From CFO to CEO: The Next Natural Progression

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Irv Rothman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Financial Services and author of Out-Executing the Competition, recently moderated a CFO Studio Executive Dinner Series meeting, sponsored by Robert Half International. The event, held at Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange, New Jersey focused on a topic with which Rothman has first-hand experience, “From CFO to CEO: The Next Natural CFO Progression.” Andrew Zezas, CEO of Real Estate Strategies Corporation, host of CFO Studio and publisher of CFO Studio magazine hosted the event.

The dinner kicked off with Rothman detailing his rise from CFO of AT&T Credit Corporation to the position of president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Financial Services. The conversation then turned to how other finance executives could carve a career path that leads to the chief executive desk.

Demonstrate a Broader Business Perspective

According to Rothman, the key to moving from CFO to CEO is to actively demonstrate your value beyond finance. “You have to place yourself in positions where you can [do that],” said Rothman. “You exhibit broader knowledge by sitting at the table at Board meetings, leadership team meetings and participating in conversations about strategy, about M&A targets, about markets, etcetera, from a point of view that is not limited to your area of specialty.”

In order to demonstrate your knowledge and ability when it comes to business areas such as strategy, M&A, and markets, Rothman and several of the other meeting participants recommended learning how to “talk the talk” across functions. “If you’re looking at operations, and [your comments are all] about debits and credits, inventory levels, and other financial terms, you’ll only be seen as a CFO,” said Barry Lederman, CFO at Wedgewood Pharmacy. “You have to talk to the business people in their own lingo regardless of the functionality. Whether it’s operations, marketing, or sales, you have to understand what their business is and understand their mindset. When you do that, you’re not seen as just the CFO, but as a business partner, and your relationship totally changes. Then, when you sit at the board meetings with your colleagues, and they’re talking about their functions, they will bring you into the discussion. You’re brought into the dialogue differently.”

According to Zezas, many CFOs already have responsibilities beyond finance. “The best CFOs that we encounter are telling us that they’re spending 20 or 30 percent of their time on pure finance,” said Zezas. “The rest of their time is spent on HR, managing the legal spend, IT, logistics, manufacturing, and sales. It’s my opinion that the best CFOs are really COOs anyway. And, I view COOs as CEOs in training.”

While in theory the idea of working with other functions sounds terrific, many of the meeting participants brought up barriers that exist when trying to branch out.  Many CFOs have difficulty overcoming the perception that they are just numbers folks.

“One of the keys to success is having the right relationship with the CEO,” said Robert Dennerlein, CFO of Dialogic. “Number two is taking it upon yourself to really understand the industry. Also, align yourself closely with the head of global sales. Take opportunities to get in front of the customers as well as the sales organization, and empathize with them.”

Make Your Own Opportunities

What if a CEO and other members of an executive team don’t support the CFO’s efforts to grow into a business position with broader responsibilities? Lederman’s advice? Go someplace else.

“You have to have both an internal and external vision,” said Matthew Durkin, branch manager at Robert Half. “Internally, you really need to know the company that you’re involved in, and what every division is up to. Then externally, you have to make other contacts and networking affiliations that [will help] you make other opportunities for yourself.”

According to Rothman, the days of management development programs and rotations may be over. “More and more companies today feel you are responsible for managing your own career,” said Rothman. “You have to speak up and say you want to get involved with other areas of the business. You have to say that when you travel, you want to see some customers and you want to learn more about what you’re selling, why you’re selling it, and why customers are buying it.”

Are You Ready to Be the Public Face of the Company?

While the CFO is probably the second most visible position in the organization, taking the step into the CEO role brings on a much brighter spotlight.

Steve Mullin is CFO of Wurth USA and previously president of a division of Panasonic. He was asked to take that role while he was CFO and VP of operations for a multibillion-dollar division of Panasonic. “It was the best experience of my but there are a lot of new challenges so be prepared,” said Mullin. “You now are the face of the company internally as well as to the market, head ‘cheerleader’ so to speak. To be successful, among other things, it takes high energy to hone and utilize different personality attributes than that of a CFO.”

According to Rothman, even if you regularly meet with the customers, talk to Wall Street, and have had business roles before becoming CFO, you must also demonstrate the ability to lead.

“Of all the things that have to be demonstrated if you want to be considered for a CEO position, leadership is key,” said Rothman. “You’ve got to have the ability to get people to follow you when you say, ‘This is what we’re doing. This is why we’re doing it, and this is how we’re going to win in the marketplace.’”

Copyright 2017