Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Career Overview

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A CFO serves as the top financial executive of a company or organization. CFOs oversee financial planning, implement and enforce financial policies and practices, and report to fellow executives about organizational financial activities.

Experience and education set the CFO apart from other finance professionals. As people who develop and guide the financial direction of a company or organization, CFOs have knowledge of accounting, economics, and finance. CFOs have likely worked in one or several areas within finance earlier in their career.

CFOs are top executives. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 8% increase in job growth for top executives between 2020 and 2030.

CFOs work across industries. According to the BLS, the main employers of chief executives in 2020 were private companies and enterprises, local governments, and computer system and design companies.

The information here will help you understand the duties, skills, and path to becoming a CFO.

CFO Duties

A CFO manages an organization's financial activities. CFOs supervise the finance and accounting personnel in a company and track cash flow. They analyze financial data, identifying strengths and weaknesses and implementing short- and long-term financial plans for a company.

CFOs also report about financial activities to employees and regulatory bodies. The duties of a CFO also include:

Preparing financial statements: CFOs prepare or oversee the preparation of budgets, investment documents, and tax returns. Additional statements under the watch of a CFO include income statements, shareholder reports, and governmental agency reports.

Studying long-range economic trends: A CFO watches economic trends to identify challenges and opportunities in the market. They look for economic indicators using financial data and respond through price adjustments and policy changes, as appropriate.

Analyzing organizational operations: By looking at data on organizational operations, a CFO ensures efficiency and efficacy in business practices. They identify ways to reorganize, eliminate costs, reduce redundancies, and make personnel cuts based on the findings.

Monitoring expenses and profits: CFOs make sure the money going out of an organization matches financial records. They also monitor profits and compare income and costs to projections. Using this data, CFOs create and adjust future projections and budgets.

Complying with federal, state, and local regulations: A CFO knows the laws and regulations that apply to their organization's financial activities. They know accounting standards, tax codes, and other applicable regulations to ensure compliance. CFOs stay current on changes to laws and regulations.

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Key Hard Skills for Chief Financial Officers

  • Data analysis

    CFOs assess financial data using financial models, database queries, and statistical analysis. Data analysis in finance involves risk assessment and financial reporting. CFOs need technical abilities to use financial software for data analysis.
  • Accounting principles

    Accounting professionals use generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) as the standards adopted by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission. CFOs use and apply the GAAP and need extensive knowledge of its contents.
  • Financial modeling

    A financial model presents a summary of financial performance. Financial models include merger models, consolidation models, and budget models. CFOs use models to represent real-world financial situations as they design budgets, allocate resources, and calculate expenses.
  • Technical

    CFOs use computer software in data analysis, financial reporting, accounting, and business communications. Additional uses for technical skills in finance include forecasting, estimation, and bookkeeping.

Key Soft Skills for Chief Financial Officers

  • Communication

    Communication skills involve writing and vocalizing ideas clearly and thoughtfully. CFOs work with fellow executives, managers and employees, and external companies and agencies, all of whom they need to relay information to effectively. Nonverbal communication, emotional intelligence, empathy, and confidence also contribute to workplace success for CFOs.
  • Decision-making

    As the top financial professional in a company or organization, a CFO makes decisions about daily operations. They look at short- and long-term goals and plan accordingly, implementing decisions that impact people and revenue streams alike. Decision-making involves active listening, collaboration, analytical abilities, and problem-solving skills as well.
  • Work ethic

    CFOs possess reliability, discipline, dedication, and productivity, all essential for thriving in the workplace. With a work ethic guided by these qualities, integrity and professionalism, CFOs earn their positions with time and hard work.
  • Teamwork

    Teamwork for CFOs involves collaboration, listening, communication, and leadership. CFOs work with managers and employees at different levels within an organization, coordinating information and managing outcomes. Additional aspects of teamwork include conflict management, creativity, and accountability.

CFO Areas of Expertise

A CFO's responsibilities have several subsets. CFOs may work in corporate settings or take on roles in government agencies. CFOs may also delegate duties and focus on a specialization within financial oversight and leadership.

Personal CFO

Personal CFOs provide planning guidance to companies of all sizes in contrast to a corporate CFO in a large enterprise. A personal CFO focuses on accounting activities within a business. They work closely with the accounting team, zeroing in on the details of a company's financial needs.

Personal CFOs can also help entrepreneurs start a business, lead investment initiatives, and provide advice about individual retirement and saving practices. A personal CFO can take on duties comparable to a comptroller or an operational CFO who focuses on daily accounting activities and compliance.

Common Job Titles

Strategic CFO

Both operational and strategic CFOs understand financial functions within a company. Strategic CFOs analyze financial processes and practices in a business to identify plans for the future. An operational CFO who looks at the past and present, to eliminate spending and inefficiencies. A strategic CFO identifies ways to grow.

Strategic CFOs understand economic trends and provide financial models to help chart potential expansion. An operational CFO may prove essential in the event of a merger or acquisition or for saving money, while a strategic CFO advocates for safe investments and spending.

Common Job Titles

How to Become a Chief Financial Officer

CFOs need at least a bachelor's degree in finance, economics, accounting, or a comparable field. Many companies prefer CFOs with a graduate degree. Additional certifications in aspects of finance like public accounting and financial planning also help pave the way to a CFO position.

Experience benefits individuals who want to become CFOs. Working in finance and accounting for at least five years precedes an additional five years or more as a manager. Future CFOs with experience in numerous financial and business departments position themselves as knowledgeable leaders within an organization.

CFO Career Outlook and Salary

According to Payscale, the average base salary for a CFO in June 2022 was $140,455. This varies by industry and company size, as indicated by BLS data for top executives. The top-paying industries for chief executives in May 2021 were management of companies and enterprises and computer systems design and related services.

Location also factors into earning potential and job availability for CFOs. Businesses in California employed nearly 34,000 top executives as of May 2021, with annual mean wages approaching $231,000. Top executives in Illinois earned higher mean wages of over $244,000 but only 8,500 positions were available in the state in May 2021.

Career Spotlight: John Pokorney, CFO

What initially interested you in the field of finance?

From a young age I was intrigued by being able to find answers to questions by analyzing data. I remember looking through football magazines as a sixth- or seventh-grader and predicting the entire NFL season prior to it starting, based on information I found about the quality of running backs and the size of the defensive line.

Once I got into thinking about my career, I had a role model in both my father, who was a VP of accounting at a stainless-steel company, as well as my cousin, who was a financial analyst at Coca-Cola.

What education did you need to pursue this career? How did it prepare you for your current role?

I pursued a BA in economics because the big picture seemed more interesting to me as a young man than the more detail-oriented accounting classes.

What kind of job did you get after graduating with your bachelor's? After your MBA?

After I got my undergrad degree, my first job was as a statistical economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I realized quickly that it wasn't going to be a job that held my attention for very long.

What kind of job did you get after graduating with your bachelor's? After your MBA?

After I got my undergrad degree, my first job was as a statistical economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I realized quickly that it wasn't going to be a job that held my attention for very long.

When I went to try to interview with Coca-Cola for a financial analyst position, I couldn't get in the door because I didn't have an MBA. To get job interviews with the types of companies I thought would give me exposure to the types of analysis I found interested, I decided to get my MBA.

After I received my MBA from Indiana University, I chose to go to work for Intel. I had interned there the prior summer and found the environment very exciting. It was fast-paced and everyone expected the best effort from their teammates. It was a very collaborative environment, especially because the finance department played a business partnership role with other departments. I would sit on staff meetings with the operations managers, engineers, and the marketing team. This taught me the value of being part of a team and why it's important everyone holistically understands a business's operations.

When did you set the goal of becoming a CFO someday?

I was progressing through a career at Intel, from a financial analyst, to senior analyst, to manager and then controller. The company grew dramatically while I was there, and decision-making processes and management structures became more formalized.

These growing pains got me thinking about the work my dad had done. He went from the VP of accounting to the CEO of the steel mill, and ended up growing the company from one U.S. plant to three U.S. plants and three South American plants. The impact of being in a smaller business was alluring in comparison to being one of 3,000 financial team members in a multibillion-dollar worldwide company.

One of the operations managers that I worked with at Intel told me that he and a few other managers were given the opportunity to take a business plan developed within Intel and roll it out as its own company.

This was the first time that Intel had allowed this. I jumped at the opportunity, and while I initially was encouraged to take the operations manager job with the new company, as we started working with VCs to get funding, I ended up taking the CFO role.

What was the career path that led you to this position? What do you think helped you most on your journey to becoming a CFO?

My family and my experience at Intel had the biggest impact on my career to becoming a CFO. First, in my family, I learned how everyone mattered. While I watched this every day in the way my parents treated people, I also saw it in how my father pulled the steel mill out of the red.

While he was VP of accounting, the steel mill was losing money and about to be shut down. When he talked to the board of directors about his ideas for turning it around, they elevated him to CEO. He was able to change the culture of the business. Before he took the lead, there was a very tense animosity between management and the union.

"In my opinion, the most important skills for any C-level position are communication and empathy."

–John Pokorney

The first thing my dad did was relocate the management team's office from a city 20 miles away from the mill to the same complex as the mill. My dad walked the factory floor every day meeting with people, talking to them, getting to know their lives and jobs.

A couple weeks in, he shut down all production and had everyone work for two weeks on cleaning up the mill. When asked by the employees in the union why, he said, "There is too much scrap metal and junk just lying around. I don't feel like it is a safe environment for you to be working in."

The lesson I learned was that if you treat everyone as your equal and care for them, then they are going to care a lot more about their jobs and be better at them. The company ended up making significant profits within two years of these changes.

Second, while I was at Intel, the culture of accountability and business partnerships helped me learn how to engage with every type of business function, and become a team member with all of their goals, and not become a bean counter giving them reports.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

Today I am the CFO of LeTip International Inc., the world's largest privately-owned professional business networking organization. LeTip has over 200 local chapters nationwide with thousands of members of small business owners and entrepreneurs in virtually every business industry.

I Iive in Arizona, but work with members and staff on the East Coast, so I usually start my day at 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. looking through my emails for questions that came in overnight or earlier that morning. All of the day-to-day activities I need to complete can wait until I answer questions from customers, vendors, or other employees so they can start their days with the resources they need to be productive.

I spend much of my day communicating with other staff members from the CEO to the sales or support teams. With so much that goes into LeTip, I see coordinating as a key function in my role as the CFO. If I am going to use my position to influence operations or the direction the company is going, all of those who are impacted by my decisions will want to know that I'm not just shooting to improve the bottom line, but I'm also thinking about how it will impact their lives.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working as a CFO? Some of the most challenging aspects?

The aspect I find most rewarding is being at the table when decisions are made, and using my knowledge of the operations and financials to influence the path that the company takes to move to the next level of success. An example from my experience at a construction-related company was being able to lead operational changes that enabled our team to break down barriers that led directly to a 25% increase in our productivity.

The most challenging aspect of being a CFO is being in what I would refer to as the second seat. Because you are not the primary decision-maker, there are times where you aren't able to influence either the CEO or the board of directors to make certain decisions.

My least favorite example comes from my first CFO role when we were ready to raise a second round of VC financing. Although we had lined up strategic partners to fund 125% of the entire round, I could not convince the board to bypass bringing in another VC to lead the round. This led to a delay in decision-making and brought us into the beginning of a recession in the industry, where 2 out of our 3 strategic partners backed out of the round. This led to another delay and eventually to only funding 50% of the planned round.

What do you think is the most important skill CFOs need to succeed?

In my opinion, the most important skills for any C-level position are communication and empathy. The modern CFO role is one of a coordinator between functions and being able to communicate with a software engineer in the morning and a customer support rep in the afternoon. In between, you're leading your team of data-driven accountants. This is imperative to being able to "tell the story" that the management team needs to hear to make decisions.

At the same time, if you are only listening with a financial ear, you don't have the empathy to understand the culture issues at the company, so your decisions or advice will ring hollow.

What advice would you give to students considering your career?

Always be a student. There will never be a time in your career where you know enough. You can start from almost any angle to get to this position, but you need to have a mind that is curious and an ego that is tamed.

Portrait of John Pokorney

John Pokorney

John Pokorney is the CFO of LeTip International, Inc., the world's largest privately owned professional business networking organization. Pokorney is highly experienced in leading company transformations. He started his career in financial management at Intel after receiving his MBA. He launched his first startup in 2000, and in 2007, he became a CFO working with small- and medium-sized businesses to manage change and move their business forward.

Questions About the CFO Job Description

What does a chief financial officer do?

Chief financial officers oversee the financial operations and activities of a company or organization. They develop and implement financial plans, assess financial data, and report on finances to colleagues, investors, and regulatory bodies, as needed.

What degree is best to become a CFO?

The best degree to become a CFO is accounting or finance. A bachelor's degree supplemented by significant experience can lead to a job as a CFO, but many companies prefer CFOs with a master's degree.

Who is higher, a CFO or CEO?

A chief executive officer (CEO) is higher than a CFO. A CEO is considered the highest executive while a chief operating officer (COO) and CFO fall into the number two or three slots, depending on the company or organization.

Is CFO a difficult job?

Being a CFO is difficult but with education and experience, individuals in the role thrive. CFOs need discipline, initiative, dedication, and time-management skills as well.

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