A surprising new report from Ernst & Young makes the bold claim that only 10 percent of CFOs actually want to become CEO. The report – entitled ‘DNA of the CFO’ – was based around a survey of 699 CFOs in Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia and included in depth interviews with CFOs of leading companies such as Heineken, Dubai Aerospace Enterprises and Marks & Spencer.
The accepted wisdom is that in times of trouble, boards turn to CFOs to become CEOs. CFOs are seen as having a good handle on the numbers, attention to which is seen as the cure to the company’s problems.
While CFOs are generally seen as detail focused but not necessarily strategically focused, the survey shows that some 35 percent of all CFOs are intimately involved in the strategic side of the business. This is in addition to their day to day duties of keeping on top of the numbers.
While only 10 percent say that they want to be CEO, 73 percent say that they would like to remain in their role while taking on more strategic responsibility. This suggests that CFOs are put off by the unwelcome levels of scrutiny that CEOs face, which as CFOs they can largely avoid. And if CFOs can undertake much of the interesting strategic work which CEOs do but without the glare of publicity, that would appear to be a good bargain.
The survey also laid out CFOs’ professional failings, with a majority saying that their biggest lay in communication with external stakeholders, especially the media. Any financial journalist can attest that CFOs are difficult people to communicate with. They might possess the keys to the kingdom, in terms of the juiciest details about what’s actually going on in a company, but they are generally woeful at crafting a positive message. Those few that can are usually the ones who make it to the top.
Even so, the survey shows that not many CFOs actually want this. Rather what is revealed is that the CFO position is the destination itself, not the staging post to a role any higher. To that end, the report crafted a list of the competencies that finance professionals need to reach the role of CFO. These competencies are listed below, in order of priority.
• Extremely strong financial professionalism
• A strong commercial sensibility
• Deep understanding of the business
• Skill with people
• Ability to think strategically
• Excellent communication skills – the ability to translate complex issues in a simple, straightforward way
• Ability to manage conflict
• Inclination to solve rather than create problems
• International experience
• Language skills
• Experience of running major projects
• Business analytical skills
• Ability to manage stress and complexity under pressure
• Good health
• Operational experience
• Ability to adapt to change
• Experience of adversity
Many of these are the normal, boilerplate nonsense that headhunters come up with: it is difficult to do any job if you are not in good health, or even if you lack passion for the job in hand. Others seem bland enough to apply to any high level job such as the ability to adapt to change. Others might seem mutually exclusive: experience running major projects can often conflict with the task of managing the finances around those projects.
International experience and excellent communication are also skills that can be acquired. More challenging, perhaps, is the need to be a problem solver and not a creator while at the same time being excellent with numbers. Financial results are obviously not a day at the beach. If you can master them and don’t feel the need to be an excellent communicator, then like 90 percent of the respondents, becoming CFO is the end itself, not a path to the other corner office.