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Dos and Don'ts for Aspiring CFOs

Dos and Don'ts for Aspiring CFOs

Hoping to become the chief financial officer (CFO) someday? You'll need more than your CPA credential and experience as a controller. Consider these dos and don'ts as you work your way up the accounting career ladder.

Five for the To-Do List

  1. Do Develop Strong Relationship Skills: "CFOs must have a good working relationship with the chief executive officer, their direct reports and others within their organization," says John Morrow, vice president of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. A good CFO has a finger on the pulse of the business and industry. "External relationships are important, too, with bankers, capital markets, peers in other companies and professional associations," he adds.

  2. Do Form Deep Relationships Outside Your Department: Being a CFO isn't easy. "Not only is it absolutely necessary to be a trusted member of the organization, but it will be tough to survive if you don't have allies within the company that you can lean on for support, says Shane Hill, accounting and finance practice manager for executive recruiter Hudson Highland Group in Raleigh, North Carolina.

  3. Do Know What You Can Do and Who Can Do What You Can't: To succeed as a CFO, you need the accounting and financial acumen of any good accountant, combined with top-notch presentation and communication skills. "Few people possess all the skills needed, so smart CFOs build a team of individuals who excel where they lack absolute expertise," Hill says.

  4. Do Dress, Act and Speak Like a C-Level Employee: If you want a C-level position, you've got to look and act the part. "You're invited to the boardroom and the inner sanctum, and you're interfacing with Wall Street," says Paul McDonald, executive director for Robert Half Management Resources, a financial management staffing company in Westlake Village, California. "Communication skills are usually the difference between a very good controller and an excellent CFO.

  5. Do Think Strategy, Execution and Value Creation: While CFOs manage accounting and reporting, internal controls and tax compliance, they must also focus on how well the business is performing. "The CFO needs to be a significant part of growing the beans in addition to counting them," Morrow says.

Five Don'ts

  1. Don't Be the Bean-Counting Curmudgeon Who Only Cuts Costs: Be a member of the senior-management team who looks at the big picture and takes a long-term view of investments, says Paul Dorf, PhD, managing director of Compensation Resources, a compensation and human resources consulting firm. "Work with operations, sales and marketing, and human resources to identify their concerns and issues, and then assist them to find solutions that enhance the company's ability to get the job done," he says.

  2. Don't Jump Right In: Thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley, being the CFO of a public or private company is unlike most other roles in corporate America. "Jumping straight in without taking some time to get your feet wet is one way to get in over your head," Hill says.

  3. Don't Try to Do It All Yourself: "Trying to take on all of the CFO's responsibilities is a sure way to fail quickly," warns Hill. Instead, strategically build a strong team that can support you and help you get the job done.

  4. Don't Tolerate Idiots: CFOs are the generalists of the accounting world. They know a little bit about a lot of things and supplement that knowledge with access to the people who know the details. If that detailed knowledge is wrong, the CFO's recommendations and decisions will skew. "Above all, surround yourself with really smart people," Morrow says.

  5. Don't Betray Your Integrity or Ethics: The line between bending and breaking the rules is thin. Cross it in today's business climate, and you could end up with a new job making license plates.

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