When hiring a CFO, is a Qualified Accountant or an MBA preferable?

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CFO Qualifications

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What is a definition of a "qualified accountant"? What makes a MBA more prefable than a non-MBA (except maybe the letters).

Remember, because someone has a CPA or an MBA doesn't make them better or for that matter worse than anyone else. I've seen good and bad, and I'm sure you've seen it as well.

The real answer lies in looking at the TOTAL candidate, their work experiences, their accomplishments. Then you need to look (actually this should have been done before you went looking for a CFO) what role the CFO is to take. Is the candidate a cultural match? The list of checkboxes can go on and on.

In the final analysis, is the candidate a match for that role?

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Ah...the same question, just a different forum. (insert laughter here)

As Wayne might know, this every topic is on LinkedIn and while is has slowed down this past week, it got 200-plus responses.

Let me start by saying that a similar discussion occurs in virtually every professional discussion group; every month or so someone starts the "...why do all job postings say 'CPA Required' when I am just as good as a CPA?" discussion and I am sure if you went to a medical doctors forum you would read something like this, "...why does it say 'MD's only', I am a 'DO' and just as good?"

My response here is the same as on LinkedIn; it just depends on the hiring authority.

J.D. Floyd

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I'm laughing, too, JD, because this issue breeds all sorts of emotions ... and yet as often as the question is asked, the "real" answer never changes. It doesn't matter what the candidate believes to be true. It only matters what the company, in its sole opinion, believes it needs or decides it wants. And unless a candidate has a solid network with trusted relationships in place, there is no way around that fact.

That said, what I am seeing in the marketplace is this trend: CPA MBA CFOs are the hottest candidates. The broader skills that come from an MBA (from a quality school / program) are increasingly important to companies whose Finance Chief is a strategic partner to the C-Suite.

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Hottest?

Without both in the SF Bay Area and, every metro area of CA afaik, one will not even get an interview.

Employer's demand it. And, there are plenty of candidates that have them.

I recently had a newly minted, college graduate assigned to me with no meaningful job description. When I asked him about his ambitions, he told me he wanted my job. If I were the honest person I used to be, I would have unhesitatingly said, "then get yourself back to grad school, obtain an MBA and go work for a audit firm and get a CPA as well."

I wish someone would have pounded that into my head years ago.

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I have another observation; the use of the term "Qualified Accountant".

My experience in international companies, mostly those with U.K. or Commonwealth subsidiaries, is that the term "Qualified Accountant" is a discriminator (not racial, so do not get upset anyone) to separate Chartered Accountants from others. It is usually this same logic that is used to separate other forms of qualifications; as in one is automatically better than the other.

As we globally grow closer together, the use of similar, but different terms will always cause confusion.

One other point; while I have been on this forum since the beginning, I just started responding today and the first thing I noticed is the large quantity of anonymous postings & responses. Wayne brought up in another discussion. Does this concern others?

J.D. Floyd

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J.D.:

I've worked with a few charted accountants over my career in the private sector. And frankly, the could run technical circles around any CPAs I worked with. And, they knew !

As to the anonymity. Yes, for me it does. Our CEO is a paranoid tyrant and she actually has her minions peruse the internet for anything posted by anyone related in any way to the organization. Even relatives of employees.

And, she isn't just looking for postings that might paint the organization in an unflattering way. She is interested in our personal lives as well. She is the most Machiavellian player I've encountered in more than thirty years of employment. She's cutthroat. That's how she got her job!

As tin foil hatted as it sounds, several of the execs here, including me, are convinced she has our offices bugged.

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I attended a recent presentation by Spencer Stuart and Russell Reynolds who indicated that companies are looking for the strategic and FP&A oriented CFO's. Accounting is not the top priority that it was when SOX was introduced. That being said experience and fit are most important

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This question reminds me of an old interview question I once received: Are you a thinker or a doer? The answer is you have to be both as it depends on the situation.

The theory is that an MBA brings a broader sense of strategic perspective while a CPA ensures you meet GAAP. These attributes are not mutually exclusive with either certification. If your business is facing serious financial / regulatory burdens you may give more weight to a CPA. If your financial house is in order and you are seeking to expand into new segments, perhaps an MBA may be a better fit. It all depends.

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Interviewer:

How much is two plus two?

Successful CFO candidate:

How much do you want it to be?

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Old, old joke.... Just like when I tell the Auditor, "let's go out for lunch so I can move the inventory". 99% of the time, they don't get it.

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I'm probably a little biased relative to this question because I am both a licensed CPA and a MBA. In the US, many CPA's hold Masters degrees and many are MBAs since the US requires 20 graduate hours to be able to sit for the CPA exam. Because of that many like myself have pursued MBA degrees. I suggest the answer to your question is that you need both especially if you are a publicly traded company. The CFO position is the top financial position in the company (with responsibility for accurate financial reporting). Since people can go to jail for fraudulent reporting, you better make sure your top financial person knows the accounting rules (ie, a good CPA). If you hire a CFO, who is not a CPA, how will you verify that they understand and know the accounting rules? I would be leary of a person who says they are as knowledge and know the rules as a CPA when they are not one. CPAs are required by their states to take continuing education classes every year, I doubt that non-CPAs are going to that much trouble to stay on top of the rules. It is important for a company's leaders to have the knowledge of a MBA to help the company compete and grow. Because of that I believe a good CFO, needs to be both an active CPA and hold a MBA degree as well.

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Requirements to sit for the CPA exam are determined by state, and aren't consistent across all states. As far as I'm aware, there are no "graduate hours" required to sit for the exam in most states, and I'm not sure which state you're referring to that requires the 20 hours. There is an hours requirement to sit for the exam, but all those hours can be completed at the undergraduate level in most, if not all, states.

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Please name a CFO that went to jail related to corporate fraud?

There is a good reason the 99% hate the 1% and believe that white collar crime is not prosecuted.

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Many states require 150 hours now to sit for the exam including mine. Google 150 hour requirement. The limitations on what level is required does make getting an MBA or MAcc the most logical choice.

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I've had experience working for several CFOs who just had MBA degrees from big-name schools and minimum training as an accountant. In both cases. As suggested by Craig Irwin, they had issues understanding GAAP and public reporting, but they were strong on financing or planning and had a touch of arrogance. I'm not sure what they put in the water at these big-name schools, but both were a bit full of themselves and had a tendency to get a bit upity when I or anyone brought up an accounting rule when it didn't meet their needs or supported their statements made to other management. Resulted in developing a lot of tension within the finance/accounting organization and more turnover than was normal, On the other hand, a CFO cannot just play the chief accounting role. A good CFO needs to understand the strategic issues of business and have good management and communication skills to be effective with other management -- they also direct the finance, planning, and accounting groups. A CPA who has an MBA has a leg up on a person who is just one or the other. However, a truly good CFO has good business, strategic, and oranizational instincts and experience on top of having good communications and people skills and a strong grasp of accounting, planning/budgeting, and financing/treasury functions, regardless whether the CFO has a CPA, an MBA, or neither. The best job description for a CFO is a professional who can help operating management understand the financial implications of their plans and actions, so they make good/better business decisions. But in the end, the CFO that is hired will need the credentials that operating management "perceives" best fits their needs and the company's public image, regardless of qualifications.

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This question, understandably, arises on this board (and other similar ones), time and time again.

As posed, we're asked what skill set (assuming they are mutually exclusive, which of course they are not) is more preferable (qualified accountant- assuming again, a CPA, or an MBA).

The title of the position is Chief FINANCIAL Officer, a Finance chief, someone who is responsible for ALL things financial (which in most businesses, involves ALL things under the corporate roof).

Finance is a broader, more complex, more demanding (in terms of business skills, diverse task management, operational sophistication, import of deliverables and the definitions of QUALITY results) than the function of Accounting. In some ways, they have nothing to do with one another (Accounting skills don't help much when you're trying to negotiate risk mitigation instruments, secure cost-effective financing terms with manageable covenants, determine sustainable ROI on capital intensive projects or managing the corporate development function from a strategic standpoint). The CFO who is a dyed-in-the-wool accountant will make sure you don't trip any wires (GAAP or Public Co. Reporting, as mentioned), and that the HISTORICAL performance of the company is well-represented, transparent and beyond rapproach. Well of course, now that GAAP is likely going away in its present form, and the JOBS Act has somewhat watered down public reporting guidelines and demands, and SOX is also likely going to be amended (downward) in terms of effort and complexity, the CFO who hasn't developed the 'MBA' skill set is going to be at somewhat of a disadvantage, particularly where the economy is rewarding operational creativity, quality decision-making on corporate investments (internal and external), adept management of marketing, R&D, sales and operational funding and identification of earnings-accretive acquisitions or divestitures. That skill set is harder to find. And as an executive grows into CFO roles in larger companies, the truth is you can hire quality controllers, accounting managers and external advisors to facilitate the execution of historical recordkeeping and manage tax issues and systems implementations.

More importantly, smaller companies looking to grow through capital investment and acquisitions are going to be hampered by legacy CFO's who don't have the relationships, technical and subjective capabilities of engaging lenders and investors, or the track record of developing and fulfilling acquisition criteria that truly generate exponential growth (nevermind the acumen required to develop and execute on strategic initiatives that don't bankrupt the company).

The accounting profession is a highly-developed, mature and critical function in American capitalism. It provides security, transparency, reliability and a normalization of business data for comparative and benchmarking purposes. It also has evolved into one of (if not the most) important advisory functions for the CEO/CFO. That being said, the 21st century CFO cannot be successful without knowing how all the corporate functions interact, support one another, contend against one another and coalesce into a high-performing organization. Those inter-relationships and synchronized activities are the core curricula in an MBA program. An MBA gives any executive the comprehensive picture, the broader view of how the parts work together and where and how they sometimes don't. Little if any of that information and context is offered in the CPA certification track. And while you have to engage auditors, develop and maintain compliance with a host of (sometimes) conflicting regulations and principles, generate accurate and reliable historical data and do your 'darnedest' to project the future (best done by ditching the Annual Operating Plan and training your staff to forecast on a consistent and frequent basis), the role of Accountant has and will continue to be an incomplete preparation for the role of CFO (and for the very ambitious CFOs, the role of CEO).

In my humbled, and admittedly skewed opinion, you can't manage the finances of the company as CFO without understanding with relative competence, and navigating with superior strategic and 'soft' skills, the intricacies of inter-functional relationships and associated revenue and cost components, and to tie all that into the forward momentum and strategic objectives of the modern corporation. Agility, creativity, team-building and team-motivation, strategic option development, selection and execution in a profit-enhancing way...these are all the very relevant criteria that should be assessed in the selection of a CFO, for while the other executives in the boardroom are all critical to the health and growth of the company, the CFO is ultimately responsible for making sure everyone in the room is living, breathing and operating with both eyes firmly fixed on profitability. That demand and responsibility suggests the CFO is going to have to have a deeper and broader career experience than the one offered as a career accountant. Many CPA CFO's I know have made that critical transition successfully, but more than a few CFO's have been replaced because they couldn't or didn't make the jump to the broader plain of expertise and execution required in today's CFO.

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The qualified CFO candidate should bring a range of perspectives and skills to the role, for which"old" academic credentials are a very poor measure. The size of the company is a factor as good accounting and reporting capabilities are needed somewhere...with smaller companies combining CFO and Controller skills, less of an issue in larger companies usually. Matching company needs and candidate skills - technical and personal - is critical; academic training much less so.

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The qualified candidate should have the experience and track record of accomplishments. What letters they can hang after their name should not matter. I have seen CPAs who know accounting, but could not understand business issues and how to solve them. I have seen MBAs who in theory could analyze problems, and come up with solutions, but had no idea how to implement them in a company.
The CFO needs to be able to sit on the table with the other heads of the organization, and contribute to the company's present and future growth and profitability. Focus should be cashflow, and that means at times even being the one that suggests that investments should be made.
He or she needs to be secure enough to hire direct reports who are very good at what they do, and develop them to grow into bigger roles in the organization. Anything less than a world class organization should not be acceptable.
He or she needs to be able to look at the issues as they come up, and be the driving force to solve them. He should be able to explain them in a manner where everybody understands what the problem is and the why and how they need to be solved. For this, he will need to have the respect of those he interacts with, at all levels.
Don't blind yourself looking at candidates only with MBA, CPA or any other alphabet string, Look at the candidate that has shown that what you are looking for, he has done before succesfully, and your company will be much better.

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A qualified accountant is most likely a CPA as mentioned numerous times above. No one can take away a person's MBA because it is a degree, however a state can take away a person's CPA for ethics violations, among others. Maybe a person with a MBA would best be suited for a VP of Finance position, or Chief Operating Officier. I am in favor of working for a CFO that is a CPA, therefore I say find a CPA for your CFO position. CPAs have education and a license. MBA simply have education.

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Education can come from anywhere. I know the GAAP like the back of my hand, but I dropped out of school (Top Tier Ivy) my Junior year to go into business. I now am the co-Founder, CFO/Executive VP of a micro-cap firm, and will bring it into the small-cap arena in the next couple years.

I just don't understand why people think that CFO's need to be CPAs. I have very talented CPA's on my team in order to maintain compliance, but they would be lost on the battlefield of leadership.

Would you want a doctor treating a gunshot wound with the M.D. designation? Most people would immedietly say yes, but I would ask you what are my other options before answering the question. If there was a M.D. that delivered babies for the last 35 years standing next to a Special Forces trained field surgeon who just returned home from 9 back to back deployments in Afghanistan but did not have 8 years of medical school, I would choose the non-M.D, Special Forces surgeon, albeit he has only had 1 year of formal training.

The same can be said for an organization that is drowning in debt or floating on the brink of insolvency. A CPA can surely help identify the source of the wound, but the CFO is the person who will develop a plan, implement the plan, and analyze the results. The CPA is just there to make sure that the CFO is in compliance.

It all comes down to experience, understanding, and capabilities. Formal education is definitley the way HR managers and corporate empires differentiate candidates on paper considering most people do not attain high degrees of understanding without formal education, however, most of the brightest leaders do not have formal education past the first or second year of college. That must mean something.

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The letters and hard skills get you in the door; your soft skills make the difference. I've worked for good and bad CFO's. Having certifications makes us able to speak on the same level and keep the financials sound. Having discernment, leadership, decisiveness, and personality makes a CFO able to drive a company to a better bottom-line.

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There have been many good, intelligent responses. However, I would ask, not whether it is preferable, but if it should be preferable. 50 years ago, being a Caucasian male, was a preferable qualification for just about any C-level position, but as time has proven, it should not have been.

I would argue a lot of the same "prejudices" exist with folks who do or don't have these designations (or any other standard designations). A CPA is not guaranteed to know any more or any less than an experienced accountant when it comes to GAAP. They passed a test, most likely immediately out of college. You don't hire a CFO right out of college, you hire them with 10+ years experience. While your CFO needs to be able to identify GAAP problems, unless they are running a one-person show, that is not going to be his/her primary function. They will be employing an Accountant (CPA) to carry the burden of that responsibility, or at least they should be. You are paying way too much to have the CFO's nose buried in the books. They need to be sure they are right, but able to manage that responsibility out with confidence.

The same logic follows for an MBA. Both of these things suggest a person is a qualified student, not necessarily a qualified professional. Personally, I learned more my first year out of college than I did all the years in school. I haven't met a person who can genuinely say their experience has been different, regardless of the number of years and level of education they have received. Education and designations are important, but should not be filters for the resume pile.

The designations deserve their place on a resume, and deserve recognition, but they should in no way shape or form trump experience, knowledge, and performance history. Unfortunately, they are often used to weed out the resume pile, and the important things get ignored.

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My priority when hiring is:

Will > Skill > Experience > Education

First, you need someone who wants to be good at their job, regardless of the job. It seems like it is probably a given at the C-level, but I can't say for sure. Without that drive, nothing else matters.

Second is skill. The other things can drive skill, but it is important to remember that skills can come from a lot of different sources, experience and education are just a few of them.

Third is experience. There isn't a substitute for experience. We try our best to use education (formal and otherwise) to fill in here, and it helps, but it just doesn't replace good, old fashioned blood, sweat, and tears. The older I get, and the longer I am in the work force, the more I realize how much I don't know, I don't know.

Finally education. Education says a lot about a persons ability to withhold knowledge, and to a certain extent, to learn. That is about where it ends. Education teaches you how to effectively learn on the job, it doesn't replace the experience of the learning.

I don't hire CFOs, but I would hope that the same priority is in place for any position.

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I am assuming by qualifed accountant you mean someone that has the technical expertise and you are differentiating the MBA as more of a business manager. (Which is not always the case.) If my assumption is correct, I believe it depends on the rest of the team. If a strong technical accountant is on staff, going with a more business focused individual may be the way to go and visa versa. If neither competency is in place, I would to with the technical accounting skills initially.

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I came from the Banking world, degree in Finance. Jumped at an opportunity to lead one of my customer's companys that was small at the time but I believed had huge potential. X's and O's are important but that's what you hire an accountant to do. At the end of the day the CFO has to be able to, above all else, analyze the numbers and interpret what they really mean in order to best position their company to post consistently strong profits, take advantage of opportunities and mitigate risks. Cash flow management ability is essential! So many skills that are learned or are just naturally in your skill set that really no degree can prepare you for but are absolutely essential to the CFO position: negotiating, communication, leadership, humble self-confidence---just to name a few. Read an interesting article about the CFO of Dow Chemical who happens to hold, if I remember right, a marketing/finance degree from my alma mater. Holds to many of these beliefs that I have presented.

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To me it is not an either / or... I want both. Each designation represents a mastery of an area of study. It also tells me something about the candidate's internal drive. This allows me to refine and focus my selection and interview resources on other areas - cultural fit, common sense, practical experience, etc.

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Its well known in America, by the most prestigious schools of business that MBA's are are not taught Leadership. MBA's learn to be Quant's, or quantitative analysis gurus and researchers.

Those people with leadership abilities that then go back to school to earn an MBA are where you should focus. An MBA on its own is not a rubber stamp of approval and that has definitely been well recognized during this financial collapse of the last few years where the Quants created models that were relied upon to the detriment of all investors. A subject of much analysis and debate in the last few years.

The CFO's job, and their sole job is to provide the fuel for growth, the finanancing. Since Enron, the CFO's role has also been designated as the company's conscience, the top ethics officer.

If you can find a CFO who can put gas in your tank, say no to ill advised operational schemes that empty the tank too quickly, and one that is a pillar of ethics and righteousness in every aspect of your business, that is the CFO you want.

Leadership trumps everytime. MBA doesn't matter. And an accountant without leadership ability and proven results is not the answer either.

That's the hardline analysis after cleaning up to many problems to count.

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I am new here and can learn a lot from you all. I am a young accountant that is making that transition from senior to entry level management. I am slowly transitioning from the nuts and bolts of accounting to more higher level finance, reporting, analysis, and budgeting. I hold a Bachelor of Accountancy, MBA, and am working on my CPA. My goal over the course of my career is to become good enough to reach Controller in the next few years. Then on to maybe VP Finance and then CFO over the next few decades. I want to get strong in a real strategic planning mindset. I have much to learn outside of my pursuit of holding both an MBA/CPA combo. I have to aside time to read all these real good and informative posts. So thanks everyone. Any good advice on how I can reach my goals in the next 30 years is always welcomed.

Thanks

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Welcome to Proformative, John.

Thank you for not only joining, but adding your comments here, and we hope in the future.

You'll find a wide range of opinions, some agreeing, some disagreeing, but all I hope educational and adding value to your experience and decisions as you go through your career.

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I think it's about skills and mastery. Skills and mastery give you the knowledge of what what's possible and what can be done.

The CPA credential takes a lot hard work to earn, and in the end, results in a level of mastery in accounting.

The MBA credential goes into broader aspects of business, such as sales and marketing, HR, finance, and management, and teaches best practices in those areas.

In the end, armed with competence and knowledge, one should be able to make better and more informed decisions for the company, leading to greater value and fewer mistakes in the role.

I think recruiters and employers should be thinking in this way, if they aren't already, when recruiting and hiring for a CFO.

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In simple words, " Management is the art to manage and coordinate the efforts of people to accomplish goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively in origanisation" .
So, it comprises planning, organizing, staffing, leading or directing, and controlling an organization to accomplish a goal (attempting to manage others)
Since lots of decision making is involved in this position, I would prefer CFO must have qualified MBA from reputed business school rather than just CPA. Definitely he should have indepth analysis skill can learn from his subordinates and colleages. Many professionals will work under him, but if he has ability to anaysis and good observiation skill then he can understand all the things with in short period.

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For a Canadian perspective, our professional accounting designation is intentionally being redesigned right now to provide paths for industry folks to move toward the CFO office by blending in more performance management, strategy, finance, and governance topics that you'd typically go to an MBA program to find.

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To me, skill, competency, financial aptitude, leadership, and business aptitude are the key qualities to being a CFO. I have both my CPA and MBA, which can complement each other nicely as in total the training for each cover all those qualities. It does not mean I am the best with those qualities, it just means I have had training and was able to use my training well enough to pass the CPA exam and all my MBA classes (which is a testament to my qualities).

In regards to filling a CFO role, it's all about where the company is going and what it needs. At a previous company of mine they hired a CFO and a tax director without a CPA or MBA because the CFO had significant investment banking experience in our industry and the director had significant M&A experience, both of which were needed as the company was about to go through some significant acquisitions and sell-offs. The tax director was hired over other candidates that even had their JDs and CPAs. The decision was all about where the company was going and the expertise that the company needed to go there, not necessarily the candidate's degrees or licenses.

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Enter David Ebersman, an International Studies and Economics major from Brown U. CFO of Genentech (Analyst, Business Development, Product Development, Operations) and Facebook (taken public). If only he knew that a CPA or an MBA will make him a good CFO.

Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, have all appointed non-accountants as CFOs.

And before anyone retorts, it does not require an accounting degree to understand accounting/finance. THIS forum and the rest of the finance/accounting forums is proof.

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The original question is a great example of "polarity thinking." Another example is "which would you prefer to be able to do: breathe in or breathe out?"

We all fall for polarity thinking at some time or another; the trick is to recognize the question as being wrongly framed, and to restate it: When choosing a new CFO, how do I make a choice between a strong finance candidate and a strong accounting candidate?

This blog may help...https://www.proformative.com/blogs/len-green/2013/09/24/cfo-protection-or-productivity-role

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Len, your response reminded me of the trick I used with my then 4 year old son....."Which shirt do you want to wear? The blue or the White?"

Polarity thinking = false choice