Business

How to become a CFO: 5 unusual ways to the top of the finance ladder

20 December 2022   |   14 minutes read
CFO presenting to his team

How do you become a CFO? If there’s one thing we’ve learned after 70 episodes of our podcast, The CFO Playbook, it’s that there’s no “right” pathway.

In this post, we’ll take a look at five unusual routes our podcast guests took to becoming CFOs, and what their journeys can teach us about the skills required to excel at the top job.

1. The accidental CFO: Minna Technologies’ Navpreet Randhawa
When Randhawa started his career, becoming a CFO was the furthest thing from his mind. Armed with an MBA degree, he headed off to Chicago to work in banking. But it didn’t take him long to discover it wasn’t really what he wanted to do.

“We were brokering a deal,” he says, “And I remember telling myself I didn’t want to be the one facilitating the deal…  I wanted to be the one who’s buying or selling.”

This flash of insight led him to return to Delhi and start Help for Comfort — an online marketplace for unskilled labourers for which he raised $2 million in funding. This was followed by a three-year stint managing Startup India — the Indian goverment’s flagship technology initiative — and two and a half years as a freelance investment advisor.

So how did he find himself thrust into his current role as Minna Technologies’ CFO?

Around 2018, Randhawa says, he decided he wanted to go back to building something. But because his previous experience as a startup founder was, in his own words, “lonely”, he was keen to work with someone else.

As luck would have it, he stumbled across Minna Technologies online, and the company impressed him so much that he got in touch to see how he could help. A few conversations later, the CEO had persuaded him to move to Sweden and become the company’s CFO.

Where he ran Help for Comfort entirely on his own, Randhawa has made teamwork a cornerstone of his approach at Minna Technologies, relying on the expertise of specialist vendors and, more recently, a small in-house team.

This, he says, has made things simpler and more straightforward.

“My job is to analyse… to look at the numbers and take critical business decisions. But I’m always listening and talking to vendors, because they are subject matter experts.”

But while his path has worked out for him — between 2019 and 2022, Minna Technologies have grown exponentially and raised $21.7million in series B funding — Randhawa cautions would-be CFOs against running before they can walk.

“It’s about knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not good at…” he says. Successful CFOs play to their strengths, and surround themselves with smart people who excel at those aspects of finance they can’t do so well.

2. Lateral moves: Carta’s Charly Kevers
Unlike Randhawa, Kevers knew he wanted to become a CFO early on. But he was also very open to trying different things. As a result, his career took several twists and turns.

Following a year as junior auditor, he spent five years with a consultancy, then worked as a global strategist for Samsung and as an investment banker with JP Morgan.

He then worked at Hewlett Packard — first a senior strategy and corporate development manager, and then as director of investor relations — and as senior corporate development director at Salesforce, before becoming Finance VP at Lending Club and, eventually, Carta’s CFO.

These moves were deliberate.

As a consultant, he says, “I was exposed to a lot of different CFOs and CEOs and a lot of different executives, which really shaped how I thought about future opportunities.”

In particular, he came to believe that gaining experience in different roles, industries, and markets would be beneficial later on.

His experience at Carta has convinced him he made the right choices.

“I’m more involved in product and strategy than I ever thought I’d be,” he says. “And it mixes the software components, the capital markets components, and the fintech components of everything I’ve done in the past.”

He also singles out his time at JP Morgan as being especially formative. “It [taught me] a lot of skills that are tough to build otherwise in terms of understanding how investors approach their investments, how to communicate to them, and that whole aspect of the CFO job, which is a big piece of what I do today.”

Unsurprisingly, Kevers’ advice to aspiring CFOs is to try a variety of roles.

“If you’re an accountant, don’t stay in accounting forever and expect to become a CFO,” he says. “Move around. Try different things. Think about the broader set of skills that you have little exposure to and find a way to get some…”

3. Learning on the job: Bam Boom Cloud’s Kirstine Archer
Archer “fell into accounting” — the path that would lead her to her first CFO role — aged 18, while waitressing at her local entertainment complex.

Her father had just passed away. So, she’d shelved her uni plans and turned her student job into a full-time role while she reassessed what she wanted to do.

As it happened, her bosses asked her to do their payroll administration, and she did such a good job they added accounts administration to her duties. “It was never deliberate,” she recalls, “which I think is a fairly common theme with accountants.”

Eventually, she landed a job at PwC making security passes while travelling around Australia. And even though her role was unrelated to finance, the experience left a lasting impression.

“I thought it seemed like a really cool place to work,” she says, “so I resolved to go and work for them when I got back to the UK.”

As luck would have it, PwC UK advertised for assistant accountants soon after her return. She applied, was hired, and got on the path to becoming CFO.

Kirstine’s experience has made her a staunch advocate of apprenticeship schemes.

“I think it’s incredible that you can be qualified as an accountant at the age of 21,” she says. “[But] not everybody wants to get lumbered with, you know, tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt every year…”

“Apprenticeship schemes,” she continues, “give people from different walks of life the opportunity to better themselves and get that first step on the career ladder. Knowing you’ve got options should be empowering to young people… it’s something I didn’t have at school.”

Even for those who take the traditional path of going to uni straight out of college, Kirstine stresses that getting some work experience under your belt — even if it’s part-time — is massively important.

“…there are a lot of skills that you don’t get until you come into the world of work,” she says. “…entrepreneurial spirit… communication … even just logic and problem solving…”

Watching how your peers do things and learning from them can help you build the skills you need to be a great CFO later on.

4. From analyst to strategist: dotdigital’s Paraag Amin
Amin spent much of his career as a market analyst with major investment banks. But while he’d never worked in a purely financial role, his skill set was a perfect fit for dotdigital.

“CFOs are sometimes wrongly stereotyped as bean counters,” he says. But the role requires somebody who can “forecast and look ahead… translate the numbers into something tangible.”

As an analyst, this is exactly what Amin spent most of his work days doing.

“You’re modelling company financials… you’re meeting [and] evaluating management teams, and then you’re looking at business strategy,” he explains. “A lot of those skills are very transferable into management roles within businesses… Ultimately, that’s a lot of what a senior executive team needs to do.”

In dotdigital’s case, it helped that there were already several accountants in senior roles.

“At the time, all three of the board members were accountants, the financial controller was an accountant… we were very accountant-heavy,” he says.

What dotdigital needed was somebody who could take those numbers and build a picture of where the business was going, its strengths and weaknesses, and the threats and opportunities ahead.

But the ability to use numbers to formulate a narrative, says Amin, is increasingly important to any CFO, regardless of their background and the makeup of the organisation they work in.

“I think a large part of the modern CFO’s role is helping optimise internal processes within the finance function and the wider business… that digital transformation everyone’s talking about,” he explains.

As the person with access to “pretty much all of the data that sits within the organisation” the CFO is ideally placed to do this and to help other leaders across the organisation make decisions about the best way to use their resources.

5. Making your own luck: Hillspire’s Ken Goldman
Goldman‘s love of technology led him to study engineering. But he found himself being drawn to finance early on in his career.

This gave him the idea of blending the two together by building a technology-focused company where he’d be in charge of the financial direction. So he decided to move to California, where the tech industry was thriving.

As soon as he arrived, he started looking for jobs that would build up his financial experience. First, he worked as an accounting junior. Then he moved to the tech company Memorex.

“I learned about corporate budgeting… some Treasury… how to manage people,” he says. “It was important to me to get experience in all the major functions of finance.”

His hard work paid off, and, in 1989, he landed his first role as CFO.

Like Kirstine Archer, Goldman thinks real-world experience is key to succeeding as a CFO. “You don’t learn how to manage people by reading books,” he says. “You learn by trial and error… you find things that work for you.”

He also stresses the importance of making your own luck.

“You need to put yourself in position to do well,” he says. “You don’t necessarily control [when the right opportunity will come along] but you control your destiny in terms of the experience you want to get.”

Goldman has three pieces of advice for aspiring CFOs.

“I think, first of all… develop a track record of accomplishments, so you have something that demonstrates you’ve done real work and you’ve gotten things done. You’d be surprised how many people talk a good game but don’t get things done.

“[Second] be prepared. Try to get as much relevant experience as you possibly can. Learn how to work with a team and manage people, because it’s not obvious how to do that…

“[Third] network. All my roles came from my network. So be visible. Go to conferences and events. Make connections. It’s really important.”

There’s more than one way to become a CFO
“The role of CFO,” says Soldo CFO Dynshaw Italia, “has become much broader in scope. The traditional responsibilities like cash flow management, accounting and reporting, internal controls, financial planning and analysis, fundraising, and M&A are still there.

“But, on top of that, the CFO is expected to be much more involved in the strategic direction of the company, interpreting and providing insights on the huge volumes of data generated by businesses and dealing with the ever-increasing compliance requirements in an organisation.”

The upshot is that, while a good grounding in finance and knowledge of the business you work in are undoubtedly essential, succeeding as a CFO today requires a much wider breadth of experience.

Taking the road less travelled can help you become more well-rounded and enable you to approach the role with a fresh perspective.

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