Leadership Skills for CFOs: Q&A with Jennifer Warawa
It’s no longer enough for Finance leaders to just be accounting experts. To lock in that CFO position, you’ll need to cultivate and promote a compelling vision of how the Office of Finance can take a broader role in guiding the organization.
To truly drive the future of Finance, CFOs must be able to delegate and work well with others. They must be accomplished storytellers who can bring numbers to life during boardroom meetings. And, perhaps most importantly, they need to be visionaries who are able to grasp and activate the emerging technologies that will transform the role.
The evolving role of Finance leadership is something that Jennifer Warawa, EVP of Product Marketing at Sage, knows a lot about. After years of listening to and providing counsel to Finance leaders, she has unique knowledge about what it takes to escalate through the ranks of a Finance organization. It’s no wonder that in 2019, Jennifer was selected as one of most powerful women in accounting by CPA Practice Advisor. Jennifer is recognized within her firm as a driving force in creating a culture of innovation and excellence, and she actively mentors those following in her footsteps.
We sat down with Jennifer to get her advice on leadership skills for Finance managers, accelerating your Finance career path, and more.
Q&A with Jennifer Warawa
Prophix: How should aspiring CFOs be preparing right now to accelerate their career path?
Jennifer: There are a variety of ways that someone could work on preparing to get that CFO seat. One of the most important is broad financial experience and expertise. In addition, here are some additional areas of interest:
- Consider working towards a CPA license, or possibly MBA to increase your understanding of the business as a whole. That’s increasingly valuable.
- I believe storytelling is a key part of being a great CFO. Every key stakeholder across the business has a different degree of understanding about financials. If you can share the story the financials are telling in a unique way that brings it to life in each person’s own context, that is a priceless skill.
- Times are changing, and learning as much as possible about tech and where innovation is headed will be more and more important in the coming years. In addition, it’s important to have a clear understanding of how technology is impacting financial reporting. Month-end, quarter-end, and year-end reporting are becoming a thing of the past with the massive adoption of cloud accounting; it’s now becoming about real-time reporting and analysis.
- Most financial positions are moving further towards a much more consultative role, so developing a consulting mindset and skillset is much more important than it has been in the past.
As important as these hard skills are, they’re not all you need to succeed. The best CFOs know what they know best, and know who knows what they don’t. Being a leader at that scale, you need to know how to delegate, how to work well with others, and who to turn to for specific expertise.
Another critical area where the CFO path can accelerate is the role of the advisor. CFOs are now expected to provide financial direction and become the catalyst to instill a financial approach and mindset within the organization.
Any CFO who embraces these critical skills will carve a successful, progressive path for their career.
Prophix: What does the career path from CPA to CFO look like?
Jennifer: Becoming a CPA is an extensive process that increases an accountant’s base of knowledge exponentially with the broad range of information it encompasses. The CPA exam relates to many different aspects of Finance, and it naturally creates opportunity to move to Finance in business. Some paths I’ve seen show professionals getting experience in public accounting, then moving to assistant controller positions, and moving from there to CFO after proving themselves in that supporting role.
Landing a CFO position takes a large amount of knowledge surrounding reporting and compliance, which the CPA designation supports. Of course, there’s a lot that CFOs do that you won’t learn in school; acquiring those skills along the way is very important. It’s not an easy path, but it’s a natural one. It generates a wide range of experience and leverages an accounting and business consultancy background to create a well-rounded CFO candidate.
Prophix: What’s one indispensable skill people should have for a successful Finance career?
Jennifer: There are so many skills integral to a career in Finance, but if I had to pick just one I would say that you must be driven to innovate and think outside the box. One of the true differentiators of a great leader in finance is someone who doesn’t look at old processes as what must be done.
The financial industry is constantly changing and evolving, and to be a great senior leader in the field, you must do the same. Productivity and efficiency are the name of the game. You have to always be looking for new, fresh ways to attack projects and processes. You have the power to change the way the organization runs, and you must look at that with an analytical eye and do what is best for both the organization and your colleagues. It’s a large responsibility, and an important skill to be able to look at how things can be changed for the better.
Prophix: Can you recommend a helpful resource for aspiring CFOs?
Jennifer: There’s an abundance of incredibly useful media out there that can help aspiring financial professionals, and TED talks, in particular, bring out some inspiring professionals to give unique perspective. Simon Sinek’s great talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” is a great example. He categorizes CFOs’ job responsibilities into “subject knowledge and leadership.” All too often professionals forget how important leadership really is at the senior level, but inspiring your team and making people feel valued becomes increasingly important the further you move up the corporate ladder. Sadly, usually, our training and schooling generally focuses myopically on hard skills. Working on strategies to inspire your colleagues and team and make them feel valued is as integral a skill as any, in any senior-level leadership position.
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