What Makes a CFO a Key Part of the Executive Dream Team?

Mike Wilke, founder of The CFO Advantage, pointed me to a great post about 7 key attributes for start-up CFOs. I think many of the attributes transcend “start-up” CFOs and have provided my thoughts … and welcome yours.

It’s all about the CPA designation. Without a doubt, the CPA vs. non-CPA controversy garners unending discussion, debate, and opinion. Regardless of where you fall in the debate, the reality is, as the article states, the CPA designation is for many companies foundational. I’d go one step further than the author and say that the CPA in conjunction with an MBA from a top-rated school is “the” winning education combination … when accompanied by a clear record of contributions.

Operational excellence. The author frames this as “installing just the right amount of process, reporting and structure” for smooth-running growth. Looking at the bigger picture, the CFO with solid operational experience, expertise, and track record is an incredibly solid prospect. Add the CPA/MBA and you might just have prospective companies salivating.

“Been there, done that.” Looking beyond start-up, I’m seeing some companies beginning to recognize that they have been entrenched in industry thinking and if they continue on that course, they will keep getting what they’ve been getting. To gain the competitive edge, they need some fresh thinking. From the candidate perspective, it takes visibility and a solid network to close that sale.

I found this stat very interesting … “25% of CFOs make it to the CEO of a start-up and are better prepared than ever to take over that senior leadership role.” Bottom-line, regardless of the company size, it’s about leadership. CFOs are mere bean-counters no more.

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17 thoughts on “What Makes a CFO a Key Part of the Executive Dream Team?”

    • I always love a good debate, Samuel … but in this case, we’re probably on the same page. I agree with your thinking, and I have many talented and accomplished CFOs who have had very successful careers withOUT a CPA.

      But this is my point: It doesn’t really matter what you and I think “IF” the company thinks otherwise. The company is the one hiring and if, in its view, the CPA is required or necessary, it doesn’t matter … sadly … what the truly talented non-CPA CFO thinks.

      As always, Samuel, thanks so much for reading and contributing your valuable insights!

    • Good point, Lisa! Certainly if a CFO is targeting positions within the public sector where a CPA is preferred or required, the designation should absolutely be active. That said, I do believe that sometimes having attained a CPA and allowing it to lapse, might still tip the scales in that CFO’s favor because it could be as simple as paying a fee or bringing CEUs up-to-date. The point being, he had the training and got the credential.

  1. Cindy,

    Thank you for continuing to share your thoughts on the topic of CFOs. I always enjoy reading your insights.

    It is rare that I do not agree with you, but I do not agree that having a CPA (or other accounting designation) is a key attribute necessary to be part of the Executive Dream Team.

    We see great CFOs with and without a designation. Not every CFO role needs an accounting career path and background. When a company is looking to bring on board a new CFO, they need to ask whether the CFO really needs an accounting designation or not. If a company is not looking at a CFO candidate because they don’t have “CPA” stamped on their forehead, they may be missing great candidates for the role.

    It’s easy to rely on asking if the candidate has a designation or not. It is a lot harder for a company to really take the time to understand what they need from a new CFO, and ensure that they do an appropriate search to find the person with right knowledge, skills, and abilities.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to be contrary. I do think your other points are very valid.

    Samuel Dergel, CA, CPA, CPC
    Senior Partner & Practice Leader, CFO Search
    Website : http://www.cfo2grow.com
    Aboutme: http://about.me/samueldergel/bio
    Blog: http://www.thefinancialstatement.com

  2. Cindy,

    I agree – the employer chooses the options they want in the CFO they are buying. So if they want a CPA, they will get their CPA.

    We work with companies looking for CFOs. Part of the value that we add to them in their search is ensuring they properly identify what they need. So if they think they need a CPA for a CFO, we will always ensure that they really do and not miss great CFOs who happen not to be a CPA.

    See. We agree and disagree at the same time.


  3. Cindy,

    I’m going to have to agree with Samuel on the CPA designation. I am the Treasurer and tax director at a privately held oil and gas exploration and production company and we have several CPA’s on staff, including me and a CAO. Our CFO has an MBA from Harvard, but no accounting background (although he knows accounting pretty well). He is, however, very well acquainted with the investment banking community and is able to handle all the important aspects of a CFO. Because our CAO is very capable of running the accounting function and has staff well versed in financial reporting, and because this CFO has a background in geology and physics, he is a good financial leader and the ideal person for the CFO role.

    • Thanks Randy. I don’t disagree with either you or Samuel.

      I want to be very clear … as an objective person standing in the middle of companies and candidates … it’s the company’s call. Not the candidates’ call. That is my “only” point. I posted this earlier today at http://www.stratagemcfo.com/wp/2011/01/cfos2cpas/

      “On one side is the hiring entity … who decides, rightly or wrongly … that it wants a CFO with a CPA. On the opposing side, we have CFOs who, sans the CPA, are completely qualified to do the job. Their ability to meet in the middle will only come as a result of a solid introduction or strong networking contact.

      The reality is, and I don’t mean to be harsh – just objective, if a company wants a CPA CFO, they are hiring, they are paying, and they have every right to make that a requirement … regardless of the view of the candidate that it’s a stupid or unnecessary requirement. It’s the company’s call, not that of the job search candidate.

      In my opinion, the ONLY way to bridge this gap in perspective is for CFOs to build solid networks that include influencers who can provide warm introductions to those companies AND influence its thinking and belief based on a trusted advisor relationship with the contact. If a recruiter has been hired and the CPA is one of the requirements on the checklist, in all likelihood … you’ve been screened out of the competition.

      A strong digital footprint that speaks to a CFOs record of contributions and leadership initiatives doesn’t hurt either.”

      Thanks for reading and for commenting Randy!

  4. This discussion is interesting, as I am a CFO for a smaller manufacturing entity in this position for 4 years. I am a CPA with over 15 years experience in the public field, before I returned to industry work. One of my clients hired me into their company as they began a major transition and implementation of MAS 200. My staff accountant also came along as their controller. I have an MBA and so does my controller. I do think the variety of experience is a great value and strength to the company, and not every company knows all that you do on a day to day basis, from operational aspects to the tax management, and treasury relations with banks and outside vendors. Being a CPA and with over 10 years teaching night school, I bring a lot to the table but not everyone always realizes the skills that you can pull to the forefront. The CPA is a very valuable credential and says a lot to the outside financial world, but your bullet list of things you can do often are what make the difference. If you are not a CPA consider working toward it, and if you are, let it be known the value that you wield, and use it. I expect to step aside and let the controller move up and either return to my public practice or work with a larger company as a CFO. That is where the CPA certificate will make a transition easier, I believe.

    • Thanks for reading and for commenting, Faron. I absolutely agree that the CPA credential, combined with your MBA, – and – a solid record of contributions will indeed make your transition easier. Easier even more if you get your next position BEFORE you step aside and fall onto the ranks of the “unemployed.” Despite high unemployment, the perception remains that you are “more” talented, valuable, and sought after when you are “still” employed.

      I believe the most sought-after CFO of the future (near future anyway) is one who brings a record of operational expertise and contributions, in addition to finance acumen, combined with the CPA and MBA.

  5. I appreciate the value that the CPA brings to candidates; I also appreciate that Certified Management Accountant (CMA) has similar value to candidates. I would argue that a CFO candidate with a CMA brings a focus on financial planning, analysis, control and decision support. For a start-up CFO, the CMA candidate may be more aligned to the immediate needs. A CMA/MBA is also a candidate to be considered.

    • You may be right, Paul. Obviously, it comes down to what the company believes it needs.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  6. I should also have added that my employment is currently with a closely held organization, and I prepare all of the income tax work for various entities that are represented by the same ownership. I can see where if we were a public entity and maybe larger, the managerial background could be more helpful with any kind of manufacturing entity. I think anyone pursuing the CFO chair can always benefit from greater opportunities with the various licenses. I think the most recognizable benefit I drew from the MBA program was to work as a team and leverage everyone’s skills to get the job or project finished. We did a lot of work in the various classes to hone that skill since the group of about 20 students basically went through the program together. It is a shame that anyone unemployed could be lesser viewed. It is easy to get burned out and need some time to rekindle your focus. I think there are many good opportunities in the accounting profession today and many of us may have to go back to the classroom to fully take in the international requirements. This will be another strength to attain and offer to prospective employers, global eCommerce skills and marketing support.

  7. Cindy,
    Your article was very interesting to me because I am a CPA who is considering getting an MBA. I am 27 and want to serve as a CFO for large corporation in the future. I have a couple of questions:
    1)What do you consider a “top-rated school”(top 10, top 25, top 50)? 2)Will a part-time MBA hold me back from achieving my goal of becoming a CFO of a major company? I am considering a professional MBA program, likely Rice University in Houston, and am trying to determine if my degree will be less respected than a degree earned full-time. Any insight that you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

    • Thanks for reading, Scott.

      1)What do you consider a “top-rated school”(top 10, top 25, top 50)? Top 10 is absolutely the best! Top 25 is okay but not as alluring.

      2)Will a part-time MBA hold me back from achieving my goal of becoming a CFO of a major company? It depends … how far in the future is your CFO goal and will you have your degree by then? I don’t think a PT MBA will be a deterrent, unless it’s going to take you 20 years to actually get it. I know that’s an exaggeration, but I think you get my point. How does the timing for reaching the CFO slot align with having the MBA?

      Best, Cindy


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