role in helping your CFO and leadership team identify new business applications for AI, GenAI and other technologies while deploying them in ways that are responsible, secure and scalable across the organization.
Analysts and investors can be the gateway to accessing capital and achieving strategic goals for public companies. Understanding how to communicate with investors — in other words, “speak to the street” — can be an important skill to develop. This includes being able to turn financial and nonfinancial numbers into strong narratives, manage expectations and communicate company strategy with sophistication. Being a self-aware, polished presenter who can clearly, concisely and confidently communicate can be important for Wall Street as well as when interacting with your board of directors and audit committee. However brief or in depth, those interactions can play a big role in your professional credibility and career progression.
Seek more exposure to the investor and banking community, either through a formal rotation to investor relations or by other means. Seize opportunities to practice your leadership soft skills, including presentation style and executive presence, and ask for feedback when you have these opportunities. If already comfortable talking about financial statements and filings, demonstrate your ability to highlight core business challenges and opportunities while connecting the dots across projects, issues and risks. It can also be important to become comfortable communicating and working together on tough issues, and having candid conversations with the board and other stakeholders in both good times and bad.
You may be working to help your organization move to investor-grade non-financial reporting to prepare for evolving environmental, social and governance (ESG) requirements, including the SEC’s proposed climate disclosures and the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. Future CFOs should also understand how sustainable business decisions and ESG metrics can inform broader enterprise strategy and shape long-term value, from performance and growth to risk management and brand reputation. Your company’s sustainability strategy may be a moving target that requires walking a tightrope between your board, management, investors, regulators, customers, employees and other stakeholders.
Look at the work you’re doing today to see how you can do more to help your company’s leadership think strategically about sustainability by making tech-enabled, ESG-driven decisions that can create enhanced value and trust. This could include leading efforts to use automation and other technologies to collect, analyze and report ESG data or identifying opportunities to leverage incentives, including the Inflation Reduction Act, to further sustainability and carbon reduction commitments. Help add value by assisting your CFO in finding the right balance between today’s requirements and longer-term opportunities.
To succeed in your day-to-day work and evolve into a strategic advisor, you should surround yourself with skilled people who can design, build, continuously improve and thoughtfully leverage the technology that supports your organization’s decisions and agility. But as you likely see within your own company, valuable technical, strategic and soft skills can be hard to recruit and retain. It’s not surprising, then, that CFOs consistently cite talent attraction and retention as a serious business risk. Because of the impact on your company’s success and your career progression, this talent crunch isn’t just an HR issue.
Take an active role in cultivating talent, upskilling your team and finding people with the technical, analytical and strategic skills that can benefit your team and the broader organization. Don’t overlook the importance of culture on talent development, employee satisfaction and performance. Demonstrate your leadership soft skills by helping to build a strong and inclusive team culture where people are invested and feel valued. Emerging tech can help you find and cultivate talent. AI, for instance, can provide valuable insights into retention strategies or job satisfaction as well as streamline the hiring process. Generative AI, virtual reality and the metaverse can create opportunities for effective ways to educate, train and upskill across teams.