Career progression advice for FDs and CFOs


On-point number-crunching will take you a long way, but to reach the upper echelons, you’ll need to add strings to your bow. With assistance from your employer, your peers and a reliable mentor, the top prize should be well within your grasp.

From FD to CFO

The next logical step for an FD looking for greater responsibility and an increase in salary is to secure a seat at the executive table in the chief financial officer role.

But while your accounting and finance credentials are important, a CFO needs a much broader set of skills. An FD has influence, a CFO is looked upon to lead.

Most successful FDs realise the need to understand their organisation outside of the finance function, but CFOs are required become involved in each department, influencing and making operational decisions, taking on extra levels of responsibility beyond the numbers.

CFOs must be big-picture, strategic thinkers, going beyond ensuring spending remains efficient, to exploring commercial options which help a business identify and seize opportunities for growth. FDs tend to work for CEOs, whereas CFOs work with them, to partner, advise and challenge.

What next for CFOs?

The road from FD to CFO may seem like a natural progression, but after that it becomes less clear. The chief executive mantle has obvious appeal, but only around one fifth of FTSE 100 CEOs progressed from the CFO role, and half did so indirectly.

Rightly or wrongly, finance professionals can be pigeonholed as ‘good with numbers’, and this is a perception it’s up to you to shake. Becoming more involved with the operational side of the business is a necessity,

Not only can you do this as an effective CFO by immersing yourself in all areas of the organisation, but an official chief operating officer’s role can really help solidify your credentials.

Another vastly important aspect of CEO success is the ability to communicate and lead a business, an attribute it’s never too early to start developing. Begin by taking responsibility for leading your own team, by communicating and working with other departments, consider mentoring junior employees inside or outside of your business, and many CFOs find taking additional, non-executive director roles at other organisations to be vastly useful in advancing their skills.

Alternatively, some industry commentators believe finance professionals make for a better chairman than CEO. It’s a role that involves influencing decision-makers, a talent all successful CFOs will have honed, rather than the direct leadership of the CEO.

Asking for help

When working towards your career objectives, there’s no shame in asking for help from those around you. No man is an island, after all.

Discussing your goals with your superiors and with HR will encourage them to treat you as an individual with potential. This might mean involving you in a greater variety of projects, asking for your input on a wider range of topics or sharing more of the company’s inner workings with you – all of which will create a solid platform for your next step up. The goal is to have as much experience before the opportunity of a promotion arises, then when the time comes you’re the natural fit.

If they don’t believe you’re ready, ask about training and development options, either internally or via courses. It can be daunting to tell a superior you’re essentially gunning for their job. But they probably have aspirations of their own, and you’re more likely to find someone who would take pride in grooming a protege than someone who would spitefully stunt your career to save their own. And if you come up against the latter, then they were always going to hamper your progress anyway, so better to find out now.

In some instances, your organisation won’t have any opportunities open in the foreseeable future, or may not see you as the solution. Knowing this early is better than unsuccessfully knocking on the door for years. Now you can consider a move to another organisation, one that is more willing to help you develop and progress.


Mentors are invaluable sources of information and support. A mentor should be someone you can communicate with openly and honestly, somebody’s whose advice you respect but that you also feel you can challenge. The best mentors will have experience in a situation similar to yours in a similar industry. This can either be a superior, someone from your networking group, or you can even contact an inspiring social media commentator.

Mentoring works both ways, too. Make yourself available as a mentor to others and you’ll learn a lot about yourself, build your communication skills and develop a reputation as a leader: a generous team player interested in the development of others.