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Aspirational CFOs need broader experience for top jobs

Broader experience than simply finance is required to get to the top, writes Egon Zehnder's Cagla Bekbolet

A FEW DAYS into 2016, my colleagues and I hosted one of our regular dinners for senior financial leaders at our London office. The question on the table was: “What are you going to do differently in your career this year?”

Our speaker for the evening, the CFO of a UK-based multinational, turned out to be just the right person to spark debate on this topic – and to challenge our guests to step outside their comfort zones.

His story is fascinating. A chartered accountant by training, he joined a multinational early in his career, landing a fairly traditional job in its head office finance function. Quite soon, though, he took on the first of a series of tough assignments in the company’s far-flung global operations – and quickly built a reputation as someone who could tackle any problem, including a tough restructuring in an unknown emerging market.

As he described it at our January dinner, he had taken on a seemingly random assignment, cracked it, and really accelerated his career as a result. Progressing quickly thereafter, he made it to the top of the function as one of the youngest FTSE 100 CFOs – and is now on his way to broader and bigger roles.

Most of the people round the table that evening were senior directors one level below the CFO – all thinking about their own career advancement. The speaker’s advice to them was clear: what got you here won’t necessarily take you further. You need to find a new tack, master new challenges, and muster the courage to head into the unknown.

In discussion over dinner there was agreement that, in many countries, career paths in the finance function are too narrow. The best way to the top – as our guest’s story affirmed – is to go out and build broader experience. That could mean you should look actively for an international tour of duty – or a move out of finance altogether.

In years gone by, the typical move for a financial manager would have been into operations or perhaps sales and marketing. Those parts of the business still offer interesting opportunities, but in the digital era, IT roles arguably offer the most exciting stepping stones – particularly in industries that are making major technology investments, such as financial services.

Programme management is one obvious role for a talented financial manager moving over to the IT function. Finance and IT typically collaborate on SAP implementation, for instance. But as technology rises in prominence, there are many opportunities to be more ambitious and more innovative.

As companies scramble to digitise processes and make the most of big data, your finance skills and instincts could be in great demand. For example, you might help IT make a compelling business case for new technology investments, and then manage and monitor delivery to ensure those investments deliver bottom-line results. Given that IT reports to the CFO in many companies, success in this kind of assignment could be a direct path to senior leadership.

Whichever opportunities present themselves to you, my career advice is simple, if challenging. Put your hand up for the toughest assignment you can think of – and be ready to stretch yourself, build new perspectives, and make a name as an all-round leader.

Cagla Bekbolet leads the global CFO practice of executive search firm Egon Zehnder

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