Chief financial officers and other top executives have been front and center in the recent media coverage of corporate scandals. The fallout, which shook investor confidence, caused the SEC to pass the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which requires companies to implement new internal measures and disclosure controls.
At the same time, it may not come as a surprise that many chief financial officers are business school graduates, not certified public accountants. In the Fortune 500s CFO rankings, business-school graduates outnumber CPAs by nearly two to one, according to a recent survey by CFO Magazine.
When financial reports are questionable, a company’s chief financial officer assumes most of the culpability. However, for the chief financial officer—a key post in any organization—the role of corporate bean counter is only part of the job.
“At the end of the day, successful CFOs are those who are viewed as strategic business partners to the CEO,” says Charles Eldridge, manager of the chief financial officer practice at Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruitment firm in Atlanta. But even as a strategist, “They have to demonstrate a deep and broad understanding of their company’s business,” offers Gregg Smith, managing director of The Hollins Group, an African American retained search firm based in Chicago with offices in New York and Atlanta. Chief financial officers have to know the business inside and out. They have to know the business behind the numbers.
A typical chief financial officer might be a business school graduate with extensive operational experience, perhaps gained by running business units within a corporation. In addition, a chief financial officer might be expected to structure acquisitions or help take a company public.
But attempts to guard against future financial mishandling within companies may result in a long-lasting shift in the chief financial officer position from business visionary to financial controller. Consider Microsoft Inc. After decades with just one CFO, the Redmond, Washington-based software giant recently named separate chief financial officers for each of its seven business units to handle budgets and set financial targets, among other duties.
If your company is hunting for a finance chief, or if you are considering a top finance position, note these tips from accounting and recruiting experts:
Get back to the numbers. “What people want now is for us to get back to the basics,” says Kim Griffin-Hunter, national president of the National Association of Black Accountants and a partner in the Miami office of Deloitte & Touche, an international accounting and consulting firm. “If I were looking for a CFO,” she says, “my first qualification would be: Are they a [certified public accountant]?”
The CPA credentials, designated by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, “equate to integrity, trust, and high values,” says Korn/Ferry’s Eldridge, who notes that many of his clients are beefing up their finance staff with certified public accountants, particularly if their chief financial officer isn’t one. The course of study for most business school programs is 18 months to two years. Candidates must enroll in an additional year of accounting study and pass