I’m asked by a lot of young financial professionals what it takes to become a successful CFO. There is certainly no one right answer or one path to the top rung of the financial ladder. However, early on in your career there are distinct avenues you can follow to enhance your chances for getting to the top. Here are the two most common career paths:

Path #1: Start in Public Accounting with and earn your CPA

After you earn a CPA license, a technical accounting position such as SEC reporting is a good introduction to the corporate accounting field. From there you have two really big choices: go back to school and earn an MBA, or follow the corporate route to Controller. Once in the Controller seat, your best move is to take a job in a business function as an FP&A Leader, Business Unit Controller, or if you can get it, Investor Relations. To move forward in the tech industry, your work experience would ideally be a blend of larger public company and emerging growth company. This kind of background will position you well to become a CFO. But you would still need a break. We’ll get to that below.

Path #2: Get an MBA and Work in Investment Banking

The investment banking path is difficult because the work is really challenging for the first several years. (As are the first few years in Public Accounting!) And you will need an MBA to go this route, but that is nearly impossible to do while working in banking, so work that into your plans.

IF you can stick it out and succeed, many options will open up for you. With an MBA, you could go into consulting or back to banking. Most people who leave banking and go right into a CFO role will at least be a strong Vice President at the bank, or more likely a Director or Managing Director. Be aware that once a bank Director or above, the money is hard to walk away from. One good thing about this path is that you learn to sell. This skill is not commonly gained working one’s way up in corporate accounting. More on this too, below.

Both of these paths can lead to CFO, but to different kinds. And of course, neither path will equip you with the full set of skills an experienced CFO will have. There is only one way to get that: by working in the role! The fun in what we do at Arnold Partners is working with our clients to flush out what type of CFO they need and why.

Behind Door #1

So let’s say you choose path number one. The challenge you will face is that a CEO and Board will still need to take a chance on you. They will need to believe that your background is really solid, and that you will make the right calls. Many times this break comes from a “battlefield” promotion: the CFO leaves the company, chaos ensues, the CEO looks around and picks the highest qualified finance person in the company and runs with it. Right place right time, but you made your own luck too! Sometimes this break comes when a CFO, who is at a new company, wants a succession plan and plucks you for that. Rarely does this break come through executive search.

Behind Door #2

Let’s say you select path number two and get to the VP level. Most likely you are going to get hired as CFO by a client who has seen you in action. Or perhaps you leave banking for an interim finance role to sharpen the skills that are missing from the typical CFO profile. If you are really well known in the particular industry you serve, companies within that industry will seek you out. Rarely does this break come through executive search either.

The Secret Sauce

The skills that separate the great CFOs from the also rans has less to do with either of these paths however. The sought-after CFOs have other qualities that separate them from the pack: executive presence, excellent verbal communication skills, the ability to influence outcomes with nuance and finesse, and ultimately the ability to sell. All of these abilities can be learned, primarily by being mentored by the right people. So as you progress in your career no matter your path, the most important thing you can do is to find a very successful person to help mentor you in the soft skills that will help you develop from a financial professional to a business professional. If you are coming up the ladder of a finance career and need advice on your next move, please feel free to contact me at Dave@arnoldpartners.com.