Who wants to be a Millionaire…..CFO?

There’s a growing cohort of chief financial officers (CFO) who are part of the million-dollar CFO club in Australia. This group of luminaries includes Qantas’ CFO Tino La Spina, who earned $3.48 million in 2018, ANZ Bank’s CFO Michelle Jablko who earned $2.75 million – down from $3.24 million the previous year – as well as Amcor’s CFO Michael Casamento on $2.12 million and even NAB’s CFO, Gary Lennon, who earned $1.52 million last year. But just what does it take to earn such a high salary, it’s disclosed in your company’s annual report?

Matt Clarke-Bruce is the CFO of ANC, a national delivery company with clients including furniture store IKEA, Williams-Sonoma cookware and hardware chain Bunnings. He has some advice for CFOs who wish to reach the top echelons.

“You need a solid base of career capital. You need to know what you are doing and be able to look at the numbers and identify the problems.”

When it comes to qualifications, Amanda Williams, a partner at global talent firm KornFerry’s who is responsible for CFO appointments, says most very senior CFOs have a commerce degree, possibly with a higher degree in economics.

“Many – but not all – spend time early in their careers with accounting firms, possibly as auditors, or in business services. They must be either a chartered accountant or CPA. Many will have an MBA but this is not mandatory,” she says.

Ben Wheeler, director of recruitment firm people2people, says CFOs with an MBA tend to take on broader roles that oversee more than the finance function. “People in this position are able to transition to a CEO or general management role more easily than those without this qualification.”

Qualifications aside, experience in a listed company is essential for top finance chiefs, says Williams.

“CFOs are expected to be strategic business partners to the CEO and fellow executive committee members. They must have strategic finance skills in capital planning, mergers and acquisitions and business planning and be able to manage the investor relations and tax functions. They also require the leadership and operational capabilities to grow a business and manage change.”

Tone at the top

Learning how to lead different teams within an organisation is essential for any CFO with aspirations to earn millions. Indeed, Wheeler says lack of leadership skills is what holds many CFOs back. “Taking the step to being a leader rather than a doer can be a real challenge, and getting out of the detail can be almost impossible for some. The reality is CFOs cannot be involved in every last detail. To work effectively at a strategic level, you will need to delegate.”

The first step to developing leadership skills, says Allan Marks, managing partner of CFO recruiters Boyden, is acknowledging you need to learn them.

“CFOs have to accept they need to learn those skills, then it’s a process of self-development,”

he argues. Marks agrees nurturing their team and delegating is essential for top CFOs.

“They have to develop their team to make sure day-to-day tasks are done efficiently, so they are not drawn too much into the detail and have a level of confidence about what’s going on,” he adds.

For Clarke-Bruce, becoming a genuine leader has required an appreciation of indirect leadership responsibilities.

“It’s not just about the team that directly reports to you; at times it’s appropriate to influence teams in other areas of the business. This includes teams you are part of and report into, right up to shareholders.

“I’ve concentrated on how I can communicate better, be a better listener, ask better questions, be a better business partner, use storytelling to engage people and better understand social cues to participate,” he adds.

Clarke-Bruce has also developed a value-driven mindset, with an emphasis on appreciating intangible value. “I’m now commonly heard to say cheap is just too costly.”

Importantly, CFOs must have the confidence and credibility to challenge the CEO or the board when it’s appropriate – and have substantial endurance and stamina.

Lessons for ambitions CFOs

If you want the top job, forget about developing technical skills you can pay others to perform. Instead, focus on developing the skills that will enhance your ability to effectively engage, partner and lead.

“Be someone the CEO wants to talk business with, who can offer commercial support to people at all levels within the organisation. Put yourself out there by being a walking, talking CFO. If you can become someone people want to talk to, you’ll be well positioned to have more control over your career,” says Clarke-Bruce.

“During these conversations always speak the kind truth. Be willing to speak your mind, but always do so constructively and respectfully. People love it and appreciate it. It’s rare,” he adds.

Clarke-Bruce says it’s also essential to deeply consider what life success looks like for you and the cost of career success on your bigger picture. “You can control this.”

He also recommends CFOs who want to be successful invest in themselves. “If your employer won’t fund this, pay a coach or mentor. And never sell your integrity because you can’t buy it back.”

Wheeler agrees: “Your brand and reputation are everything. Never comprise or risk your career by being involved in an organisation that could taint your personal brand in the future.”

Williams’ advice to upstart CFOs is to gain broad experience across various industries. “Your finance credentials are the foundation of your career, but we are increasingly looking for people who view the world through a strategic lens, not just a financial lens. Most importantly, be aware of your company’s strategy and the issues and challenges they face and how the CFO fits into the solution.”

The message for CFOs with dollar signs in their eyes is to continually be on the lookout for opportunities to grow your network and learn from peers and those more senior than you. Embracing every new challenge and constantly looking to add value to the organisation and your personal brand is the best way to join the million-dollar CFO club.