How to Become a CFO: Jack McCullough on the CFO Career Path
With so many Finance leaders all vying for the top spot, aspiring CFOs must differentiate themselves as strategic thinkers, ethical leaders, and technology visionaries.
Even the best CPA might be shut out of the running for CFO if they have a solid, but uninspiring resume. Or if their skill set starts and ends with a mastery of numbers.
To gain greater insights on how accounting professionals can set themselves up for success, we spoke to Jack McCullough, President of the CFO Leadership Council, and Founder & Chair of the MIT Sloan CFO Summit.
Jack has been listening to — and advising — CFOs across the country for over a decade. And, he has collected insights from over 40 renowned CFOs for his upcoming book, “Secrets of Rockstar CFOs,” which highlights the shared attributes that drive success as a Finance Leader.
Read on for a taste of what Jack has learned throughout his career.
Redefine Your Reputation through Education
According to Jack, “CFOs today are taking an active, not reactive, approach to their roles, and are often responsible for making things happen. They are the person best-positioned to assess the risk-reward proposition from any initiative, so their strategic and financial leadership is paramount.”
How does your resume measure up to the expanded role of the modern CFO? Most Finance professionals haven’t had the opportunity to demonstrate that kind of strategic and financial leadership as part of their day-to-day accounting responsibilities.
At one point, Jack was in the same position. “When I was a controller aspiring to become a CFO, I had a pretty standard resume,” he said. “While I had some impressive accomplishments, my background was a few years in public accounting and then a controller-level position. This was a good progression, but there are literally hundreds of people with very similar backgrounds.”
Jack knew he needed to differentiate himself from, to stand out from the pack. He took steps to set himself apart as someone who was not only good with numbers but also with business strategy.
“I earned an MBA and positioned myself as a well-rounded and strategic thinker, not just a numbers guy,” he said. “The MBA is an invaluable tool for a CFO. In fact, today more CFOs hold MBAs than a CPA certificate among the Fortune 5000. It is a credential that accelerates your entry into the club.”
Learn from Business Leaders
Of course, some things that can’t be learned, even in the MBA program. “I advise up-and-coming financial professionals to find a mentor, but probably not your boss,” Jack said. “If you can find a person who is a bit ahead of you on the learning curve, and has a genuine interest in your career success, it can make all the difference.”
Jack notes that the best choice for a mentor isn’t necessarily a CFO. Ideally, a mentor relationship would bolster skills that aren’t as strong. For accountants looking to step out from behind the spreadsheets, these may be networking, interpersonal relationship skills, being assertive in communications, and learning to accept and implement feedback.
“One of the most successful mentor-protégé relationships I know of, was when a controller asked a VP of Sales to be her mentor,” said Jack. “She was confident that she was a finance and accounting expert, but wanted to bring a customer-focused approach to her role. It was a brilliant move, and she’s one of the most successful CFOs I know.”
Jack also recommends taking advantage of TED talks as a means to improve communication skills.
“Executive Presence is the game-changer for potential CFOs,” he said. One of his top picks is 10 ways to have a great conversation by Celeste Headlee. “It is rated as one of the best TED talks ever, and it is easy to see why.”
Embrace Finance Technology
Becoming an expert in FinTech can also be invaluable to set yourself apart from other Accounting professionals.
“Technology is ever-changing, and it’s easy to be a dinosaur if you don’t pay attention,” Jack said. “A CFO who has a high aptitude for using technology to give his firm a competitive advantage is a coveted asset in any organization. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to keep abreast of all the sweeping changes.”
Jack is especially interested in machine learning and believes it has the power to change Finance by automating routine tasks, augmenting human decision-making, and accurately predicting outcomes. Finance Leaders who commit to staying ahead of technology will be the best equipped to guide corporations into the future.
Become an Ethical Leader
Another great way to set yourself apart is by developing a reputation as an ethical leader. “The one quality that comes up in almost any conversation I have on leadership with CFOs is ethical leadership. And, they don’t mean just behaving ethically personally—which is kind of a given. The CFO plays the critical role in creating a culture of ethical responsibility,” he said.
Ethical leadership includes modeling ethical behavior, advocating the value of ethics, teaching peers and employees best practices in ethics for dealing with difficult situations, and being a transparent communicator with a true open-door policy that encourages all questions and concerns about the company’s business practices.
“Ethics is not a buzzword, or just something you do when it is convenient,” Jack said. “It is fundamental to how a business should be run, and the CFO typically is the ethical leader of her company.”
Learn More Ways to Differentiate Your Finance Career
Snagging a CFO position requires differentiating yourself as more than a numbers person. There is a myriad of ways to boost your chances of success: extending your education, taking a page from inspiring leaders, and building a reputation as an ethical, strategic thinker who can bring an organization and its technology into the future.
Visit our Finance Career Acceleration Center for more inspiration for your Finance Career path.
Jack McCullough is the Founder and President of the CFO Leadership Council and the MIT Sloan CFO Summit. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.