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The Path to Becoming a Public Company CFO

The Path to Becoming a Public Company CFO

The path to becoming a Chief Financial Officer is often complex and winding. For those looking to become Chief Financial Officers at public companies, the path is even more complex.

A recent CFO Magazine article took a look at the many paths to becoming a Chief Financial Officer, interviewing current and former finance chiefs on their path to the top of the finance food chain.

The CFO Factory

One of the CFOs interviewed in the article was Scott Schenkel, who ascended through a grooming and learning process at GE that positioned him (as well as many others) for a CFO role. His path included 17 years at GE before he moved to eBay in 2007, and the move he made a decade ago was intentionally designed to put him in a position for taking the finance reins.

Schenkel was recruited to eBay by another GE alum, Bob Swan, who hired Schenkel to be his replacement when the time came. When Swan moved to Intel, Schenkel took the lead in 2015—ready to take control on day one.

Managing Your Career

It’s hard to confidently say that you’re ready to take the reins, but by working toward the end goal and managing your career, you can position yourself to ascend.

“I don’t think there’s ever a point in time where it crystallizes, where you go, ‘yeah, I’m ready, I’ve checked all the boxes,’” Schenkel says. “You work toward it, and at some point, if you’re keeping your eyes open and managing your career, you get there.”

Being Great at What You Know

The role of a CFO—especially at a public company—requires a vast skillset, and Schenkel says that it’s practically impossible to check all the boxes and have strong experience in every single area that’s important to be a CFO.

His path to the top included a lot of time working with investors and analysts, a rarity among CFOs. Schenkel recommends that CFOs be realistic in their pursuits, working to be sufficient in many necessary CFO skills:

“I don’t think it’s realistic […] You’ll never get to all of [the necessary skills], at any depth. What you can do is get exposure to all and be sufficient in many.”

Learning Constantly—Maybe You Can Have it All

While Schenkel has the opinion that there are limitations in CFOs, others, like Carol Tomé of The Home Depot disagree, stating that it’s important to “have it all,” and it’s the responsibility of the incumbent to make it possible.

“It’s incumbent upon the sitting CFO to invest in his or her team and make sure that if they don’t possess all the skills required, that they get them. In fact, I personally believe that my legacy will be defined by the quality of my team.”

Learning to Communicate

One of the most common traits missing from the CFO toolbox is that of communication, according to Tomé. Tomé insists that this is not intuitive for many CFOs, and that learning to be a clear communicator could be the difference between someone who ends up as a public company CFO and one who falters near the top.

You Can Start Small

Another CFO interviewed was Dominic Caruso, who spend the last decade as the CFO of Johnson & Johnson, who was first a CFO at Centacor but who later grew his firm over the course of seven years. Following the company’s acquisition by Johnson & Johnson, Caruso saw what he needed to do to become a CFO at a global, complex firm. He began to take on additional responsibilities, assignments, and development plans, acquiring new skills needed to succeed at public companies.

The Life of the CFO is Not an Easy One

No longer just a master of bookkeeping, the Chief Financial Officer is consistently evolving and gaining respect in the business world. Long touted as the ultimate manager of finance in the organization, the CFO in recent years has become a strategic leader thanks to technology and consistent need for timely, insightful information.

As the role of the CFO continues to evolve, new skills are necessary to address the new roles. Whether at public companies or private firms, multinationals or locals, the CFO or aspiring CFO will need to continue to learn new skills, embrace new technology, and evolve the organization.

Read the entire CFO Magazine Article—as well as part two of the series. Learn even more by reading the following articles by Wipfli/Brittenford, The Evolving Role of the Chief Financial Officer, CFO Tips for Getting on Board with the Board, and Pillars of Success for Becoming a Tech-Savvy CFO.

Take the next step: The Intacct blog, IPO and Beyond explores the steps finance professionals need to take leading up to an IPO, and watch the on-demand webinar, “Your IPO is coming, Is Your Finance Team Ready?” Featuring Brian Kinion, SVP of Finance at Marketo, who shares his journey to going public.


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