From FP&A professional to CFO!
What you need to know and do to achieve your dream!
By Ron Monteiro, CPA, CMA
Do you aspire to be the Chief Financial Officer of Google, Microsoft, Tesla or any other organization? The great news is that FP&A and Finance roles can be a great stepping-stone for you if you take advantage of the phenomenal opportunities that these roles afford.
I interviewed three Executives including two former CFOs to get their advice. These business leaders all spent several years in FP&A and credit this time as a critical experience in their ascent to the leadership positions that they eventually earned and thrived in.
Brendan Flynn is a retired Executive who led the largest food company in North America’s Finance team for several years (Kraft Canada). Under his leadership, the company had 200+ Finance employees & delivered sustained top tier financial results in a challenging environment. He also led Mondelez Canada’s Finance organization and spent his early Finance years at Gillette. His expert leadership and talent development approach helped develop several future Executives including the two other gentlemen profiled in this article. Brendan earned his undergraduate degree and MBA at Concordia University in Montreal.
Vince Vetere is currently the Senior Vice President & Canada General Manager at the Lactalis Group Cheese & Table spreads, a global dairy company and the market leaders in Cheese in Canada. Vince spent several years at Kraft Canada mainly in FP&A roles and his experience also includes Imperial Oil Canada. Vince earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto and his MBA at the Schulich School of Business.
Thomas Dreher is currently the President of Skodjt-Barrett which is a private manufacturing company in Toronto. Thomas’ experience also includes stints at Skodjt Barrett (CFO), Imperial Oil, ING Canada and Kraft Canada where he spent several years in FP&A. Thomas graduated from Flagler College in Florida and completed his MBA at Rollins College – Crummer Graduate School of Business.
I asked these gentlemen what qualities make a great CFO and their responses were very consistent.
Below is my take on the top 5 traits & behaviors that make a great CFO after consulting with these experts & reflecting on my own experiences across several companies:
1) Great technical skills are critical
Excellent Finance and Accounting skills are absolutely necessary for any top tier Finance executive however this is merely table stakes or the price of admission for any Finance Executive.
Brendan often consulted technical models or resources when faced with a major organizational opportunity or challenge. He noticed a pattern where individuals within organizations would often forget to consult the extremely valuable theory that they learned in their undergraduate or post-grad education. Brendan and his team frequently consulted these models and frameworks, and this paid significant dividends for him and the organizations he worked at.
Brendan, Thomas and Vince all provided feedback that diverse experiences in different areas of Finance or Accounting (or even cross-functional assignments) are extremely valuable and lead to very strong technical skills in all areas of Finance.
2) Strong business acumen & the ability to provide business counsel & make decisions
In most organizations the CFO is considered the number two or three Executive and often has to make critical business decisions and provide the CEO with business counsel. The days of a CFO that works in the background and does not provide this critical business counsel are over.
This muscle is built by immersing yourself in all areas of the organization and gaining a 360-degree view of the business. Understanding the business environment, political environment, customers, competitors, consumers and all aspects of the business are critical to developing the ability to make great decisions for the organization.
Vince credits the great breadth of his FP&A experiences in developing the ability to ‘peak around corners’ and identify opportunities or risks well before other stakeholders see them. FP&A roles generally provide full P&L exposure and give us a wide view on the business and the ability to work closely with and understand how all our partner functions work (Sales, Marketing, Supply Chain, HR etc.).
Thomas’s advice was to attend and pay close attention in meetings that are not Finance related. This is one way he learned from business leaders and gained his outstanding business knowledge and instincts.
Brendan remarked that this is ‘where the fun really is’. Having the ability to be an integral part of decisions that benefit entire organizations was one of the most rewarding parts of being a Finance Executive for him. Having the trust of the President was something he worked hard to achieve over several years working in different organizations and roles.
3) Exceptional interpersonal & communication skills
The modern-day CFO must have great communication skills. They are often called upon to answer investor and media related questions for public companies. The ability to communicate effectively to all levels of the organization including inspiring his or her team is absolutely critical.
Brendan often ‘walked the halls’ to get a pulse of the organization. Once the initial fear of the CFO dropping by wore off, he was able to have insightful conversations that helped him understand and relate to all areas of the organization. This is often a very valuable but underutilized practice within the Executive ranks.
Vince said that taking complex financial data and simplifying it in a way that makes it clear and compelling to individuals is a critical trait of effective CFOs. This can be developed by proactively presenting information to cross-functional stakeholders at all stages of your career. Practicing, getting regular feedback from stakeholders and emulating great presenters was a significant advantage in helping me with my presentation skills in my career. All these Executives have this important skill in their arsenal.
Retired long-time CFO of Home Depot, Carol Tome captured this perfectly. “During my first presentation to investors……an investor on the front row fell asleep. After that, I understood immediately…..if you can’t communicate well and tell your company’s story in a way that engages the investor and analyst community, you are toast.”
4) Build a great team and hold the entire team to high standards
A critical skill of great CFOs is building great teams and holding individuals to very high standards. All these executives devote a significant amount of time ensuring they have a world class leadership and functional team. They also said that making tough decisions such as letting weak performers go for the benefit of the function is very important for the function’s health and performance. This ensures that the top performers continue to be motivated and rewarded for results.
Thomas relayed to me the importance of mentors. He said it is important to have mentors throughout your career and have different mentors as you progress through different stages of your career. Brendan also talked about some of his biggest learnings were when he observed ‘anti-mentors’. He had one experience as a junior team member where an Executive was upset that a junior team member addressed him, and he vowed to ensure he always treats all team members with the respect they deserve regardless of their level.
Brendan has a philosophy of life-long learning and his Finance Leadership team developed a fantastic talent development program that was a combination of on-the-job and classroom learning. We all learned the importance of developing the next generation of Finance leaders who can stand on the shoulders of the previous team. Brendan and his team’s legacy is powerful as several individuals who came through this organization & training program are thriving business leaders across a wide range of functions and industries.
5) Courage & Candor
CFOs are often called on to be willing to stand up for their own personal and the organization’s principles & values even if their jobs are at stake. All these executives have career defining moments where they took a stand in order to do the right thing. As an FP&A or Finance leader you have to develop a very strong moral compass in order to do the right thing!
Vince also talked about the importance of candor and the ability to take a stand when all other stakeholders have a different point of view. The ability to play devils advocate is absolutely critical for the CFO and developing this skill set early in your career will be a great asset. Having the ability to back up your point of view with facts will lead to better organizational decisions.
These gentlemen were remarkably similar in their feedback on what makes a great CFO and my research on CFOs in all industries were quite similar. There are fantastic examples like Dhivya Suryadevara, CFO, General Motors or Amy Hood, Executive Vice President & CFO, Microsoft who also have diverse career experiences and are called on to role model the behaviours discussed in this article.
In conclusion, what can you do to set yourself up for success and ultimately achieve your goal of becoming and thriving as a Finance Executive?
Here are 5 things you can do to develop as an FP&A or Finance professional:
1) Embrace diverse career opportunities that come your way. The most challenging assignments often help you grow the most.
2) Become a great networker & develop your communication skills. This often involves going outside of your comfort zone and asking individuals to be mentors or attending events or public speaking courses.
3) Speak up in meetings and learn from your business partners
4) Spend time learning or reading every day. Classics such as the 7 Habits of Highly successful people by Steven Covey or Good to Great by Jim Collins are must reads that Brendan recommends.
5) Develop your moral compass and principles in order to make great business decisions.
I appreciate the great advice that each of these leaders graciously provided. They all had and continue to have a significant influence in my career and life and remain good friends. Brendan hired me into Kraft Canada’s phenomenal organization which I believe was the turning point in my career & I worked along side Vince and Thomas as FP&A Directors for several years.