The DNA of the CFO

What makes a chief financial officer

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It’s become fashionable to say that any ambitious CFO wants to be a CEO.

But in The DNA of the CFO a quite different picture emerges. We see a group of people whose unique optic on the business has rightly earned them promotion to the forefront. A group who are embracing their increasingly strategic remit. And, a group who see their career choice as one to be celebrated — not a staging post to the role of CEO.

Editor's note: This article is EY’s first study, conducted in 2010, where we painted a picture of a role that had already broadened to encompass not only traditional financial skills, but also more strategic and market-facing responsibilities. Read our latest research, conducted six years later, where we’ve found that change has accelerated more rapidly than many would have thought possible. Learn why in today's environment, perceptions of what makes a great CFO are harder to pin down, and the expectations of colleagues, including CEOs and supervisory boards, are shifting.

In the report we:

  • Update the now-clichéd “scorekeeper” to “strategic partner” story and address what strategic partner really means for the CFO. 35% describe themselves as playing a leading role in developing corporate strategy.
  • Challenge the commonly accepted wisdom of all CFOs being CEOs in waiting. 73% want to remain in role or become bigger and better CFOs.
  • Look at the elements to building key stakeholder relationships and the areas for future investment: Despite two thirds of respondents saying that increasingly they act as the public face of the organization, most point to communication and influencing as the most important area for improvement.
  • Describe the essential ingredients of a leading CFO and guidance for the aspiring CFO. 75% of respondents do not record having a fellow CFO they admire, which might be a reflection of their historical lack of focus on external profile building.
  • Look at the demographics and attributes which make up this unique community within EMEIA. The average CFO is male, aged 42 years and eight months, is highly educated, skilled and motivated and believes the appropriate tenure for the role is 5 years and 10 months.

The DNA of the CFO provides fresh insight into what it is to be a CFO today by talking to today’s CFOs. The report is based on a survey, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, of 669 senior finance professionals in Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa, and a program of in-depth interviews with leading CFOs and finance directors from these regions — allowing us to explore the distinctive qualities of this broad community of professionals.