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What is a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and How to Become One

By Oluwadamilola Osisanya

Published:

Are you aiming for the pinnacle of financial leadership but unsure how to navigate the path to becoming a chief financial officer (CFO)?

The journey is fraught with complex challenges and the pressure to excel in a rapidly evolving financial landscape. This article demystifies CFO duties and outlines a clear, actionable roadmap to not only reach this esteemed position but to thrive, combining educational insight with practical experience to conquer the financial summit.

Career Summary

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Salary

Chief Financial Officer Salary

The chief financial officer salary varies widely based on factors such as company size, industry, location, and the individual’s experience and qualifications.

Here are the average chief financial officer salary according to Glassdoor:

  • Entry-Level: US$ 241,000
  • Median: US$ 319,000
  • Senior: US$ 431,000

When compared to the national average, which is $59,428 according to Forbes, all chief financial officers receive a high salary.

What is a Chief Financial Officer?

A chief financial officer (CFO) is a senior executive responsible for managing the financial actions of a company. The CFO job description involves tracking cash flow and financial planning as well as analyzing the company’s financial strengths and weaknesses and proposing corrective actions. 

The CFO position is crucial within the corporate hierarchy as they not only oversee the accounting and finance departments but also play a vital role in strategizing the company’s financial future. They serve as the financial spokesperson alongside other top executives, contributing to high-level decisions that affect the entire organization.

Chief Financial Officer Job Description

CFO duties extend beyond traditional financial management, covering a broad spectrum of responsibilities that aim to improve the company’s financial health and strategic direction. This includes overseeing the financial planning of the organization, managing financial risks, record-keeping, and financial reporting. 

Additionally, the CFO is responsible for analysis and decision-making concerning investments, capital structure, and long-term financial planning. Also, the CFO duties involve playing a key role in major business decisions, mergers, acquisitions, and exploring new markets, working closely with other senior managers. 

The role is pivotal in providing leadership and direction to the finance and accounting teams, ensuring the company’s financial strategies are aligned with its overall objectives.

Chief Financial Officer Career Progression

  •  Financial Analyst: In this entry-level position, you will focus on analyzing financial data, preparing reports, and supporting decision-making processes. 
  • Senior Financial Analyst: A step above the entry level, involving more complex analyses, budgeting, forecasting, and directly contributing to financial strategy. 
  • Accounting Manager: You will oversee daily operations within the accounting department, including managing accounting staff, preparing and analyzing financial statements, and ensuring accuracy and compliance with regulatory standards.
  • Finance Manager: Here, you will be responsible for financial reporting, budgeting, and strategy, often acting as a bridge between the finance department and executive management. 
  • Director of Finance: In this senior role, you will be involved in strategic planning, financial forecasting, and overseeing financial operations. 
  • Vice President of Finance: Directly below the CFO, you will be responsible for overseeing the financial health of the company. This role involves strategic planning, risk management, and financial reporting. 
  • Chief Financial Officer (CFO): In this top financial executive position, you will be involved in overseeing the financial operations of the entire organization. 
Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Career Progression

Best Aspects of Working as a Chief Financial Officer

  • Direct impact on shaping the company’s strategy and future.
  • High level of autonomy in decision-making processes.
  • Competitive compensation packages including bonuses and equity.
  • Continuous opportunities for personal and professional development.
  • Opportunity to lead and develop a team of finance professionals.

Worst Aspects of Working as a Chief Financial Officer

  • Long working hours, including evenings and weekends.
  • Constant pressure to meet financial targets and expectations.
  • Challenges in balancing strategic initiatives with financial realities.
  • High stress levels due to critical financial responsibilities.
  • Potential for conflict in decision-making with other executives.

Useful Skills to Have as a Chief Financial Officer

  • Financial Expertise
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Leadership and Management 
  • Analytical Skills
  • Risk Management

Popular Chief Financial Officer Specialties

  • Corporate Finance
  • International Finance
  • Risk Management
  • Strategic Planning
  • Financial Reporting and Analysis

How to Become a Chief Financial Officer

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) 5 Steps to Career

Achieving the role of chief financial officer requires a robust foundation in both education and practical experience, setting the stage for effective leadership and strategic financial management.

Education

Education plays a crucial role in the journey to becoming a chief financial officer, providing the essential knowledge and theoretical framework needed for understanding the CFO job description.

Do I need a Degree to Become a Chief Financial Officer?

Yes, a degree is typically required to become a Chief Financial Officer (CFO). To become a CFO, a bachelor’s degree in finance, accounting, economics, or business administration is usually essential. 

This role demands a strong foundation in financial management, as well as extensive experience in finance or accounting.

Additionally, many CFOs hold advanced degrees, such as an MBA, and professional certifications like CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or CMA (Certified Management Accountant). 

Why is it Important to get a Degree in Finance?

Obtaining a degree in finance is crucial as it lays the foundational knowledge necessary for managing a company’s financial operations. This degree equips individuals with critical skills in financial analysis, planning, and strategy, which are pivotal for making informed decisions that affect the organization’s financial health and growth. 

Furthermore, a finance degree covers essential topics such as investments, risk management, financial reporting, and capital management, all of which are integral to the CFO role. 

The specialized education prepares aspiring CFOs to navigate complex financial landscapes, lead financial teams effectively, and contribute to their organization’s strategic objectives, making it a vital step in the journey to becoming a successful CFO.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Degree in Finance?

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in finance, which is pivotal for aspiring chief financial officers (CFOs), typically requires four years of full-time study. This timeframe encompasses a curriculum designed to equip students with a deep understanding of financial management, investment strategies, market analysis, and accounting principles. 

How much does it cost to study Finance at university?

When considering the path to becoming a chief financial officer, one critical aspect to consider is the cost of education. On average, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in finance—a foundational step towards this career—will cost around $9,600 per year at a public university. 

For those opting for private institutions, this figure rises significantly, averaging about $37,220 annually. These figures highlight the financial investment required in higher education as an initial step towards achieving the role of a CFO, emphasizing the importance of planning and budgeting for prospective students aiming for this high-level executive position.

Can I become a Chief Financial Officer through Online Education?

Yes, you can become a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) through online education. With the advancement of online learning platforms, many reputable institutions offer online bachelor’s and master’s degrees in finance, accounting, and business administration, which are critical for a career as a CFO. 

These online programs often cover the same curriculum as their on-campus counterparts, providing the necessary knowledge, skills, and qualifications. Additionally, online education can also be complemented by obtaining professional certifications such as CPA or CMA through accredited programs. 

This flexible learning approach allows aspiring CFOs to gain the required education and skills while balancing work or other commitments.

What are some web resources to learn skills to become a Chief Financial Officer?

To acquire the skills necessary for becoming a chief financial officer, several web resources offer valuable knowledge, ranging from foundational finance and accounting to advanced strategic and leadership skills.

Here are some recommended resources:

  • American Institute of CPAs (AICPA): Offers resources for CPA certification, continuing education, and industry insights necessary for accounting and finance professionals aspiring to become CFOs.
  • Financial Management Association International (FMA): Provides professional development opportunities, including conferences and publications, for finance practitioners and academics.
  • Association for Financial Professionals (AFP): Offers certification programs such as the Certified Treasury Professional (CTP) and Certified Corporate FP&A Professional, along with resources on best practices in finance and treasury.
  • Institute of Management Accountants (IMA): Provides the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification and educational resources focused on advanced financial management and strategic decision-making skills.
  • CFO Council: Offers forums, insights, and resources for finance executives, focusing on the strategic aspects of the CFO role.
  • Financial Executives International (FEI): Provides professional development, networking opportunities, and research for finance executives. Their resources are tailored to the needs of senior financial executives and CFOs.

These resources offer a blend of certification programs, continuing education, industry insights, and networking opportunities critical for developing the expertise and leadership qualities required for a CFO role.

Practical Experience

Practical experience is paramount in the journey to becoming a chief financial officer, as it equips aspiring CFOs with the necessary skills and insights to make impactful financial decisions and lead organizations effectively.

What are Internship Opportunities for a Chief Financial Officer?

Many internship opportunities can provide the foundational experience and skills necessary to pursue a CFO career path eventually.

Here are several types of internships that are relevant for aspiring CFOs:

  • Finance Internships: These internships offer experience in financial analysis, budgeting, forecasting, and financial reporting. They can be found in various organizations, including corporations, investment banks, and financial services firms.
  • Accounting Internships: Internships in accounting provide practical experience with financial records, auditing, compliance, and the use of accounting software. Public accounting firms, as well as accounting departments in larger corporations, offer these opportunities.
  • Investment Banking Internships: These positions offer experience in financial modeling, mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, and investment analysis. They are excellent for understanding complex financial transactions and corporate finance.
  • Management Consulting Internships: While not exclusively focused on finance, these internships offer exposure to strategic financial management, efficiency improvements, and organizational change, which are crucial skills for a CFO.
  • Corporate Finance Internships: Available within various industries, these internships focus on the financial operations of a corporation, including capital allocation, investment decisions, and financial planning.
  • Treasury Internships: These positions offer insight into cash management, corporate finance, risk management, and banking relationships. They are crucial for understanding how to manage a company’s liquidity and financial risk.
  • Risk Management Internships: Focused on identifying, analyzing, and mitigating financial risks, these internships provide experience that is valuable for strategic decision-making in a CFO role.

When seeking internship opportunities, it’s beneficial to focus on industries of interest, as experience in a specific sector can be invaluable for a CFO who will need to understand the financial nuances of their industry deeply.

What Skills will I Learn as a Chief Financial Officer?

The role is multifaceted and involves a broad set of skills across various domains:

  • Financial Management: Understanding and overseeing financial planning, risk management, record-keeping, and financial reporting.
  • Strategic Planning: Developing long-term financial strategies in alignment with the company’s goals.
  • Leadership and Management: Leading the finance team, making executive decisions, and collaborating with other department heads.
  • Data Analysis and Forecasting: Analyzing financial data to forecast future trends and making informed decisions to guide the company’s financial direction.
  • Risk Management: Identifying and managing financial risks, including investments, operational risks, and market volatility.
  • Compliance and Regulation: Ensuring that the company complies with all financial regulations and laws, understanding complex legal and financial documents.
  • Communication: Communicating financial information and strategy clearly to stakeholders, including the board of directors, investors, and employees.
  • Technology Proficiency: Utilizing advanced financial software and data analysis tools and staying abreast of technological advancements that can improve financial operations.
  • Negotiation: Negotiating contracts, financing or investment deals, and other agreements to benefit the company financially.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Chief Financial Officer?

The work-life balance of a chief financial officer can be challenging, given the high level of responsibility and the nature of the role in steering the financial direction of a company. 

CFOs often face long hours, including evenings and weekends, especially during end-of-quarter and end-of-year financial reporting periods, during mergers and acquisitions, or when strategic shifts require extensive planning and execution. 

The demands of the role also include being on call to address financial emergencies or critical decisions, which can add unpredictability to their schedule. Despite these challenges, CFOs may have some flexibility in managing their schedules, thanks to executive support staff and the ability to delegate tasks. 

However, achieving a healthy work-life balance requires deliberate effort, strategic delegation, and prioritization of tasks to ensure both professional responsibilities and personal well-being are maintained. 

What’s the Career Outlook for Chief Financial Officers?

The career outlook for a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) in the USA is positive, with a projected job growth rate of 6% from 2018 to 2028, according to Zippia. This growth is expected to result in about 189,200 new jobs for CFOs over the decade. Additionally, CFO salaries have seen a 3% increase over the last five years, indicating a strong demand for financial executives.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Chief Financial Officer?

The job opportunities for a chief financial officer span a wide range of industries and sectors, reflecting the essential role of financial management in all types of organizations.

Here are some key areas where CFOs can find opportunities:

  • Corporations: Large and medium-sized companies across various industries, including technology, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and more, offer roles for CFOs to manage their financial strategy and operations.
  • Startups and Scale-ups: Emerging businesses often seek CFOs to establish robust financial frameworks, secure funding, manage investor relations, and guide strategic growth.
  • Government Agencies: At the federal, state, and local levels, CFOs are responsible for overseeing public funds, budgeting, financial reporting, and compliance with financial regulations.
  • Financial Institutions: Banks, investment firms, and insurance companies require CFOs to manage financial risks, compliance, reporting, and strategic financial planning.
  • Consulting and Advisory Services: Experienced CFOs often work in consulting roles, advising other organizations on financial strategy, restructuring, and efficiency improvements.
  • Board Memberships: CFOs with a strong track record may be sought after for board positions in various organizations, contributing their financial expertise at a strategic level.
  • Entrepreneurial Ventures: CFOs with an entrepreneurial spirit may start their own business or become partners in new ventures, leveraging their financial acumen to build successful companies.

What Type of Companies Hire a Chief Financial Officer?

A chief financial officer is a vital executive role within various types of organizations across multiple sectors.

The types of companies and organizations that hire CFOs include:

  • Large Corporations: Multinational and large corporations across industries such as technology, healthcare, finance, manufacturing, and retail typically require a CFO to oversee financial strategy and operations.
  • Financial Institutions: Banks, investment firms, insurance companies, and other financial institutions employ CFOs to manage financial risks, planning, and regulatory compliance.
  • Healthcare Institutions: Hospitals, healthcare systems, and large medical practices hire CFOs to manage their complex financial operations, including patient billing, insurance reimbursements, and funding for medical research.
  • Educational Institutions: Universities, colleges, and large educational organizations often have a CFO or an equivalent role responsible for managing their financial health, including funding, investments, and budgeting for academic programs.
  • Real Estate and Construction Firms: These companies rely on CFOs to manage the financial aspects of large projects, investments, and property management.
  • Hospitality and Entertainment: Major hotel chains, entertainment companies, and leisure providers employ CFOs to oversee financial strategies that maximize revenue and manage operational costs.

Should I Become a Chief Financial Officer?

Deciding to pursue a career as a chief financial officer is a significant commitment that requires a careful evaluation of your personal interests, skills, and long-term career objectives. The role of a CFO is not just prestigious but also comes with a high level of responsibility, overseeing the financial strategy and health of an organization. 

Throughout this article, we’ve explored the multifaceted nature of the CFO’s duties, the educational and experiential pathway to reaching this executive position, the rigorous skill set required, and the challenging yet rewarding nature of the work involved.

As you contemplate whether to embark on this journey, consider your passion for finance and strategic management, your willingness to commit to the necessary educational qualifications and professional experiences, and your readiness to face the challenges of high-stakes decision-making. 

The role demands not just technical and financial expertise but also strong leadership, communication, and analytical skills. It’s essential to assess your ability to balance the intense workload with your personal life, given the demanding hours and the pressure to perform.

If you are drawn to leadership roles and are motivated by the challenge of navigating financial complexities to drive business success, the CFO path may be right for you.

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Oluwadamilola Osisanya

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