When seeking CFOs to join one’s team, today’s CEOs are looking for someone who is already a culture fit, said Jeanne Branthover, head of financial services and fintech practice at executive search firm DHR Global.
“They want a CFO who fits into their culture, whether it's a fast-paced environment…whether it’s heavy mergers, the CEO is looking for a CFO who can keep up with them, who thinks like them,” Branthover said in an interview.
Finding a culture fit
Finding top-tier financial leadership can be tricky for companies today, many of which are seeking the perfect fit for their businesses’ unique needs as they struggle with persistent economic headwinds and other challenges. In recent weeks, companies including FIS, Walgreens Boot Alliance have announced changes to their financial leadership, with makeup company Revlon the latest to appoint a new CFO as part of wide-sweeping executive leadership changes aimed at fostering the company’s “next stage of growth,” for example.
Meanwhile, Walgreens — whose previous CFO is now headed to the top financial seat for payments processor FIS — is seeking a new finance head with healthcare experience as it embarks on an aggressive cost-savings plan with the aim of reaching $4.1 billion in cumulative savings by fiscal 2024.
For each of these companies, finding a finance chief who can mesh well with the CEO’s mindset and stated goals was likely top of mind, as in recent years the CFO role has steadily changed from that of a pure financial leader to a strategic partner in the business as well. Today, the “CFO should be someone that the CEO is relying on for information and experience that is needed to keep the company growing,” Branthover said.
A seven-year veteran of the Chicago, Illinois-based executive search firm, Branthover has served as the head of its financial services and fintech practices since 2019. Prior to joining the company, she founded and ran her own executive search firm, Branthover Associates, for two decades, according to her LinkedIn profile.
For up-and-coming finance chiefs, therefore, honing those strategic skill sets can help to eventually gain that position. “At the end of the day, what I see with my really strong CFOs is they are the advisors to the CEO,” Branthover said.
They need to consider, “what are the skills of today? And what are the skills of tomorrow?” she said of aspiring CFOs.
Thinking outside the industry box
Though the role of the finance chief has changed over the past few decades, historically for search professionals, the CFO “has been the one C-suite role that we've been able to cross industries,” she said.
Part of that flexibility is because those with finance backgrounds — particularly those who come from fields such as public accounting — already often swap industries, Branthover said.
At the same time, however, “nobody wants a CFO who’s learning on the job,” Branthover said. It’s crucial for CFOs to be able to understand the costs associated with their particular business, because if they lack that understanding they will be unable to set a strategy for managing the company’s funds, she said.
Walgreens, for example, is specifically seeking out a potential finance chief with healthcare experience as, in addition to their cost-savings plan, they are also focused on improving profitability for that sector of their business, CFO Dive previously reported.
The need for new skills or a different perspective can be a deciding factor when it comes to companies looking outside of the box. Technology “can play a big part in what they want the new CFO to be understanding of,” as well as the cost related to technology, Branthover said.
“Those are some of the things that we're seeing [where] they might want a different thinking person than they've had in the past,” she said regarding why companies may look for a finance leader outside of their usual industries.
The emphasis on having that greater understanding of technology within the C-suite has only grown since the COVID-19 pandemic. As tools such as generative AI and data analytics come to play a larger role inside of organizations, finance chiefs are feeling the pinch to rapidly become data experts, Versapay CFO Russell Lester told CFO Dive in a previous interview.