Becoming a CFO is a career aspiration for many people with a background in finance but the road to success is not always obvious.
Hays Accountancy & Finance, which has been recruiting finance professionals globally for over 50 years, has taken a look at the career factors shared by successful CFOs in Asia, shedding light on the skills and qualifications people who aspire to the role should acquire.
Whilst the principle role of the CFO has been financial governance, there has always been a broader remit. As markets rapidly evolve and business models change, the scope of the role is becoming even more diverse.
As a result, whilst a strong academic background and in depth finance and business experience is still highly important, softer people skills, strategic thinking, exposure to a range of functions and a strong network are increasingly key requirements for CFOs today.
Hays found that three-quarters of CFOs in Asia had a degree in business, commerce, finance or economics, while half had also attained an MBA. The vast majority of CFO’s are also professionally qualified; so this would appear to be an essential stage of the journey.
Richard Eardley, managing director of Hays Asia, says: “Of course, to become a CFO, you must have a solid technical foundation, that’s the starting point. However, it is the learned experience post-qualification that is the most important factor. Working across sectors and exposure to a range of functions is an increasingly valuable career asset.
Hays found the average CFO in Asia had 16 years of practical experience, however, as many as 20% had less than six years of experience working in finance before they reached their current post.
Most CFOs have a breadth of experience across different corporations, with nearly half having worked for at least four companies, while a fifth had worked for six or more during the course of their careers. Loyalty can be a negative factor in career growth. Most CFO’s have worked for more than once employer, and nearly 50% have been with four or more organisations. A fifth had moved job 6 times.
It was not just working in different firms that Hays identified as being important for people on a CFO career path, but also experience across different departments.
“A recurring sentiment voiced by CFOs was the need for them to work across departments and understand how all areas of the business come together to achieve its goals,” Richard says.
“A CFO must expand his or her vision far beyond the finance department in order to be a true strategic thinker.”
International experience was also highlighted as a key ingredient for successful CFOs working in Asia.
Although only a handful of CFOs identified working abroad as a critical skill, 42% of people who had attained a CFO position had worked outside of Asia at some point, and among those who had, three-quarters said the experience had been of considerable benefit to their career.
North America was the most popular destination in which CFOs in Asia had worked, followed by Europe and the UK, and Australia or New Zealand.
Not only did CFOs think there were more opportunities in international markets, but they also felt their roles were more varied overseas.
Hays found that while a strong financial background and good analytical thinking were both necessary components of a CFO’s DNA, several other skills also appeared to be critical to career progression.
Strategic planning topped the list of important attributes for aspiring CFOs to cultivate, followed by people management, commercial acumen and communication skills.
Richard says: “Many of the top skills needed to succeed as a CFO are non-technical, including people management, strategic planning and communication.
“As businesses globalise, CFOs must be able to communicate clearly, lead multicultural teams, and exercise sophisticated people skills.”
Alongside these skills, there were also a number of personal characteristics that set CFOs apart.
Six out of 10 existing CFOs in Asia said having a proactive nature had been a major factor in their success, while 46% credited their hard work for their career progression and 42% thought their analytical skills had been key.
Being collaborative was also seen as important, suggesting CFOs also need to be good team players.
They must also be prepared to take on advisory roles to help their organisations keep up to date with new regulations and respond to emerging challenges.
Finally, they must be pro-active and enterprising if they are going to get ahead.
Richard says: “The role will always evolve. The CFO will usually work hand in hand with the CEO, meaning they need to understand all facets of the business. Aspiring finance professionals would be well advised to ensure they pick up a broad range of experience as they navigate their careers, and develop both technical and non-technical skill-sets.”