Not just a figurehead

Published in Dialogue Review 

What’s the secret to leading the finance function of a large public company? Sally Percy reports

Setting aside the seven-figure salary, who would want to be a chief financial officer (CFO) of a major public company? You’re expected to be on call 24/7, have all the company’s numbers constantly at your fingertips, understand how to calm the nerves of even the edgiest analysts and investors, and be ready to jump on to an aeroplane at a moment’s notice to resolve a calamity on the other side of the world. As for your family life… what exactly is that again? All this hassle, and the average tenure of a CFO in the Fortune 500 is 5.9 years, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

You wouldn’t blame an outsider for finding the prospect of being a public company CFO rather unappealing. Yet the CFOs that I interviewed for my book, Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success, love what they do. And it is this passion for their work that makes up for the long hours, stress and career uncertainty associated with the job.

They like the fact that they get to kick around strategy ideas with the chief executive, commit large sums of money to potentially game-changing projects, and talk to influential people. “It’s a very exciting job where you can make an impact on people’s lives,” says Bank of America’s chief financial officer, Paul Donofrio.

Alongside all the other responsibilities that come with being CFO, the role is clearly a major leadership and management job. Donofrio, for example, presides over a finance function that numbers more than 4,000 people worldwide. And the finance functions of most large companies extend into the hundreds.

Since finance is critical to the smooth running of every major business, a CFO must be able to attract good people to work for them, lead and inspire those people, and manage them in a way that gets the best out of them. They also need to be a coach, mentor and sponsor, and be committed to developing the next generation of finance talent. So what makes someone a great leader of the finance function?

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