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CFO to CEO transition

I have been a CFO in a privately held business for nearly 18 years. We are primarily a sales organization in the capital equipment space and have been involved with both start up and spin off transactions. While my title is CFO; I perform all of the functions that a COO would also perform. I feel well versed in managing operations, HR, IT, facilities, etc. based on my past experience. I have been approached by an executive recruiter to interview for a CEO position of a reasonable sized CPA firm. My understanding is that the firm has internal candidates that they are considering; however, they also want to look at CPA's from industry to potentially step into that role. This is a challenge that interests me a great deal and I am actively preparing for my first interview with their hiring manager. I would appreciate any advice that would help me prepare for this interview; and also give me some insight into the transition challenges I should expect in moving from being CFO to CEO.


Topic Expert
Christie Jahn
Title: CFO
Company: Prime Investments & Development
(CFO, Prime Investments & Development) |

The only advice I could offer would be to make sure to hit key areas that the CEO would be concerned about. The CFO is so closely aligned to the CEO that the become strategic partners. Study the firm; can you do a SWOT analysis? Can you take this firm to the next level and if so, how will you accomplish this? Be confident but humble. Congratulations and good luck!

(Senior Controller) |

Thank you for reminding me to touch on the fact that I am already very closely aligned with our current CEO. In our organization, our CEO never makes a significant decision without my buy in; or at a minimum, without thoroughly discussing his reasons for making the decision.

(Senior Controller) |

Thank you.

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, |

The CEO role is about team building, vision setting and pronouncements, creating and maintaining strategic and tactical partnerships both within and without while at the same time being completely reachable (within reason) by your company.

Not too much different than the CFO, but the primary focus is now spread to the entire firm.

Good luck!

Topic Expert
John Kogan
Title: CEO/CFO
Company: Proformative, Inc.
(CEO/CFO, Proformative, Inc.) |

I made that transition a few years back and what I discovered was: I didn't know much about product, marketing and sales! As a four-time CFO I guess I thought I knew enough about those three things to get by until I really knew it, but I did not. I suppose my go to line of "until I was a CFO for the third time I didn't realize how little I knew about being a CFO" should have clued me in.

As a CEO I spend waaaay more time on product, marketing and sales than I do on internal finance and operations. That triumverate (and yes, "product" is utterly and completely different than "marketing" for the uninitiated) is what makes sales happen and drives growth. The office of the CFO can facilitate analysis and thus has some small view into those worlds, but being the CEO means you are directing the leaders in those areas and need to not just let them drive, but do some (or a lot) of the driving yourself.

Now, everyone who is a CEO was a first time CEO and had just as many blind spots as I did (and still do), and this should not be any sort of deterrent for you when considering this new position. But it has certainly been an eye opener!

There's the whole "I'm responsible for everyone's paycheck" thing as well, but that's a story for another day. Best of luck!

(Senior Controller) |

John - thank you for your insights. I appreciate the insight about product. As you described, as CFO I feel like I understand product...but I guess you don't know what you don't know until you are put into the role.

Fortunately, the position I am interviewing for is CEO of a public accounting firm. As I am a CPA and spent eleven years in public accounting, I feel like I understand the service industry pretty well. And, having been a client for many years, I have insights about the client relationship that those who have spent their entire career inside the industry do not have.

Again, thank you for your insights.

Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

Your success will depend on (1) you (2) the team that you build or the team that is already in place. If your current CEO depends on you, then you will also be depending on your CFO.

I posit that since the CEO job and focus is all encompassing, it is going to be to your advantage to have a dependable CFO to take your focus off on SOME of the issues. It will give you time to "ease into" the position and as John has indicated...allow you more time to get familiar or have experience on the things that you do NOT have "expertise/confidence" on.


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