CFOs Movin’ on Up to CEOS

My good friend and colleague, Deb Deb, forwarded me the recent Business Week link that talked about CEO churn being at a 3-year high. What does that have to do with you as a Chief Financial Officer?

As early as April 2009 I thought that the CFO-to-CEO track would become a more typical pattern.

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It’s not “just” that CEO churn is up, it’s who companies are looking for to step into those CEO slots. Here’s the excerpt with my emphasis added …

“After three years of declining turnover among CEOs, churn at the top is back. As the economy improves, the rate of corner-office shakeups has picked up as more boards replace veteran CEOs with younger leaders with very different résumés.”

“Younger leaders with very different résumés” doesn’t necessarily translate to CFOs, but, it can. And it could. And it might. A recent report said that 25% of start-up CFOs make the move to CEO. That’s a pretty high statistic … and I can see that same pattern migrating beyond just start-up companies.

But generally, it’s not an easy path. If you have the lead dog as your long-term goal, then here’s what I believe it will take. You MUST

— hold a seat at the table and be intimately involved in setting and guiding vision;

— be known as a trusted advisor to the CEO, Board, investors, and shareholders;

— bring a solid track record of quantifiable operational experience … a pure finance background won’t get you to the CEO slot;

— possess stellar communication and leadership skills. That necessitates being a people-person, not just a numbers-person.

If your goal is the Chief Executive Officer seat, 2011-2012 might just prove to be the right time to position yourself to make the move.

P.S. I wrote this on the plane on the way to the CFO RoundTable in Boston on Tuesday. What was very interesting to me was the CEO on the panel affirming the second item on my list … being a trusted advisor. It’s a critically important part of the equation!

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3 thoughts on “CFOs Movin’ on Up to CEOS”

  1. Cindy, thanks again for a great topic.

    There are many paths to the CFO chair, as well as many paths to the CEO chair. The question is – do you have what it takes for either?

    Some do and some don’t.

    If you are a CFO that wants to become a CEO, you need to keep in mind that just like there are many flavors of CFOs, there are many types of CEOs. You not only need the right fit, you need to be able to deliver in the role.

    Many CFOs that I have seen become CEOs have done it from an internal promotion. It is very hard for people that don’t know you to put a CFO into a CEO role, if you haven’t been a CEO before.

    But if you are offered the CEO chair internally, think hard about whether you want to take that role. Those that have become CEO from the CFO chair and don’t like it find it very difficult to have others consider them for CFO roles.

    Samuel Dergel, CA, CPA, CPC
    Senior Partner & Practice Leader, CFO Search
    Website :

    • ==Those that have become CEO from the CFO chair and don’t like it find it very difficult to have others consider them for CFO roles.==

      Most excellent point, Samuel!

      Not every CFO is cut out to be a CEO, but for those who aspire to that role, it just might be the best-yet time to make that move. And a solid network as well a a strong, credible record of impact are a necessity for being considered.


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