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Earning Your CFO Degree: Become a CFO

Chief financial officers (CFOs) play a central role in helping organizations navigate the complex business environment. While historically a CFO focused on a company’s finances, the expectations and demands placed on CFOs have changed and intensified as the business world has evolved.

The role of a company CFO has changed from being the guardian and overseer of an organization’s financial health and infrastructure to shouldering a host of additional responsibilities. A CFO’s expanded impact now typically includes making strategic and operational business decisions, overseeing compliance and control, understanding and upholding business ethics, and taking an active role in corporate governance, just to name a few new duties.

Those exploring how to become a CFO would do well to take a closer look at the scope of a CFO’s work, as well as the benefits of earning a master’s degree.

A CFO is giving a presentation to a finance team while standing at a flipchart.

What does a CFO do?

An integral member of the C-suite, the CFO supports the chief executive officer (CEO) and communicates key information and concepts to the board of directors so they can make strategic decisions for the organization. This requires both financial and technical knowledge. Additionally, today’s digital age has resulted in the expansion of a CFO’s purview. The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) describes eight priorities for a CFO today, including the following.

  • Directing activities of the finance function to support business objectives and create value
  • Digitalizing finance and accounting tasks and other business processes
  • Leveraging the power of financial and nonfinancial data to understand value drivers
  • Capturing value creation with value metrics linked to incentives and rewards
  • Improving decision support information throughout the organization
  • Ensuring robust fiscal control and security
  • Developing financial talent, capacity, diversity, and ways of working
  • Enabling multi-capital reporting and communication of value beyond the financials

With the rising digitalization of finance, CFOs are now required to focus their efforts on leveraging available relevant technology, such as data analytics and automation, to gain a competitive advantage for their companies.

By using these tools and others, CFOs can make more insightful decisions and better direct the paths of their organizations.
CFOs have moved past simply preparing reports and tracking income and expenses. Instead, they now act as key members of the leadership teams that project the long-term visions of organizations.

CFO degree and career requirements

Looking to better understand how to become a CFO? The following steps chart a path for gaining the education, experience, and certifications to secure a CFO position.

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree

Earning a bachelor’s in accounting is a common and effective first step for students pursuing a CFO position. According to the financial data provider Business Insider, which surveyed 100 top-earning CFOs at medium- and large-sized companies, 17% of CFOs earned a BS in accounting. An accounting degree is shown to equip graduates with the knowledge base and skill set to gain experience and build expertise in the field of corporate finance.

Step 2: Earn a master’s degree (optional)

Aspiring CFOs pursuing their graduate degrees can attend classes on a full- or part-time basis, depending on their responsibilities and professional obligations. While not a CFO degree requirement, students aiming to become CFOs may find a finance-related graduate degree, such as a master’s degree in accounting, to be beneficial.

Online degree programs, while open and worthwhile to anyone, are especially well suited for professionals with jobs and/or families, because some programs allow students to take courses on their own schedule.

Whether choosing an online or an in-person program, earning a Master of Science in Accounting can place graduates on paths toward leadership positions such as the CFO role. An accounting graduate degree may also help prepare students for the CPA exam, learn modern accounting practices, and expand their knowledge of business strategy.

Step 3: Build on-the-job experience

Searching out and applying for similar positions can also increase the chances of becoming a CFO. For example, pursuing positions with increasing responsibility in an accounting department, or working in a corporate treasury department, increases professional experience in funding and strategy, which are key to CFO positions.

Accounting and finance professionals who want to become CFOs should also be willing and prepared to take on expanded responsibilities that may go beyond the “traditional” role of the position. These days, many companies expect CFOs to also oversee the IT and human resources departments, for example. Expanded roles can lead to experience in cybersecurity, big data analysis, and cloud computing, which can all be beneficial skills for those pursuing a CFO job.

CFO career path: Additional certifications to increase marketability

Earning a master’s degree in accounting lays the educational foundation for aspiring CFOs. However, earning further certifications and licenses can increase potential upward mobility. Holding certifications and licenses can set applicants apart and one day put them in the lead for a CFO position. While not comprehensive, the following list offers a selection of possible continuing education certifications for finance and accounting professionals.

  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA): This well-recognized designation is also the oldest. CPAs are the only type of accountants licensed by a state government and allowed to write audits and offer opinions on the financial situation or outlook for publicly traded companies. CPAs are also certified to sign tax returns and represent clients to the IRS.
  • Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA): This certification helps financial managers better understand the evolving financial world so they may explain, discuss, and position complicated asset classes to earn the most for their clients.
  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE): This credential and membership with the national Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) documents a finance professional’s experience, knowledge, and expertise.
  • Financial Risk Manager (FRM): This certification is viewed as a global standard for managing financial risk. The exam covers topics such as quantitative analysis, valuation and risk models, and financial markets and products.
  • Certified Financial Analyst (CFA): The CFA certification gives professionals the specialized expertise — in investment analysis, asset management, and portfolio strategy, for example — required of CFOs.

Industries that employ CFOs

The expertise of CFOs makes them valuable to organizations across nearly every industry. While about 30% of CFOs work in finance and insurance, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many other industries employ CFOs. The manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, IT, and construction industries all prize the skills CFOs provide.

CFO salaries and job outlook

The salary and benefits that CFOs can receive reflect the hard work required to achieve that title. In 2020, the median annual salary for financial managers including CFOs was $134,180, according to the BLS. The BLS also projects 15% job growth between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the average growth of all occupations combined (4%).

Organizations also often use stock options as a fringe benefit and supplementary form of compensation. Depending on the number (CFOs are typically offered options of between 1% and 3%) and value of shares owned, the shareholder’s compensation is tied to the company’s stock price, which helps ensure the CFO’s compensation is based on company performance.

Leading a financially successful business is challenging. And with today’s added demands on CFOs, ascending to the role takes time and perseverance. However, the rewarding work, positive job outlook, and competitive salary are just a few of the benefits that make becoming a CFO worth the effort.

Start your journey today

Individuals with the ambition to become a CFO should explore the degree requirements for aspiring finance professionals. Discover the skills and expertise to advance your finance or accounting career by learning more about the online Master of Science in Accounting program at Maryville University.

Recommended Reading

How to Become a CPA

How to Become an Actuary

The Top Four Accounting Firms: Who are They and Why Work for Them

Sources

Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, “Become a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)”

Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst Association, “Charter Candidates”

Forbes, “Best Private Student Loans Of July 2021”

International Federation of Accountants, “A Vision for the CFO & Finance Function”

Investopedia, “Financial Risk Manager (FRM)”

Robert Half, “For Many Finance Leaders, the CFO Path Includes Diverse Career Steps”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Financial Managers”