The path to becoming a transformational finance leader


Sara Baxter-Orr

SVP, Strategic Growth

Business woman using Anaplan software, bar charts representing prediction models, on an iMac

The path to becoming a leader in corporate finance used to be straightforward. You’d major in something like finance, economics, or accounting, get a junior position in one of a few tracks, and stay there for 10-20 years, probably earning an MBA or CPA along the way. You’d steadily gain more experience and seniority, and manage larger divisions and more people, until you reached the peak as CFO. You needed to know a lot about corporate finance and accounting practices and were expected to apply them in a conservative way that reduced your company’s exposure to risk.

But just as many longtime assumptions in business are dissolving under pressure to keep up with rapid change, the finance leader’s career path is transforming too.

The role is evolving into a broader remit, with more visibility – to give companies not just financial stability and confidence they are complying with accounting and regulatory standards, but the agility to cope and plan for the unforeseen.

Because of the greater complexity most companies manage today, the expanded role requires a wider range of hands-on business experience, technology comprehension to lead digital transformation efforts, and the people skills to lead and inspire through change. The career path to reach the CFO’s seat is no longer a climb up a fairly well defined ladder but a broad exploration.


Strategic and influential

“Strong finance leaders have always been expected to know finance, their industry, and their business inside and out, so they’d easily find the levers to improve their company’s financial performance,” says my colleague Ray Curbelo, Global Head of Finance Solutions at Anaplan.

“To that baseline, the transformational finance leader adds the ability to drive strategy and influence operations overall,” he adds. “And that means proactively redefining how we think about elements of the business beyond financial performance. That includes evaluating risk, increasing efficiencies, and looking at different go-to-market models or even whole new market opportunities – the ones that work today, and the ones that might be needed tomorrow.”

Transformational finance leaders are constantly thinking not just of next quarter’s results but building the long-term resilience of their organization. “You need not just financial acumen these days but business acumen,” he says. “And the best way to develop that is through hands-on experience in a profit-and-loss (P&L) division.”


Enriching your career outside of finance

In Fortune 500 companies, finance leaders are now expected to have shown success in managing business operations, not just in a finance capacity. On the path to becoming CFO, they may spend time leading sales teams or contact centers, organizing distribution, working in underwriting and evaluating risk, as a consultant, or many other roles.

It provides the exposure to understand how the business is architected, and the inter-dependencies that must be managed from all the different functions to know what to pay attention to when the external markets shift and the unexpected happens.


Get comfortable with technology

Digital transformation means the finance leader must be comfortable with cutting-edge technology and tools, such as business intelligence, data visualization (an important technique for perceiving and communicating trends), planning, AI, and predictive analytics. These offer the scale, efficiency and advanced insights to make more informed decisions, faster, that incorporate more sources of information than ever before.

Embracing digital transformation gives these leaders an advantage because they not only appreciate the complexities of coordinated execution, but offer the technological architecture to their teams to resolve challenges and deliver results that help the P&L statement.


Don’t stay in a rut

As I’ve seen in my own career, which included being a group CFO at Verizon, gaining broader experience means changing jobs more often than in the past. Look for opportunities to broaden your knowledge of the business; it may not always be up, but rather a sideways move. It doesn’t mean jumping ship for a new firm every couple of years. But you may want to consider a strategic move to get an experience or promotion that isn’t available at your company.

In other words, if you are ready for something different that is not in front of you, go find it!  As Ray mentioned, getting some experience outside of finance can be very effective in building your own capabilities and your marketability. It tests your flexibility and helps you grow alternative muscles that can serve both you and your company when you ultimately take on that CFO role.


Always be curious

An MBA degree isn’t required to become a transformational finance leader. But some form of ongoing education is, to keep on top of new developments.

Learning should be a life-long mindset. I earned my MBA while working and took classes in wireless networking when I first started working in the cellular industry. Always be alert to opportunities to grow. This could come through everyday experience and input, side projects or task forces at work, volunteering, giving presentations, or industry and professional associations. Getting involved with your peer group is important, and it gives you get a sense of what works (or doesn’t) organizationally and larger industry trends. Whether it’s a degree-granting program or becoming a mentor to others, the important thing is to constantly make your brain work and keep your intellectual curiosity going.

While you’re amassing knowledge of principles and lessons drawn from experience, you also need to develop sharp analytical skills, Ray Curbelo says. Those are an important part of sound managerial judgment – knowing the right indicators to watch, not just making sure the numbers add up. “The right analytical skills will help you find deeper insights you might not get otherwise and help you see what drives value,” he says.


Teamwork and other traits

The what of work is important, but the difference between a good leader and an excellent leaders is how you get work done with and through others. Today’s financial leaders practice inspiring, inclusive leadership. From early in their careers, they look for opportunities to manage and mentor. They surround themselves with high-achieving people. When they have a team of direct reports, they’ll develop and support them. Employees who feel safe, supported, and encouraged will be motivated to perform their best. And that benefits them, you, and your organization.

There’s one more thing aspiring financial leaders need:  Humility. The only way to have a successful career, in my experience, is to acknowledge that mistakes are inevitable — and to own up to them and move on. I certainly had to laugh at myself often, but I’ve learned from my failures.


Expanding the CFO role to cope with change

CFOs have always carried a lot of weight in boardroom decision-making. Even the traditional, narrow definition entitled the role to an extensive, detailed view of company-wide operations – at the very least for assembling the annual plan, complying with financial reporting regulations, and meeting tax requirements. And now, facing new pressures that could range from calculating the fiscal and logistical consequences of Brexit to weighing investments in new zero-carbon-emission energy sources, or perhaps guiding their organization through a move to rolling forecasts, they’re expected to take on a broadly transformative role.

The new generation of finance leaders aren’t siloed the way other functions are, Curbelo points out. “Finance gets the full view, so they’re in a position to foster and share that intelligence. They can educate, coach, mentor, and drive success throughout the whole company.”

In fact, truly transformative finance leaders will guide the company in rethinking from the ground up how it meets its targets. They’re able to speak the language of their counterparts in other functions, and are able to align them to get everyone on the same page. Success in today’s highly networked world depends on connecting people, processes, and data around the needs of the organization, rather than leaving them divided into siloed functions.

That’s a leadership position worth aiming for.

Look for future blog posts on the forward-looking role of the transformational finance leader, featuring real-world business cases and useful tips.

Advance scenario planning as a strategic advantage and gain insights on practical applications from three experts in different industries at Deloitte