The Career Path Of The Modern CFO

It is no longer based purely on financial skill


There has been much written about how the CFO role has changed over the past decade. They are now expected to take a more strategic role within their organization as a partner to the CEO, spending less time on number crunching tasks that can be done by subordinates or automated, and focusing instead on influencing the future direction of the company.

In light of this, CFOs are now not necessarily expected to come from the same background they once were. In a 2013 report from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), 49% of CFOs surveyed said they started their fi9nance careers in public accounting firms and 42% started their careers in a finance role in business. Even since then, this has changed, and we are seeing fewer and fewer coming from an accountancy background.

It has long been the ultimate goal of many in accounting to become a CFO, but it is no longer necessarily the case that the skills they have are desired. The modern CFO must be strategic, a forward-looking thinker, a leader, a communicator, a relationship-builder, and a project manager. These skills require a fundamentally different mindset than accounting. It is clearly still important to have a solid understand of accountancy, but it is no longer their primary objective, and when recruiting CFOs it should therefore not be considered top of the list of desired qualities.

A CFO is the captain of the accounting ship, while it is good that they know how to hoist the mainsail and scuttle the jib, they don’t need to be an expert as they don’t really have to do it. There is still a case to be made that starting one’s career at a Big Four accountants is the best way to step onto the path to becoming a CFO, but it is no longer the only one. Ultimately, the qualities a CFO has to have depend largely on the needs of their organization, and when recruiting one, companies will look to the CFO with the career path that most demonstrates their ability to fulfil these needs. Some may still need a pure finance expert as opposed to a generalist.

We spoke to three CFOs about how they got started in their career:

Peder Sahlin, CFO, Avalanche LLC:

‘For me it was a career change. I went from a high school drop-out working as a mechanic to a CPA with both a bachelors and Master’s degree in 7 years starting in my early 30’s. Since then I have worked primarily in highly entrepreneurial companies and for the most part directly with the principals and senior management. So far I have been in specialty chemicals, agriculture (flowers), pharmaceuticals, Audio-visual (sales, distribution, installations, and government sales), construction, defense industry sales, and now online dating.

My career path is a bit different. I dropped into a position right out of school, working directly with the founder of the third largest printing ink manufacturer in the US.’

Jan Gooze-Zijl, Chief Financial and Operations Officer, UKTV:

‘I didn’t qualify in finance. I actually started working in banking in France and the Czech Republic, and then moved into a strategy team of a consumer goods business in the UK. Over the years, I then took on a number of organizational jobs, a number of operational development roles before getting my first full finance job in 2009 as finance director for the Virgin Media TV channels, as it was then.’

Matthew Hann, Head of Finance, Channel 4:

‘I left school at 16 to go and play professional football for Peterborough United. I had five years as a professional footballer before not quite making the grade. I went back to university in my early twenties where I took a business studies course that was quite broad in its nature. I particularly enjoyed economics and strategy and the finance elements, I liked how tangible they were, very evidence and fact based, and I went from there.’


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