What do successful CFOs and Controllers read?

Chris Shumate's Profile

cfo magazine

I am curious, I have a sort of education-a-holic type thing going on where I continue to want to gain more knowledge. I am working toward my CPA currently. My ultimate goal is to become a CFO or Controller of an organization some day. I have been as high as a Senior Accountant in a mid-size corporation. I am currently a Corporate Accountant in a small business that consists of my controller,an A/P manager, and an A/R manager. I am basically an Assistant Controller with most of the associates duties, but not all. So here is where you already successful CFOs and Controllers come into play.

What cfo magazine, book, newsletters, etc do you read daily, monthly, yearly, to get sharp and stay sharp. If I were your protégé, what would you recommend? A part from my school texts I have read Steven Bragg's "Fast Close" to learn about closing accounting books quickly and accurately.


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I find that broad business exposure is far more important than technical accounting literature for a CFO. Unless, that is, you want to be a CAO someday. But even then...

I read the WSJ and Fortune and although I don't generally like business books there are some out there worth reading that are also a good read, such as Jim Collins' books. My focus has always been on learning how to run a successful business via the office of the CFO and, at the end of the day, that is primarily about learning how good businesses are run and applying that to your business where it fits. The opposite (inverse/converse?) is true about learning what doesn't work and avoiding it.

Now, you have to start somewhere, and you do want a solid foundation from which to launch your career, so "going deep" into technical accounting may make sense. But if you want to be part of the team that leads a business at some point, you will have to understand what that means and how to do it.

Of course, most of that will come through experience, and not through books, but the reading program will help fill in some spaces for you. Best of luck and it's great to see someone asking such an important question.

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I definitely agree with Mark here. Broad business exposure is key as well as info to keep you plugged into Macroeconomic trends. For this I subscribe to Harvard Business Review and the Economist. From there you will have the opportunity to follow endless leads to other great information. Other posters have thoroughly covered the the better accounting specific sources as well.

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Chris & Mark, here are two free CFO-focused white papers here at Proformative that I know are popular:

"The CFO Guide To Budgeting Software:"

"CFO View of the State of Capital Planning Benchmark Study:"

You can always find more to read in Proformative's Library of Free White Papers:

And finally, a webinar video titled, "What CFOs Need to Know about Revenue-Generating Projects:"


Best... Sarah

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SBA * Consulting LTD

These days I peruse on no set schedule, Twitter and accounting/finance/business tweets, NY Times WS Journal, Forbes, Star Trek, Proformative, Focus.com, as well as going to many different types of seminars.

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I believe that broad based literature, news programs, and back to school refreshers classes are the best deal. If you know accounting you have to diversify your knowledge horizon's. Gone are the day's of the traditional CPA to CFO.

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Twitter, Bloomberg, CFO.com, WSJ, Proformative and financial blogs I follow

Proformative Advisor
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I echo many of the above sentiments. I think Harvard Business Review and Soundview Executive Book Summaries are required reading, too. I feel they help keep my perspectives broad and relevant.

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How could I have left out HBR... or Inc.

Chris - not only should you peruse these, but get involved in the discussion (such as you do here). Less experience is not a valid reason for not being able to make a coherent argument.

I've been quoted multiple times in both Inc & HBR articles (next time is the October 2014 print issue) based upon comments I have made.

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Thanks, Wayne. HBR does have some great content. Probably more so than Inc. I was mentioned once earlier this year (I think it is the only time) by CFO.com over marijuana businesses. Here's the link to it: http://ww2.cfo.com/careers/2014/01/ups-downs-cfo-marijuana-careers/

Here's the link to what sparked it: https://www.proformative.com/questions/high-ly-sought-after-cfos

I don't know if I would have ever found out about being mentioned by CFO.com had Cindy Kraft not sent me the link.

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Your current need is focus and technical mastery in Accounting and related fields; your best resource for these are your CPA texts and references, online tutorials and ESPECIALLY on the job experience plus relevant projects.

Once you move on to fully to a Controller role, your analytical, project mgt and business partnering skills become critical, but as Mark said, you need to be clear on the kind of Finance professional you want to be. A top Controller is very technically skilled (including use of IS tools), with a broader range of finance and leadership skills than an accountant or associate Controller. In my opinion, there are generally 2 broad categories of finance and accounting professionals; there are business partners, who are strong on business strategy and value add, not just bottomline (and execution), uusually generalists; then there are the accounting and process champions who are very strong on processes, tools, reporting, controls etc. Its the same even at CFO level and every finance professional is more inclined to and usually more skilled in one broad category than the other. In reality, the categories and skills sets are complementary and good finance professionals not only know where their natural strength is, they seek (or recruit) and work with (and learn from) those with different but complementary skills set.

In all cases, continue to seek on the job experience and projects (including part time voluntering if possible) that will help you buid on your finance and leadership skills or develop new ones; while keeping abreast of developments and trends in the sources indicated above. The most practical way to hone your skills and stay sharp is to look for assignments and projects that will use or develop those skills and deliver the required results while working closely with a top finance executive for coaching or mentoring. While you should read broadly and deeply - depending on the situation and your inclination - no book or journal comes close to having or working with a skilled finance executive you respect, especially on the job or in close proximity.

Personally, my reading is eclectic and broadbased and ranges from personal effectiveness (leadership, emotional intelligence, people mgt, communication etc), to IT and areas I am keeping tabs on (e.g. Compliance, M&A etc) and even non-finance stuff. The sources also vary from online to physical books plus email and RSS feeds subscriptions; be sure I dont read all these source always, so dont feel bad if you dont. It should be driven by your needs and priorities per time. Its not what successful Controllers and CFOs read that really matters, its what they do (track record and value delivered per time or role irrespective of whether opportunity is given, actively sought or just grabbed). So, its more important that you are delivering value and maximising your learning and skill set on the job, in your current role and for the future opportunities you seek. Hope the response is value adding despite the length; I'm not high on social media, but once in a while when I do, I tend to binge as I cannot pass up opportunities like this :-). I Wish you the best of luck in your finance career.

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Interesting stuff. Very insightful
Charles,I have always wanted to work in a multinational firm.Any time I go for a discussion with these multinational firms I am always told my experience is limited.

what do you advice


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@ Kwesi,
Thanks for the comment. Its difficult to give specific advise unless one knows the details of your current skills set and future aspirations. Recruiting companies are always looking for 3 things, capability, motivation and fit (in that order) and the best predictions of these is your past track record of great or outstanding results. In plain terms, it means the best prediction of your future capability (and potential) is your past (demonstrated) results. Let me know if you require more specific feedback and I will be happy to be of help. All the best.

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I read "technical" materials extensive, rarely in "book" form, although FASB/IASB publications can approach book length. I am currently reading "the start-Up of You", and "Debt: The First 5,000 Years". In the past year I have read a number of books, including "Boomerang" and "The Big Short", "Analytics at Work", "Great by Choice", and another book on Master Data Management and Data Analytics.

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Adding to much good counsel already provided, you could approach your reading by considering the knowledge necessary to be effective in the CFO role. That will lead to several categories of self directed study:

1 ACCOUNTING - Given current job responsibilities and CPA aspirations, for enhancing your technical knowledge and competence

2 FINANCE - Both internal, esp capital budgeting and financial modulating, and external, emphasizing capital access...at all stages, from venture through bank, IPO, LBO, stock repurchase, M & A, going private. Here, mastering startup financing and investment banking are crucial.

3 TECHNOLOGY - Role of information, hardware, software, systems, programming language, important new developments: cloud computing, big data, etc.

4 MARKETING - The effective CFO is concerned with the top line...revenue...because that is of greatest concern to the CEO, to whom the CFO reports, and, especially important, because revenue is the source of the funds to pay the business's expenses. This leads to sales, sales management, customer service and related topics.

5 HUMAN RESOURCES - Critical to business success, where much of the company's operating expenses are allocated. Compensation programs, benefits and incentive programs, motivation, performance assessment and more are all within the CFO purview.

6 CORPORATE REAL ESTATE - Often the largest balance sheet item and the second or third largest expense item. Further, the CFO directly is invalid in this function and many times has direct responsibility for overseeing/supervisng the corporate real estate function.

7 BUSINESS STRATEGY - Comprehending different schools of business strategy, business models, SaaS, new economy models, etc. are precondition for any exec aspiring to obtain position in and be effective in the C suite.

8 INNOVATION - Knowing the literature of change, creativity, and invention makes executive more effective, both in obtaining position and in delivering performance in that position. New ideas, fames, insights shape the future.

9 MANAGEMENT DISCIPLINES - The more CFO knows about other management disciplines, the more effective that exec may be. Studying operations management, logistics, corporate law, etc. are all highly relevant.

10 PERSONAL PRODUCTIVITY - Immersion in the knowledge resources related to communications, interpersonal relations, selfmanagement, emotional intelligence, multiple intelligences, persuasion and negotiation, organization/productivity, etc. is crucial to advancing. This extends to health and fitness, for those execs who have highest energy can and do outperform those with less.

11 GLOBAL ECONOMICS AND CULTURE - The CFO needs to understand evolving/changing economics theories, models, competitive positions, applicable at local/state/country/global levels. This extends to sensitivity to and knowledge of other cultures.

12 COMPETITION - As businesses, governments, places, ideas, business models, and individuals are increasingly competing for ever higher higher stakes, knowing the bases of competition, the preparation and strategies, the focus and attitude is necessary success precondition.

In addition, to these susbstantive topics, you can learn much from reading biographies, literary fiction, history, psychology, sports, and mysteries. As a case in point, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's SHERLOCK HOLMES stories contain many lessons that the motivated CFO can apply to advantage.

Implementing the above program involves reading and self directed study through several sources:

< Blogs, social network forums and Q&A, such as this post, pubs
< White papers
< Newspapers and magazines
< Books: especially important as the most thoughtful, considered, researched, significant writing appears in books. Those who choose not to read books...perhaps disdaining them as too time-consuming, are relegating their relevance to those who do read books. Two tips here: services which summarize/abstract books, enable perusing large number and the review site NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS, is effective way to track and read reviews of new books. Site is nyjb.com. You can ready my reviews by clicking 'Find a Reviewer' and then my name. There are a number of books reviews posted there which can advance your knowledge.

It is good that you enjoy reading, for this affinity provides you an important advantage over those that do not. Happy reading.

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I have been amazed and delighted at the numerous views and helpful comments each person has given. I am appreciative of your time given also. Lately I have been reading a few White Papers that I found on here. While I am not a CPA yet, I hope to be by next December. I am currently in school finishing my last hours needed for 150 credit hour requirement. I will be finished with my last two classes in September.

My current reading material is Business Law and Taxation that is geared specifically toward the Regulation portion of the CPA exam.

Some of the comments above did help me to consider which side I want to be on, technical or the broad business side of accounting and finance. I like the aspect of technical accounting theory and application better, as of now. I am much more of a doer than a visionary in that sense. I am still under thirty, and my vision may change in ten years.

Something I have also considered with my reading materials is cataloging the information that is most pertinent. Cataloging would enable me to refer back to the material that I read previously, but maybe forgot. Is that something that professionals do? The people I currently know that catalog reading material are in the clergy.

If you have a Twitter account, I plan to start following your tweets. Thanks to each of you again.

Chris Shumate

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The Economist


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I love the Economist. It is the most "to the point" news magazine I have found and it draws me out into the global perspective on many issues. Great suggestion.

Proformative Advisor
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I'm surprised no one has mentioned Business Week. I have read it cover-to-cover for years, and every week I am amazed at how excellent and well-chosen every article is, literally. Broad coverage of industry, finance, technology etc. Pick up a copy and see what I mean.

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Proformative of course! It's also interesting to read the biographies of the robber barons, that is truly educational, along with various business related books on either marketing, social media, leadership, etc.

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Thanks Dana. There have been a couple of names and specific books suggested. What would be a couple of examples of the "various business related books..." as you mentioned?

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Chris, my favorites are No One Would Listen: A Financial Thriller, Fools Gold, Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer & VC, New Rules of Marketing & PR. Hope that helps.

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I like Steven Bragg's Accounting Best Practices books and podcasts (podcasts are available at http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/accounting-best-practices/id137002798

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This would be applicable for public CFO's:

Read the transcripts from investor conference calls of public companies in your industry, or industries that you have an interest in (you can generally find them on seekingalpha or other investor websites). Focus on the CFO's discussion on the call; often this part will focus on the economics of the business, the drivers of revenue, etc., which a CFO will have to understand (much more than simply being the top accountant).

Also read bios or profiles of CFOs you admire or ones in your industry. Often you may find their path to the CFO office is not what you would expect.

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This is a great one for venture-backed companies

This article has links to other sites for venture-backed companies

If you're interested in technology start-ups, you should be reading techcrunch.com. And techmeme.com is an aggregator of daily tech news.

And for raising venture capital, this book is amazing. Completely practical.
Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson

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CFO Magazine is excellent.

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If you are in technology then I would add Techcrunch and Mashable to keep abreast of trends and new business models.

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My suggestion is that you should focus on getting your CPA, get a job at a CPA firm, work your tail off and learn as much as you can in the CPA firm. You will learn 5 times as much from a CPA firm than you will at your current job. Then get a job in a Fortune 200 company as a financial analyst in the Corporate Office, with a super smart boss that is willing to mentor you and work your tail off. Do not take a job with a boss that will not mentor you, you will learn 10 times as much from a super smart mentor. While in the Corporate Office get your MBA. After you do all this, you will you then have the backgound and the time to read and really understand the Wallstreet Journal, the Harvard Business Review and Strategic Books such as The Definitive Drucker, Competing for the Future, The Future of Management etc.

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Could somebody suggest a good source that brings up and does an analysis on FASB changes coming out and their impact? Thank you.

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Helen - I have found that checking the FASB's website for the applicable standard that is said to be stating is most helpful. From the FASB's website, I think you can also find letters submitted to the FASB during the comment period. These comments can offer insightful information to what other companies, trade associations, CPAs, and the respective industry experts think of the proposed standards. GAAP has been changing so often as of the last few years that books published in 2011 are out of date in some regard thanks to the ever-changing world of US GAAP.

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For me ( and this may sound too obvious) is to read books about how money works overall. I highly recommend Michael Lewis's recent books "The Big Short" and "Boomerang" and William Greider's book " Secrets of the Temple - How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country". Even though some books may seem a little dated, they are still beautifully written and are essential reading for those that really want to understand how money works. All the technical prowess in the world of accounting is great but a top down education in the world of money is priceless. For more reading, search on these books in Amazon and let their site recommend others like them.

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Recently I have been going through a leadership development process that had me reading a ton of books and even book summaries. Among the leadership books that I read were "Five Dysfunctions Of A Team," "The Advantage", "Remarkable", "Good to Great", "The Four Disciplines of Execution", "The Five Levels of Leadership" and "Protege".

I have also been reading quite a few blog posts by a few authors here on Proformative as well as LinkedIn too.

What are you currently reading to stay up to date now?

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One book that I have started reading is The New Controller Guidebook (2nd edition) by Steven M. Bragg. It begins with thorough job descriptions of both the Controller and the CFO. It also provides great details, tips, and examples of all of the major duties from cash management to budgeting and everything in between. I also have the GAAP Guidebook 2014 edition by the same author. I find both of these to be good technical resources.

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After listening to the CFO Thought Leader Podcast, episode 087: CFOs Share Their Book Picks, I wanted to list them here on Proformative and see if anyone has read any of the titles. In no particular order:

1. In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace (Law and Current Events Masters) By David G. Post

2. Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising (APenguin Special from Portfolio) By Ryan Holiday

3. Profiles in Courage By John F. Kennedy

4. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition By Robert B. Cialdin

5. Lincoln and His Admirals Craig L. Symonds

6. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H. W. Brands

7. The High Achiever’s Guide to Happiness By Vance Caesar

8. Start with the Answer: And Other Wisdom for Aspiring Leaders Bob Seelert

9. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable By Patrick Lencione

10. What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School: Notes From A Street-Smart Executive By Mark H McCormack

11. What the CEO Wants You to Know: How Your Company Really Works By Ram Charan

12. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done By Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

13. When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management

14. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Specifically the chapter of white washing of the fence.

Have you read any of these titles? What are you reading now?

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I highly recommend John Mauldin's weekly newsletters: Thoughts from the Frontline and Out of the Box. Both are free and very widely published. They give a good political/economic perspective, focused primarily for investors. I find that it helps me understand the context that my business is working/competing in.

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The above recommendations are good suggestions, as someone who has read many of them. In general, I look at the NY Times and Bloomberg Businessweek best seller lists as guides to determine current releases worth reading.

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If you want a good primer on how to work with Boards of Directors check out Corporate Concinnity by Nancy Falls. I read the Economist weekly, NY Times on weekends. follow BBC news online, and Strategic Finance and CFO monthly.

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As outlined above, the key is finding the right position (that will stretch your skill set and allow you to learn new skills) with the right manager/coach (someone who is keenly interested in your career path) who will mentor you and provide you with projects that will lead to stretching your abilities. It is highly recommended you find roles where you can be a major contributor, eventually where you are the project lead/manager. Finding this job and this manager/coach is very difficult given that most are interest in What's In It For Me syndrome. If your direct manager is not interested, find someone within your organization, you feel has interesting projects, where you can add some value to them and ultimately the organization as a whole (This is especially true in large organizations which tend to have limited breadth in their positions). Always look for "What skills, projects, roles will allow you to build your manager in good light with their manager".

While there are many good books/articles/blogs on leadership, I recently sat on a discussion with Julian Barling on the Science of Leadership. The main feedback was that there are hundreds of books on the many different categories/leadership styles, however Barling has found all have 5-6 of the same key leadership ingredients. The lesson is that having a mentor/coach put you in a number of scenarios which builds your leadership, is far more efficient than reading a lot of books and then running your own trial and error.

In regards to having a firm, recruiter or hiring manager tell you that you don't have the skill set or experience required, is in my mind likely trying to find out if you have a great response to this. If you do then you are likely to get to the next stage. I was told I did not have industry experience, whether it was real estate, retail, oil & gas, fertilizer, large firm or even startup experience. I always responded to these individuals that technically speaking 80% of their accounting is the same, with the remaining 20% being company/industry specific, which any individual can easily gain with 6-9 months on the job. What they are really looking for is someone who can lead through the 20% company specific areas which ultimately add multiples in value to the bottom line of the company.

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Check out "The Goal" by Eliyhau Goldratt - a tremendous book on Operations and Finances