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The finance skills needed to become a CFO go much past "wizardly at Excel".

Today's CFOs are expected to possess a diverse range of skills to navigate the rapidly changing business environment successfully.

I'll go over the most important skills needed to be successful as a CFO in 2023.

Hard Financial Skills for a CFO

Consider your ideal business, industry, and growth trajectory, and consider these skills in that context.

Often, the most valuable skills you can have are the ones that are going to become mission-critical one year from today.

Financial Analysis

An astute CFO should have a strong background in financial analysis.

They should be proficient in:

These skills are critical to providing valuable insights into the organization's financial health and identifying opportunities for improvement.

But the biggest value here is in being able to translate the data and equip your whole team with it.

Other executives are going to have other functional advantages; make your models so clear that they don’t need to understand every nuance to use them effectively.


A CFO should have an in-depth understanding of accounting principles and practices, including Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)

While you don’t necessarily need hands-on accounting experience to be an effective CFO for many businesses, you should possess some functional accounting skills.

It’s your job to oversee and manage the accounting function of the business, therefore, you'll be the one answering the board's questions about it.

Strategic Planning

Gone are the days of bean counters; we’re in the era of the strategic CFO.

To be a useful business partner, you should be developing and implementing financial strategies that align with the organization's overall business objectives, as well as proposing strategic initiatives to help push the business forward.

At the basic level, this involves setting financial goals, forecasting financial performance, and creating budgets.

At a higher level, strategic planning involves:

  • Taking inventory of everything within the business and benchmarking its value
  • Making decisions about what to invest in, reduce, or eliminate
  • Connecting the vision and mission with market viability
  • Exploring the value of financial opportunities (and creating realistic financial plans) given your current business capabilities
  • Creating go-to-market strategies
  • Augmenting marketing and sales strategies with financial information and insights

If you want to stand out, you should be prepared to hit the ground running with financial analysis and organizational goal-setting.

Risk Management

Don’t be Silicon Valley Bank. In other words, don’t ignore the risks or refuse to take the time to consider them.

To be an effective CFO, you should be able to identify and mitigate financial risks for your organization.

You should have experience with credit, market, operational, and financial risk analysis, with an ability to implement risk management strategies in the event these things come to fruition.

Nassim N. Taleb, Professor of Risk Engineering and author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable listed six mistakes that executives make in risk management, including:

  1. Trying to predict extreme events
  2. Relying on past data to predict future events
  3. Not listening to prudent advice

And more. You can read his full essay over at HBR.

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Financial Management

I know, I know, you expected this one. But if you want to be a useful CFO, you should ensure you have experience managing all financial operations, including:

  • Overseeing financial transactions
  • Cash flow management
  • Making investment decisions
  • Developing financial policies and procedures

Plus, you should be able to do all of this while maintaining a healthy buffer to manage risk. PS: most jobs are going to want you to do this as soon as you start.

Data Analysis

Financial operators in 2024 need to be data scientists - you should be able to collect, gather, and interpret data from your organization to make informed decisions about how to proceed as a business.

Internal financial data is important, of course, but the ability to understand and synthesize useful information from external data is what makes the difference between a financial operator and a finance leader.

You should be comfortable using various tools and technologies, such as artificial general intelligence, data visualization software, and business intelligence software.


Most organizations don’t have a Compliance officer, so this role falls to the CFO.

You must be familiar with relevant financial regulations and compliance requirements, such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules, and ensure that your entire organization is adhering to them at all times.

If there are additional compliance requirements in your industry, you need to be aware of what they are, how they develop, and what you need to do to stay current and stay ahead.

You should also be bringing up and guarding against other risks, such as the risk of payment fraud or international economic changes.


While most organizations have a reliable accounting team or external service provider working on the taxation side of things, the benefits of taxation familiarity extend far past year-end filings and rebates. 

An understanding of tax implications, requirements, and possible advantages can not only help you reserve more cash over the long term but can also help avoid large unforeseen tax bills when operating in a new jurisdiction.

Use knowledge to garner favor

Advertise your knowledge in personal finance, including personal tax advantages for employees, so that employees develop a positive relationship with you from the start.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Whether you’re looking to acquire new business units to build a deeper moat around your own business or become acquired yourself, there are myriad benefits to being “the M&A person”.

Performing and delegating necessary functions, including conducting due diligence, negotiating deals, and integrating acquired businesses, can elevate you from “nice to have” to “need to have” executive in a heartbeat, solidifying your impact on the organization.

Soft Skills for a CFO

But I should just be able to focus on the numbers!

Maybe the above comment was true 20 years ago but, in 2024, ignoring the soft skills that modern finance leaders need is a surefire way to keep yourself out of the top position. A CFO needs to be well-connected:

  • To their peers, to understand what new tactics and strategies are gaining ground and showing outsized success;
  • To their external environment, to stay abreast on developments in and surrounding their industry; and
  • To their team, since talent acquisition and retention within finance and accounting are becoming incredibly difficult (and don’t look to be getting easier any time soon).

And connection is often impossible without these human skills behind them.


Duh. All business leaders need to have strong leadership qualities; however, this term can be used very broadly and doesn’t often dive into the practical details. 

CFOs, as well as all C-Suite management, should be concerned with reducing barriers and enabling their teams to perform at the highest caliber.

While a CFO is primarily enabling those in finance roles to succeed, their support enables all members of an organization.

Plus, leadership is an active term, not a passive one. To be an accomplished CFO, you must be able to lead by example to create a culture of accountability and high performance.


Take one of the previous, obvious skills that a CFO should have: financial management. You can be great at it, by the numbers, but pitiful at ensuring it’s being followed if you’re a poor communicator.

Say you have a CEO who founded the business and has a bit of a… spending problem. They’re quick to approve large expenditures and quicker to suggest them, without actively tracking the ROI of each spend.

You may want to sit back and wait for the Board to expunge the CEO but, if you haven’t done anything about it, you’re going to be headed out right alongside them.

By working on your communication skills, you can ensure that all stakeholders know what's going on with the organization’s finances, thus enabling your financial management skills to shine.

Tailor your communication

You need to be able to change how you communicate depending on your audience. By explaining finances in a way that makes sense, you’ll ensure everyone is properly informed.


You are not an island.

To ensure financial goals are aligned and achieved, a CFO must establish effective partnerships with other internal departments and teams, such as sales, marketing, and operations.

Oh, and if the perspective on those partnerships is “I need to report this to finance so they can say no to it”, you’re going to face a lot of resistance in your position.

You must be able to give ground as well as take it, ensuring that others understand the why behind every no and become agents of yours throughout the business.


Mike Tyson said it best when he stated, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Your plans will change, your environment will change, and, for everyone’s sake, don’t hardcode values into your Excel models.

A useful CFO needs to be able to pivot quickly in response to changes in the business environment.

We all know that the past few years haven’t exactly been the most consistent in the global environment, so you better be ready to create a few different forecasts and have flexible contingency plans up your sleeve when change comes a-knockin’.

Emotional Intelligence

This is one of the most overlooked and important soft skills for a CFO to possess in our modern business context.

If you only see employees as numbers and efficiencies, you’re going to find that there are more than a few agents of change within your organization who want you out.

Instead of taking the cold, hard approach to scenarios, consider what the numbers tell you and how realistic the strategies you’re proposing are for the people involved.

If you read the models and see that everyone’s favorite business unit, Unit A, is a financial sink for the company, whereas everyone’s least favorite business unit, Unit B, is the most profitable, you have an interesting scenario ahead of you.

Of course, you could simply suggest that you scrap Unit A and pursue Unit B entirely but, in reality, that may not be the best course of action. Instead, you could practice your emotional intelligence by empathizing with the employees’ desires to work on Unit A and figure out ways to make it financially viable or keep it as a passion project, rather than eliminating it outright.


You don’t rise to the top position within the financial function by not being able to solve problems. The CFO has a notorious reputation for saying no, presenting facts, and walking away… but that’s very far from the reality of the role.

Just as you prize employees who come up with solutions rather than perpetual problems, you’re similarly regarded.

A CFO should be able to identify problems and develop creative solutions to address them, such as alternative strategies to make Unit A profitable in the example given before.

Take a bird's eye view

You have access to all the numbers; a privilege most don’t share. Use this knowledge to connect the dots and come up with creative interdepartmental solutions.

With all that said, I'll remind you once again that you are not an island!

Many executives find it useful to create a stable group of trusted advisors that can help do this with you, such as a community of peers and mentors.


Say you have a sales leader who drives exceptional results... but also submits exceptional expenses.

Instead of simply saying “no” to their requests (and causing them to look externally for a role with more leeway on the spending account), you should be more diplomatic and seek out the why.

If you understand an internal employee’s why, you can negotiate with them and make them feel as though they have a real say in the decisions that are being prescribed to them.

In reality, you likely have more power in many internal negotiations you perform but your counterpart shouldn't feel as though this is the case.

By giving agency to employees, you create more satisfied and engaged employees, keeping them performing at a high level for the long term.

Outside of your business, most of your procurement efforts will also require sharp negotiation skills to save big in the long term.

Prompt Engineering

Tech fluency is making headlines (and for good reason).

As new technologies emerge, CFOs must know these technologies and be able to leverage them to drive financial performance.

Alongside new technologies come new skills, including prompt engineering, which involves leveraging automation and artificial intelligence to streamline financial reporting and operations and improve financial performance.

By understanding prompt engineering and working with your tech team to create lasting advantages with your prompts, you can cut the time you spend on routine tasks, focusing on strategic problem-solving instead.

Why Are These Skills Important for a CFO to Have?

Hard skills are essential for a CFO to have because they form the foundation of financial management. Realistically, all finance jobs are going to require you to have a handful of these skills; the CFO is simply the one who needs to oversee them all.

Soft skills are equally important for a CFO to have because they enable them to succeed with your biggest asset: people.

While possessing all of the outlined skills would certainly be ideal, it may not be realistic to expect CFOs to possess every single one at the highest level of proficiency.

Ultimately, the success of a CFO is not solely dependent on their individual skills, but also on their ability to build and lead a high-performing team that can complement and support their skills.

A CFO who can delegate tasks, collaborate effectively with team members, and leverage the strengths of their team will be better equipped to succeed in their role.

How to Gain Them

Here are some tips to help you on your journey to becoming a CFO:

  1. Build a diverse skillset: To be a successful CFO, you will need to have a solid understanding of financial management, strategic planning, and leadership. Take advantage of training programs, workshops, and conferences to develop your skills and stay up-to-date with the latest trends and best practices. Offer your insights more readily.
  2. Expand your experience: CFOs need to have a broad understanding of different areas of finance, such as financial reporting, analysis, and forecasting. Look for opportunities to gain experience in different areas of finance, such as working on cross-functional projects or taking on additional responsibilities outside of your current role.
  3. Develop your leadership skills: CFOs need to be effective leaders who can inspire and motivate their team, communicate effectively with stakeholders, and make tough decisions. Look for opportunities to develop your leadership skills, such as taking on a leadership role in a professional organization or mentoring junior members of your team.
  4. Build your network: Networking is an important part of advancing your career and becoming a CFO. Attend industry conferences, join professional organizations, and connect with other finance professionals to build your network and learn from others.
  5. Seek out a mentor: Finding a mentor who has experience as a CFO can be a valuable resource in your career development. A mentor can offer guidance and advice on career advancement, provide feedback on your skills and abilities, and help you navigate the challenges of the role.
  6. Stay up-to-date with emerging trends: CFOs need to be aware of emerging trends in finance and technology, such as automation and artificial general intelligence. Keep up-to-date with the latest developments in your industry and seek out opportunities to learn about emerging trends and their potential impact on finance.

Becoming a CFO takes time and effort, but by building out a skillset according to your strengths and referencing them against the list above, you’ll be well on your way in no time.

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By Simon Litt

Simon Litt is the Editor of The CFO Club, where he shares his passion for all things money-related. Performing research, talking to experts, and calling on his own professional background, he'll be working hard to ensure that The CFO Club is an indispensable resource for anyone seeking to stay informed on the latest financial trends and topics in the world of tech.

Prior to editing this publication, Simon spent years working in, and running his own, investor relations agency, servicing public companies that wanted to reach and connect deeper with their shareholder base. Simon's experience includes constructing comprehensive budgets for IR activities, consulting CEOs & executive teams on best practices for the public markets, and facilitating compliant communications training.