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45 embark_From CFO to CEO find your best path forward_v1-05 (1)

It's such a different world than just a decade ago. With so many social, economic, political currents swirling around furiously in the same vast pot – not to mention a global pandemic – the 2020s make the 2010s seem like a quaint 50s sitcom. And all the while, CFOs and CEOs have had to learn on their feet, just in significantly different ways.

So what do such dynamics mean for today's CFO trying to steer their career path toward the top spot? Well, it's complicated, at least if you don't have a keen sense of direction and the right insights to lead the way. Fortunately, Embark has just those insights to share with CFOs that, with a bit of time and elbow grease, can help you land a chief executive's corner office.

The CFO’s Roadmap To Finance Transformation

Transitioning to CEO Means Finding the Right Mindset

Although we typically don't like to paint with broad brushes here at Embark, it just seems unavoidable when discussing the differences between a CFO and CEO. In fact, you've probably heard all of the comparisons at this point – a CFO is the yin to a CEO's yang, CEOs are the good cop to a CFO's bad cop, ad infinitum.

These types of half-baked analogies are basically just describing how the two roles typically come with different mindsets. Whereas a CFO is usually more risk-averse and focused on operations, the CEO role is generally more visionary, looking at the longer-term strategic picture, and serving as a motivating force for the company.

That's not to say, of course, that CFOs today don't operate with one eye on the future. However, despite five-year plans and at least a perfunctory view of the distant road ahead, it's fair to say most CFOs focus the majority of their time on the financial constraints and goals for the current year. Obviously, that's neither good nor bad, but simply what's required of the average chief financial officer.

Unfortunately, that shorter, more constrained perspective also leaves a CFO at a disadvantage when looking to climb to chief executive officer. Think of a CFO as the first mate on your organizational freight liner. As first mate, the CFO primarily focuses on day-to-day operations, whereas the captain – CEO for purposes of this metaphor – is more concerned about charting the course and getting the ship to its destination.

Now, does that mean a first mate is incapable of moving up to captain? Of course not. It just means to make the move, CFOs must get in the habit of occupying a different mindset, one that isn't just capital allocation and budgeting. Instead, you need a much broader view of the enterprise, strategy, and where the organization should be heading.


Expanding and Enhancing a CFO's Perspective & Skillset

So what's a skilled, motivated CFO that wants to climb to the top of the corporate food chain to do? Especially one with a career focused almost exclusively on dollars and cents? Well, perhaps the best place to start is to think about your relationship and view of risk. As you know all too well, risk is the ultimate double-edged sword, capable of driving your organization to new heights or, conversely, burying it six feet underground.

Typically speaking, a CFO is significantly more risk-averse than a CEO, but that's really due to the nature of the job and leading a finance organization. Therefore, your perspective of risk will probably need to loosen a bit if you want to be the type of visionary CEO that Forbes writes flattering profiles about.

Become the Ultimate People-Person & Business Partner

Aside from risk management, it's also important to think outside of the stereotypical CFO role and duties to become more collaborative. Remember, a successful CEO isn't just helming the accounting and finance functions anymore. Instead, you're the decision-making head cheese, the person ultimately responsible for every department, team, and individual in the business.

Thus, to help expand your leadership skills and competencies, you'll want to start working with other groups within the company, learning how to drive initiatives that aren't necessarily tied directly to the finance department. Therefore, when HR, sales, marketing, IT, or any other instrumental department wants to tackle something new, big, and bold, you'll want to get involved in these initiatives, work with other business leaders, and build on your know-how.

Thankfully, your CEO aspirations don't require intimate knowledge of how every little piece of the business operates. Instead, you just need to become a great collaborator that can work seamlessly with the stakeholders, departments, business segments, and geographical markets that propel everything forward.

Similarly, you don't need to be a chief operating officer – COO – first, or any other part of the C-suite for that matter. Just becoming a reliable, insightful business partner to the enterprise and thriving in a project management role for cross-functional initiatives is a massive advantage over many CEO candidates in an executive search.


Embark's Tips on Preparing to be a CEO

Let's get out of high-level mode, roll up our sleeves, and take a look at some of the CFO-to-CEO best practices we've picked up over the years.

CEOs Need Fine-Tuned Communication Skills

The best CEOs are almost always master communicators, both with the public and within the organization. Granted, CFOs have to communicate across a finance organization, but that's significantly different than what a CEO faces.

To that point, becoming a better public speaker and getting a firm handle on the PR side of things will help your transition to first-time CEO be much smoother. Like it or not, people will expect you to be dynamic, personable, and comfortable in front of an audience, able to sell the company, its initiatives, and its future, at least if you're in tech. Thankfully, industries like energy and retail aren't so demanding.

Also on the brighter side, former CFOs are obviously well acquainted with the financial planning and financial reporting components of operations, so you'll often be speaking on matters where you’re already the ultimate subject matter expert.

Find Good Mentorship

Having the top job in a business means you won't necessarily have the same mentors, peers, or sounding boards as you did in your CFO days. However, just because you hold the CEO position doesn't mean you're suddenly above the need for guidance and advice. In fact, the opposite is true – as a CEO, you'll most likely need it even more.

Thus, seeking out people that won't hesitate to lend you their ear and provide some guidance should be high on the to-do list. Board members from other organizations, other CEOs that are former CFOs, or just people with a significant history of leadership roles under their belt – they can all be invaluable assets to you as a CEO.

Use Finance Transformation to Free Time

Finally, you’re probably going to need a lot more free time if you want to start integrating some of the insights we've discussed thus far. Because as far as we know, there are still only 24 hours in a day and, although you might have focused your sights on becoming a CEO, you’re still a functioning CFO in the meantime.

So how are you supposed to carve out time from your already jam packed day to improve your public speaking, cultivate relationships with mentors, lead cross-functional initiatives, and everything else required to become a successful CEO? There's actually a straightforward solution to this quandary – finance transformation.

Through data dashboards, analytics and automation, and everything else involved in a transformation, you’re able to generate real-time insights that will make you a better CFO while also freeing valuable time. Finance transformation drives faster, more accurate data that requires a fraction of the time and resources your manual processes currently devour.

Also, since you’ll be generating true business intelligence, you'll find it much easier to start developing a CEO-like mindset through more detailed scenario and strategic planning. In other words, finance transformation is a win-win for everyone and everything involved – your decision-makers, your finance organization, and your aspirations to become a CEO.

And as always, if you need help transforming your accounting and finance functions, our crack-shot team of transformation experts is at the ready. Because we'd like nothing better than to be the strategic partner helping you succeed, both as a CFO and CEO. It's what we do.

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