The New Path to Becoming a Finance Executive
“How do I become a CFO?” It’s a question I hear often. The answer to that question, truthfully, is much different today than it was even ten years ago.
The path to becoming a CFO, like the path to business growth, is no longer clear-cut, but rooted in a web of interdependencies. If I think back on the early days of my career, in a world still recovering from financial scandals such as Enron, finance’s top priority was to protect the company through strong controls and risk management. Today, in the age of artificial intelligence and automation, any of the back office tasks that used to be performed manually by finance teams are now performed by machines, or soon will be.
This is a pivotal point in time for those aspiring to become finance executives. Achieving mastery of the fundamentals of finance—P&L management, capital deployment, financial planning and analysis—is still essential. What sets world-class finance leaders apart, though, is taking the strong roots of data savviness that finance experts naturally possess and building relationships across teams and business units to create new opportunities for innovation and growth.
I invite all aspiring finance leaders to go on a journey to transcend the transactional and make the leap into the strategic by building relationships.
The business world is hungry for finance intelligence that goes deeper than numbers. A strong handle on controls and effective P&L leadership will always be important, but they’re only a portion of the value a strategic finance leader can create. Focusing on strategic growth involves not only a sound understanding of the past and present, but an orientation toward the very uncertain future.
Underneath the exterior of a well-run organization is a complex system of controls that makes or breaks the health of the company. Keeping these systems going is always—and should be—a core role for finance teams. However, for those who not only understand and manage these processes well, but also incorporate divergent perspectives and data sets into account when making growth-oriented decisions, there are boundless opportunities.
Organizations aren’t starved for more process or more tools. They’re starved for multi-faceted professionals who can take their understanding of business, data management, and internal processes and apply their understanding across silos, across boundaries, and across levels to help their organizations thrive.
Early in my career, with an aspiration to one day become a CFO, I took advantage of every opportunity to hone my strategy and relationship skills. I did this by taking on roles outside of the core finance function that focused on both the strategic and operational aspects of business. One role I took on was the head of Business Operations Reengineering, where I was able to learn how to collaborate, integrate multiple points of view, and of course, make data-inspired decisions. Then, as Chief Strategy Officer, I was able to practice the art of long-term, “third horizon” thinking: “What is possible? How can I find sources of long-term growth and value creation for the company? What business relationships should we be pursuing?” Developing these muscles has been critical to my success.
Today, as CFO of Dun & Bradstreet, I enjoy partnering with our talented executive team to navigate the global, complex ecosystem of interdependencies, possibilities, and relationships in which our business—and the business world in general—operates. To move from being a steward of financials to a leader of a highly skilled workforce in a highly complex environment, I had to embrace the value of the unknown and the possible over the reality of the known.
If you aspire to be a CFO, I invite you to embrace relationships, and use that as the lens through which you look at the strategic possibilities for your business.