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How To Become A CFO

Chief financial officers (CFOs) play a central role in helping organizations navigate the complicated business world. While in the past a company’s CFO traditionally focused on its finances, as the business world has evolved over the last several decades, the expectations and demands placed on CFOs have intensified. Their roles within a company have greatly expanded. CFOs have gone from being guardians of organizations’ financial health and overseeing the financial control infrastructure to owning a plethora of responsibilities, such as making strategic and operational business decisions, overseeing compliance and control, understanding and upholding business ethics, and acting in a governance capacity, just to name a few.

CFO in suit using his phone

What Does A CFO Do?

The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) has five principles to guide a CFO in his or her role and describe typical expectations. These are:

  • Be an effective organizational leader and a key member of senior management
  • Balance the responsibilities of stewardship with business partnership
  • Act as the integrator and navigator for the organization
  • Be an effective leader of the finance and accounting function
  • Bring professional qualities to the role and the organization

In short, a good CFO supports the chief executive officer (CEO) and communicates key information and concepts to the board of directors so they may make the best decisions for the company. In addition to the skills and abilities already discussed, a CFO must also have the requisite financial and technical knowledge needed to become a CFO.

Typical Steps To Becoming A CFO

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 Business Insider, which surveyed 100 top-earning CFOs at medium- and large-sized companies, 17 percent earned a BS in accounting. An accounting degree ensures graduates have the knowledge base and skill set that allows them to gain experience and build expertise within the industry.

Step 2: Earn A Master’s Degree (Optional)

Aspiring CFOs pursuing their graduate degrees can attend classes full time or part time, depending on their responsibilities and professional obligations. Students aiming to become CFOs may find that a finance-related degree, such as a master’s degree in accounting, to be beneficial. Online degree programs, while open and worthwhile to anyone, are especially ideally for people with jobs and/or families, because some programs allow students to take courses around their own schedule.

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

Step 3: Build On-The-Job Experience

Searching out and applying for jobs with related titles can also increase one’s chances of moving into a CFO position. For example, pursuing positions with increasing responsibility within 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 roles that may not fit “traditional” CFO positions. 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.

Additional Certifications To Increase Marketability

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

  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA): This is the most well-known designation, and 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. They’re 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. ACFE research shows that companies that employ CFEs reduced their fraud losses by 62 percent, making this certification advantageous for a company’s bottom line.
  • Financial Risk Manager (FRM): Investopedia calls this certification the “globally recognized standard for measuring the skills and knowledge of those who manage financial risk.” The exam covers topics like quantitative analysis, valuation and risk models, and financial markets and products.
  • Certified Financial Analyst (CFA): Before the CFA certification was introduced, many financial professionals earned a graduate degree in business. This gave them the management skills they needed, but didn’t offer the specialized expertise — investment analysis, asset management, and portfolio strategy, for example — that CFOs need. This arduous certification teaches those investment techniques, putting certification holders on track for CFO positions.

CFO Salaries and Job Outlook

The salary and benefits that CFOs can receive reflects the hard work required to achieve that title. In 2017, the median salary for CFOs was about $125,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This means half of all CFOs earned more than $125,000, while the other half earned less. The BLS also predicts 19 percent job growth between 2016 and 2026, which is a “much faster than average” rate.

Organizations also often use stock options as a benefit and alternative form of compensation. Depending how many shares are owned (CFOs are typically offered options of between 1 and 3 percent) and the actual worth, the shareholder profits based upon how much the company profits. That helps ensure that part of the CFO’s compensation is performance-based.

Leading a financially successful business may be challenging, and with today’s added demands on CFOs, becoming one takes time and perseverance. However, the rewarding positions, positive job outlook, and competitive salary are just a few benefits of becoming a CFO that makes it worth the effort.

Start Your Journey Today

Learn how to become a CFO and explore the skills and expertise needed to advance a finance or accounting career by visiting Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Accounting program.


Business Insider

International Federation of Accountants

Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst Association

Association of Certified Fraud Examiners

Maryville: Bachelor of Science in Accounting

Maryville: Master of Science in Accounting



Robert Half

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics