Life after CFO: into the unknown

Lonely, risky and no guarantee of finding your way back. That could be a job
description for a deep sea diver or a long distance lorry driver, but in fact,
it’s how moving to be a CEO was characterised when I sat on a panel at the
London Stock Exchange to talk about ‘Life after CFO’.

It’s always an emotive subject because of the implication that there’s still
another rung on the career ladder and I was keen to see to know how many of the
CFOs would own up to wanting the top job. It’s tough to admit to that kind of
ambition and then fail to find an opportunity to realise it. Periods of
financial instability like the one we are in now usually offer opportunities for
CFOs to step up, but this is a difficult time to make the transition.

Many CFO’s move into a CEO role by sitting tight and waiting for a gap at the
top of the company. That could be good news for the 40% of people in the room
who said they would like to make the move, but this kind of opportunity can also
backfire. Logica chairman David Tyler voiced caution when he said: ‘Risks need
to be weighed, if you, as CEO, do a good turnaround, you are a hero, but the CEO
role is tough and, if you fail, there may not be a way back to a finance role.’

Any CEO in this climate is going to need as much operational and leadership
experience as possible to get through the crisis. I meet plenty of CFOs with
creativity and charisma but the stereotype is that finance professionals don’t
fit this mould. The people who stand out to us in search are ‘well-rounded’ with
a track record of creating value and have pro-actively pursued opportunities to
bust the myth with stints in general management or by leading cross-functional
project teams.

Forty of the current FTSE 100 CEOs have a finance background, so the path is
well trodden. However, many of the CEOs with accountancy qualifications did not
make it to CFO before moving to the CEO slot, leaving mainstream finance early
in their career and taking another route. Equally many CFOs are not accountants
but have relevant financial skills obtained in business roles and see the CFO
route as an excellent stepping stone to CEO.

If you are a senior finance executive hellbent on becoming a CEO, make sure
you are ready before you shoot for the top job in this market, because the dice
are loaded.

Suzzane Wood is managing partner of the European CFO
practice at executive search firm
Heidrick &

Related reading