Though I can outline the process for you in 4 steps, make sure you’re in it for the long haul - a CFO in 2023 has an average of 8-10 years of experience in varied financial and leadership positions before stepping into the role.
The role of a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is critically important to the success of a growth-stage technology company. As the company grows and expands, the CFO is responsible for financial strategy, operations, and reporting, as well as managing risks and securing funding.
The most revolutionary of businesses can still fail due to lack of financial controls and thus, a shrewd, strategic CFO can make the difference between failure and a market-changing company.
In this article, I’ll go over the responsibilities of a CFO in a modern tech company, the importance of the role, and the potential salary range for a CFO career. I’ll also cover the most effective skill set, work experience, and networking opportunities you can find in order to slingshot your way to the top.
Chief Financial Officer Responsibilities
The CFO's responsibilities in a modern tech company are broad and varied but generally include financial planning and analysis, financial risk and opportunity management, leading financial reporting and compliance, overseeing financial operations, and developing financial strategies that align with business objectives. Let's look at the main areas in greater detail.
The big one: FP&A. Financial planning and analysis involves forecasting the company's realistic financial performance and developing budgets to achieve the company's goals, which is easier said than done. Contrary to popular belief, while short-term forecasts (1 year or less) are absolutely meant to be financially correct, long-term financial forecasts are not designed or expected to be accurate; rather, they’re about understanding and testing different scenarios, growth and contingency planning, and modeling other hypotheticals.
The CFO is also expected to own and manage financial risks and opportunities; for example, if you’re the CFO of Silicon Valley Bank and you have billions of dollars in government bonds that are rapidly losing value due to inflation, it’s your responsibility to come up with a thoughtfully considered plan for selling these bonds without inciting panic. As far as opportunities go, a product or service can often be optimized financially to achieve outsized returns without any major complications of the product or service development. For example, experimenting with payment terms on either side of the business can create extremely favorable cash flow improvements, without changing any central elements of the product.
Financial reporting and compliance involves ensuring that the company's financial statements are accurate and comply with accounting standards and regulations; a necessary responsibility of business that the CFO owns. The CFO must also oversee financial operations, including accounting, treasury, and tax functions, to ensure that they are efficient and effective. Though they likely have teams and software to ensure that accuracy and compliance are maintained, they are ultimately responsible for this and thus, need to be triple-checking that everything is as it should be.
One of the most important functions of a CFO, and likely one of the reasons you want to become one, is the role that a CFO has in the strategic development of an organization. They must develop financial strategies that align with the company's business objectives; however, they are also necessary for all other strategic conversations as a sober second look, aligning the desire to move forward with the necessity of being profitable. This involves setting and recording financial KPIs for each business unit, ensuring alignment of objectives, and accurately forecasting costs and profitability.
Moreover, the CFO works with other executives in the organization to make non-operational strategic decisions and participates in mergers and acquisitions, fundraising, and investor relations activities. Therefore, a CFO must have exceptional leadership, communication, and analytical skills to handle these responsibilities effectively.
The Importance Of A CFO Position
Why are any C-Suite executives important within a business? The CFO is a strategic leader, operational manager, and visionary for the business. They need to understand the pulse of the organization, lend their expertise to the business, and create a more effective and efficient financial system within it.
With that said, you can see how the CFO's role is critically important to a tech company's success. In the world of technology (and especially in start-ups), many founders & CEOs lack the pragmatic skills associated with financial leadership. They're full of optimism, vision, and lofty ambition; however, they require someone well-versed in the numbers to help them make efficient financial decisions and turn their ideas into reality. A competent CFO provides financial leadership and insight that help guide the company's strategic decisions, ensure that the company's finances are managed efficiently and effectively, and help secure funding and investment that allows the company to grow and expand.
The salary of a CFO in a growth-stage technology company can vary widely depending on the company's size, location, industry, and other factors.
Generally, CFOs in tech companies can easily earn a six-figure salary, with the potential for significant bonuses and equity. According to recent surveys, the median base salary for a CFO in a tech company is around $260,000, with the potential to earn more based on performance and company success.
Preparing for the Role
These are the 5 general steps you’re going to want to cover off your list in order to be considered for a CFO position in the future. Consider what you’ve already completed from this list and any areas that you’re lacking.
Once you’ve determined the gaps in your CV, you can create a plan of action!
1. Get a Bachelor’s Degree in a Relevant Field
Let’s start from the start. If you’re still early in your career and don’t have a professional degree, I have unfortunate news: the CFO profession is most certainly one that requires you to have that expensive piece of paper we call a degree (at least, in any established company).
Whereas you can learn how to succeed in a few other C-Suite roles through extensive on-the-ground experience (ie becoming CEO or COO after founding a start-up and attending the YouTube School of Business), CFOs deal with intricate functions, models, and regulations that have severe ramifications if done incorrectly.
As you may have guessed, the most common undergraduate degrees for CFOs include Commerce, Business Management, Accounting, and Finance.
2. Consider an Advanced Academic Certification or Master’s Degree
To best prepare for a CFO role, you should consider pursuing advanced academic certifications such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA), Certified Public Accountant (CPA), or Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). I’ve put together a collection of finance certifications that will help you to get ahead in the industry, though the best certification for a CFO is going to be as much up to your personal strengths as it will be up to the type of company you’re looking to lead.
While not all CFOs have advanced degrees, many of the most useful pre-CFO roles you’ll find (ie Management Consultant, M&A Consultant/Operator, CMA, etc.) are going to primarily look at candidates that have that secondary piece of expensive paper.
3. Gain Experience
You’d think this was an obvious one; however, I’ve seen a few overzealous young graduates attempt to take over as CFO in pre-seed-stage start-ups, just for the founder(s) to painstakingly come to realize their books have been botched by an inexperienced professional.
Chances are, the operators that you’d want to work with aren’t going to take unnecessary risks and consider those without extensive experience already under their belts. After all, capital is the lifeblood of all capitalist organizations - it’s best not to handle it lightly.
If you’re early in your career and lack the experience to get into a decision-making position, consider the support roles that back up these functions. Whether it’s starting out building and maintaining the financial models, accounts, or slide decks, it’s a shrewd decision to check your ego at the door in order to learn as many functional details about the finance profession as you can.
If you’re able to try out a few different types of roles, even better. Commonly, high-performing CFOs (and those with longer tenure) are individuals that have varied experience within the financial world, between leadership and contributor positions.
Some of the best areas to look for varied work in are:
- Investor Relations
- Business Operations
- Risk Management
- Cash Flow Management
- Management Consulting
- Supply Chain
- Revenue Operations
Though there’s no single way to rise to the top of the finance function, look for areas that play into your strengths. If you’re primarily introverted and prefer to lose yourself in spreadsheets, look for data-driven roles that allow you to present insights and find opportunities in those same spreadsheets. If you’re more extroverted and a natural leader, start trying to manage up in your positions and demonstrate strategic awareness and an understanding of the big picture.
At the end of the day, the more experience you have, the better likelihood you’ll find yourself in the CFO position. Plus, the journey is as important as the destination! Find positions that challenge you and stimulate your mind and be cognizant of the fact that you’re going to be in those positions for a while. There is no direct career path into the C-Suite, so you should follow your interests, challenge yourself, and prepare for a long journey.
Networking in order to build strong connections in the finance industry is essential and can help you learn about new opportunities and collaborate with like-minded professionals. In today's highly competitive business environment, it is essential to have a strong network of professionals who can help you advance your career and achieve your goals.
Networking is not just about meeting people and exchanging business cards; it's about building relationships and establishing trust. It's about finding common ground and working together towards a common goal. If you’re only there to gain something from someone else, it'll become obvious and you’ll end up failing (quickly).
Joining Professional Associations and Organizations
One of the best ways to build a strong network in the finance industry is by joining professional associations and organizations. There are several finance, accounting, and business associations and organizations that aspiring CFOs can join, such as the Association of Financial Professionals (AFP) or the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). These organizations provide access to networking events, job opportunities, and professional development resources.
By joining a professional organization, you can meet other professionals in your field who share your interests and goals. You can attend conferences and seminars, participate in webinars and online forums, and access valuable resources such as industry reports, white papers, and research studies.
Wondering what to talk about? Consider reading some of the top books for CFOs in 2023. Chances are, other members are going to have read, or want to read, the books on this list, which will give you some common ground to bond over (whilst demonstrating your genuine interest in the financial function).
Attending Conferences and Networking Events
Attending finance industry events and conferences can provide opportunities to meet other finance professionals, learn about new trends, and connect with potential employers or partners. These events are a great way to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in the world of finance and to learn about new products and services that can help you in your career.
Here’s a list of US conferences that CFOs (whether current or aspiring) should consider attending in 2023.
At these events, you can also participate in panel discussions and workshops, where you can learn from industry experts and share your own insights and experiences. If you’re looking for something more intimate, you can also attend networking events such as cocktail parties and dinners, where you can meet other professionals in a more relaxed setting.
Building a Strong Professional Network
Besides events and associations, maintaining a strong professional network through social media and professional affiliations with other consultants and industry experts can provide access to valuable resources and recommendations.
Social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter can be powerful tools for building and maintaining your professional network. Now, more than ever, people can catapult their careers and become world-renowned experts by sharing insights and information in newsletters or for free on social media. Take CJ Gustafson, author of Mostly Metrics as an example: by writing a newsletter about financial concepts within technology, CJ earned himself a place as the CFO of a Series B tech company - whilst building an owned audience and giving himself a diversified income source, he was able to share his insights, distribute them on social media, and earn himself a reputation as a thought leader and expert within finance.
Create content, create demand for your expertise, then fulfill that demand.
Professional affiliations with other consultants and industry experts can also provide opportunities for collaboration and knowledge-sharing. If you’re an expert at accounting but not well-equipped to do financial modeling, consider finding a financial modeling expert to partner with. Learn from them and share what you know to achieve a better final product. After all, this is the ultimate form of networking: showcasing functional expertise and becoming known for it, whilst learning new skills from other people.
Important Skills for CFOs
Some skills, you expect: financial management, knowing the accounting principles, and expertise in strategic planning. Others, you may take for granted: leadership skills, human resource management skills, communication, and collaboration.
Bottom line: in order to be a successful, well-rounded CFO, you need to have and demonstrate a variety of skills - whether that be through recommendations from respected industry leaders, clear examples of your work in the public realm, or proclamations on your resume. Check out my deep dive into the top skills for current and aspiring CFOs for more detail.
Benefits of Becoming a Chief Financial Officer
Depending on what drives you, the central benefit will vary. If you care for prestige or a (very) comfortable income, you’re going to love the title and compensation.
If you’re more purpose-driven, you may relish the fact that you can help great organizations succeed by knowing their numbers.
If you’re a problem-solver, you’re going to dream about the ability to strategize and execute those strategies alongside other professionals at the top of their game.
Regardless of your reason, becoming a CFO is not for the faint of heart; the title comes with long hours, high levels of stress, competing priorities, burdensome responsibilities, and more. As a CFO, you’re somewhat cursed: you can’t “un-see the numbers”. By intimately knowing and being familiar with the financial position of the business, many Chief Financial Officers carry the financial stress of the business on their shoulders at all times.
In short: learn how to meditate.
Time for Action
Becoming a CFO in a growth-stage technology company is a highly sought-after position, with significant responsibility and compensation potential. However, it requires a combination of education, work experience, technical and soft skills, and networking. By understanding the necessary steps to become a CFO and developing the appropriate skills and experience, you can position yourself for success in this critical role.
Now that you have a general picture of what you need to do, create a plan - if you’re well into your career and considering the final things you need to become a CFO, you should have a short list of things to plan for. If you’re still early on, you can set an overarching plan for your career.
Regardless of where you’re at, you also need to remember to leave room for flexibility. These things rarely, if ever, happen exactly the way we plan, so buckle up, subscribe to The CFO Club, and enjoy the ride to the top.
Keep it in the black (and be sure to come back),