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A Guide to the CFO Career

Part I: What skills you'll need and what the recruiters say

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Working for great CEOs and bosses is central to the careers of most CFOs. Vanessa Wittman, CFO of Marsh & McLennan Companies, says her former boss Bill Schleyer was, “A true role model who had the amazing skills of a world-class chief executive officer”.  Working as partner to Schleyer in the turnaround of her former firm allowed CFO Wittman to gain operational skills that needed to be developed at that point in her career.

Wittman says that peer networks are vital, including those outside the company. Many CFOs advise others to pick individuals or mentors “who are smarter than you. Most CFOs don’t have mentors in their careers, that is people who actively engaged in a coaching relationship or a formal mentor-mentee relationship that help guide them across various stages of their careers”.

Although IT expertise is a crucial skill for CFOs, experts stress that the knowledge base doesn't end there, they tend to underline the importance of strong managerial skills and experience in M&A, business deals and mega-transactions. Also, saving the company money - and making it - is of equal importance.

“To be a good CFO, you must understand what keeps people in operations up all night,” says Peggy Scott, CFO of New Orleans-based Pan American Life Insurance. “You will have to win over the sales and operations sides and show them you can help them. If you aspire to become a CEO someday, you must keep in mind that you'll need some level of experience along the way. Operations experience helps candidates take that final step.”

Scott suggests that not being able to see the big picture is “the single biggest thing” that holds CFO candidates back. “I've seen really good people get overlooked because they were put in a box,” she explains. For example, Scott says that heading up the internal audit and tax departments can be dead-end jobs because they are perceived as being too narrowly focused.

A clear plan of action

What about having definite career goals in your own five-year plan? “I think goals are essential to my success as well as for others,” says Scott. “I have always had short and long-term goals, both personal and professional in nature for as long as I can remember. In fact, most of the time, I carry them with me. Overall I would say I have achieved many of my professional goals, but I still have some years ahead and some additional items I would like to accomplish. However, the important part is to plan as far as you can see and then adjust as you go.”

What the recruiters say

Paul McDonald, executive director of management resources at Robert Half International says the importance of technology know-how is critical.

Many CFOs have the IT department reporting to them so a solid understanding of enterprise resource and e-business initiatives is recommended. It’s also vital to keep pace with emerging technologies and web-based applications, especially those that co-ordinate front and back-office operations.

To do so, he suggests: “Study what's needed and what’s going on within your company. If you are asked to sit on a financial systems conversion committee, take advantage of the offer. Make yourself visible through verbal and written communication to the committee.” Never neglect your continuing professional education, through university classes or professional seminars.

According to McDonald, industry-specific skills are less important than a well-rounded total skill set. “If you have strong decision-making skills and an MBA, you'll have an advantage over someone with industry-specific skills who may be lacking in the technical or functional arena.’


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