CFO Profiles in PE-Backed Environments

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The CFO role has evolved significantly over time, which adds to the challenge of finding finance executives whose knowledge, skills, experience, and disposition fit your current business needs. This is true whether your focus is on strategic leadership, organizational restructuring, performance management, digital transformation, financial stability or elevation, or a combination of any of the above.

The 3 CFO Profiles

There is no single CFO profile that fits the needs of every company. Your company must target candidates with competencies that best fit your strategy, the composition of your executive team, and your current finance-function capabilities. However, there are three CFO profiles that offer a glimpse into how the CFO role is evolving and raise important questions to consider when you’re hiring your next CFO. These are:

The Strategist

The Strategist acts as the financial and strategic conscious of the company, providing the leadership necessary to align financial and business strategies while driving company performance. They partner with the CEO and board while exhibiting strong communication skills with a focus on transparency, objectivity, and honesty. They are externally focused, with an eye toward the market.

The Most Important Experiences for Strategists

  • Treasury
  • Capital markets
  • Investor relations
  • IPOs
  • Debt and equity financing
  • Board of directors (BOD) communication

The Key Capabilities and Skills of Strategists

  • Business ambassadorship
  • Investor roadshows
  • Financial playbooks
  • Operational excellence
  • Strategic decision-making
  • Company scaling

Additionally, the Strategist’s success relies on their ability to act as a thought partner to other functional leads, as well as to build teams, systems, and processes for growth.

Critical Issues That Strategists Face

  • Determining strategic direction
  • Managing capital market expectations
  • Acquiring new capital
  • Navigating difficult capital markets
  • Executing mergers
  • Balancing risk and opportunities
  • Staying ahead of trends

Expected Education for Strategists

Strategists typically have an MBA or CFA background.

Typical Career Path for Strategists

Many Strategists work in investment banking. Their career is likely to be enhanced by some CFO experience.

The Disciplined Operator

Having spent time outside the finance organization in such areas as operations, strategy, marketing, or general management, the Disciplined Operator tends to engage heavily in business operations and strategy. Making use of strong industry and competitive insights, they focus on operational efficiency, operational effectiveness, cash flow, and adding value to revenue owners.

The Most Important Experiences for Disciplined Operators

  • Financing planning and analysis (FP&A)
  • Audit and compliance
  • Treasury
  • Financial reporting
  • Controllership
  • Forecasting and planning

The Key Capabilities and Skills of Discipline Operators

  • Navigation of corporate dynamics
  • Copiloting with the CEO
  • Operational excellence
  • Situational assessment
  • Hands-on engagement with business operations
  • Value-creating, KPI-based decisioning

Additional skills that may be instrumental to their success include:

  • New financial model management at an accelerated pace
  • Management reporting
  • Business partnership
  • Corporate development
  • Process standardization

Critical Issues That Discipline Operators Face

  • Establishing an efficient finance function
  • Evolving finance and/or business model and talent to match growth
  • Driving return on investment (ROI) through accountability
  • Adapting to global change
  • Managing risks related to growth

Expected Education for Disciplined Operators

Disciplined Operators often have an MBA or CPA.

Typical Career Path for Disciplined Operators

A Disciplined Operator may begin in company accounting and work their way up to controller, chief accounting officer, or possibly CFO.

The Finance Expert

With a good working knowledge of the company and a resume that includes multiple roles within the finance function (e.g., controller, treasury, audit, FP&A, or business unit finance), the Finance Expert uses expertise in finance and accounting to provide the CEO and board with the financial information required to make sound business decisions. This role is especially important in early-stage business scaling and professionalizing the finance and accounting function. They are controller-level focused with an eye on financial stewardship.

The Most Important Experiences for Finance Experts

  • Financial discipline
  • FP&A
  • Reporting systems
  • Controllership
  • Financial reporting

The Key Capabilities and Skills of Finance Experts 

  • Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP)
  • Finance
  • Risk management
  • Asset preservation

Skills in the following areas are also a plus:

  • Treasury
  • Debt and equity financing
  • Capital markets
  • Investor relations
  • Credit agency relations

Critical Issues That Finance Experts Face

  • Providing quality data
  • Implementing sound operational controls
  • Complying with complex regulatory requirements
  • Instilling good corporate governance
  • Adjusting to business model changes

Expected Education for Finance Experts

A Finance Expert should have a CPA.

Typical Career Path for Finance Experts

Finance Experts often begin in public accounting, namely as CPAs.

At Focus Search Partners, we have extensive experience helping businesses accurately assess their environment to expertly match it to the most appropriate CFO profile. That includes combining aspects of multiple profiles to create a hybrid that’s right for you. Contact our team for assistance identifying the ideal CFO for you.

By Heather Johnson, Managing Director at Focus Search Partners

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