more-arw search

Q&A Forum

What's the best path to become a CFO? What was your path?

There are many paths to the CFO seat. But what seems to be the best path? What path did you take to get to the CFO seat? Even if you're not in that seat now, or have never sat in it, what path are you taking to get there?


Marc Manning
Title: CFO
Company: Hogan
(CFO, Hogan) |

Here was my path...started out working at a big 4 firm doing IT and controls audits. Took a job as an internal auditor at a client who's industry I liked. Jumped to a competitor as an internal auditor. Took an opportunity to become an assistant controller at the same company. Then became an assistant controller at yet another company. Jumped yet to another company to become a controller and got promoted to CFO (stayed almost 8 years at that firm). Recently left that company to become a CFO of another company. As you can see, it took me a lot of jumping in the beginning, but the end goal was in mind on each of the moves. All of the moves were upward bound or an increase in knowledge base.

One thing I might have done was stay in Big 4 a little longer to get SEC reporting experience. Going from private companies to public companies in the capacity of a controller/CFO seems to be more difficult without that experience.

In addition, I do have a CPA. At one point I let it lapse for 10 years since I never needed it, however, I don't suggest that. I got it reinstated, which is a pain, and it opens more looks when you can say you have an active CPA.

I also remained in the same industry. Not sure if it matters or not, but as hard as it is I enjoy all capacities of the construction industry. Pay is meh compared to things like the software industry, but it is really interesting. It might help that I find my industry specialization very interesting.

Jeremy Netzel
Title: VP of Finance / CFO
Company: Privately Held
(VP of Finance / CFO, Privately Held) |

I lead the finance & accounting organization for several private companies, so there are certain things I don't get involved with. For instance, the owners prefer to make their own capital structure decisions. That aside, I'll try to provide some helpful perspective based on my experience.

I spent the early years of my career with a multi-national technology/manufacturing firm with a gigantic finance organization. This allowed me to rotate into various positions about every 15-18 months. Looking back on that experience now I realize how valuable it was to be able to get a lot of varied experiences in a relatively short period of time. Opportunities like that may be rare but are worth looking for.

There are certain areas of experience you will need, so the best path will depend a lot on what you've already done in the past. Marc pointed out SEC reporting which is key. Experience with Sarbanes Oxley/audit/internal controls, FP&A, investor relations and revenue/cost accounting (depending on industry) are all important to have a shot at being CFO of a public company. Getting these experiences may require you to jump from company to company to fill in gaps.

Perhaps the most important element I believe companies look for is successful experience partnering with a business unit to drive revenue growth and/or cost savings. In a role like that you will need to constantly be reevaluating processes to become more efficient, challenging spending to find opportunities to drive savings and keeping an open mind about everything. To me, this is the fun stuff!

Good luck on your path!

Stephen Ambler
Title: Director of Service & Delivery
Company: RoseRyan
(Director of Service & Delivery, RoseRyan) |

There are 2 ways:
1. Start out in public auditing, preferably including a Big 4 firm. Become a CPA or CA. Stay to Manager level and try and have a good variety of clients. Then move to industry at the Accounting Manager level and work your way up to Corporate Controller and then to CFO. Managing planning, revenue recognition, SOX and SEC reporting are all good things to do in this path, but I would say none are prerequisites. Where possible make sure you own or have a lot of interaction with other functions such as Operations, Legal, HR, Investor Relations, and Sales (you need to be seen as commercial and a financial leader) and that you get Board exposure. International experience will also help. You should also be a good communicator. If you are seen as, or want to be, just an accountant, you are on the wrong track. I agree its good to work in different industries and if you want to be a CFO of a public company them you need to work your way up through one or more.
2. Go down the investment banker path and gain a lot of experience in deal making and exposure to many different companies. Then go into industry as a BD guy, and then move across to the CFO role. If you go down his route, you will need to realize that you are a different type of CFO than the accounting based ones and that you will need to have a good accounting team support you.

I personally think route 1 is better, but I am biased as I went down that route! I agree with Marc that you may need to move around a lot. If you wait for opportunities to come to you it will take longer.

Wishing you well.

(Chief Financial Officer) |

I think #1 was the typical path 20 or 30 years ago. #2 isn't entirely typical either, even today. If you look at the CVs of the CFOs on this website or LinkedIn very few travel either path.

Operations experience is much more important these days. Having a strong accounting background is certainly important and starting in public accounting is helpful.

(VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis) |

Corporate Controller Trainee
Operations Accounting Supervisor
Plant Controller
Multi-Plant Controller
Regional Business Analyst
Director of Business Analysis
Division Controller
Sr. Director of Business Analysis
VP - Financial Planning and Analysis

Education: MBA
Certificatons: None

Jaime Campbell
Title: Chief Financial Officer
Company: Tier One Services, LLC
(Chief Financial Officer, Tier One Services, LLC) |

I started in public accounting - income/payroll/sales taxes, bookkeeping, attestation. I developed an unusually deep level of expertise with the software and started turning my attention to management accounting - business intelligence, cash flow forecasting, and the like. I also got coaching training. 10 years later, I became the CFO of my own fractional CFO firm.

Ben Murray
Title: Vice President and CFO
Company: Cartegraph
(Vice President and CFO, Cartegraph) |

After getting my MBA, started out and stayed in FP&A until I became CFO. Got my CPA along the way.

Title: Chief Financial Officer
(Chief Financial Officer, EDGE SYSTEMS LLC) |

The above answers are all great, pearls in each, which highlights there's no one path (as there once may have been). Make sure you have a mentor/champion & build a strong network. Assuming you have the requisite skills described above, you're most likely to be given that first CFO role by someone that knows you well or is relying on a recommendation from someone they trust.

(Chief Financial Officer) |

MBA from top 20 school
Finance Mgr. for subsidiary of a global behemoth (2.5 years)
FP&A (Mgr. level) for a super-regional bank (3 years)
Owner of a small international telecom firm (4 years)
Finance/Operations Director for a $400 million international telecom firm (2.5 years)
Operations Director for a small telecom consulting firm (2 years)
FP&A (Sr. Mgr.) for a $1 billion telecom firm (2.5 years)
Accounting/Finance Consulting for global consulting firm (4 years) [earned CMA during this period as a certification of my accounting skills]
VP Finance/CFO for 3 firms owned by a PE firm (almost 5 years)
Finance Director for global entertainment firm (1 year)
CFO of a $130+ million CPG firm (2 years)

More finance than accounting but a solid grounding in accounting. I consider myself unqualified to be CFO of a publicly-traded firm because of the lack of SEC-reporting. Lots of operations experience. Some M&A experience. Some banking experience.

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

The quickest I have seen is through Private Equity or Investment Banks starting out as Analysts/Capital or M&A markets(in the case of IBs)....going up the ranks....then serving as CFO (or even CEO like in the case of Burger King) for their portfolio/client companies. Of course the skill sets are skewed towards Analysis and capital raising.

Take the case of the currently highest paid CFO.....Twitter's Anthony Noto. He entered Goldman Sachs in 1999 and became CFO of the NFL in 2008. That's just 9 years. Of course this is not taking anything from his Wharton MBA and West Point grad.

Products and Companies

Get Free Membership

By signing up, you will receive emails from Proformative regarding Proformative programs, events, community news and activity. You can withdraw your consent at any time. Contact Us.

Business Exchange

Browse the Business Exchange to find information, resources and peer reviews to help you select the right solution for your business.

Learn more

Contribute to Community

If you’re interested in learning more about contributing to your Proformative community, we have many ways for you to get involved. Please email to learn more about becoming a speaker or contributing to the blogs/Q&A Forum.