Revisiting the Question “Should a CFO be an Accountant?”

Stathis Gould | March 9, 2020 |

The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is an important role – and one that continues to expand and transform. As growing uncertainty and risk permeate every organization, and businesses begin to think about value beyond a shareholders’ perspective, the CFO role is an increasingly central one.

These changes beg an important question: should the CFO be a professional accountant?

Where Are we Now?

I attempted to answer this question in 2014. At that time, the data showed that having an accountant in a CFO role was far from universal. This trend has only deepened over time.

A recent survey of the 1,000 largest U.S. public companies found that the proportion of CFOs who are certified public accountants fell to about 36% in 2019. This is the lowest figure in six years, down from 46% in 2014.

The analysis suggests that, in the U.S. at least,  the pendulum has swung again from the significant pressure to have technically competent, accounting-literate CFOs following high-profile corporate failures and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, to a preference for CFOs focused on capital markets, equity and debt financing, and externally communicating to the market. Consequently, senior accounting and controller positions are typically occupied by accountants.

In the UK, on the other hand, an accountancy qualification is typically required to become the CFO of FTSE 100 companies. An accountancy background is also a good route to the top with a fifth of FTSE 100 CEOs being accountants.

There are time-tested benefits to choosing a CFO who is a professional accountant and a member of a professional accountancy organization. In addition to their continuing professional development obligations, professional accountants must adhere to the Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants, which is anchored by the fundamental ethical principles of integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality, and professional behavior. If a professional accountant breaches the Code of Ethics, they face consequences such as financial penalties or losing their membership to the profession.

The CFO of a public interest entity is, in many countries, responsible for a company’s financial management and signs off on its financial statements. This inherently represents a public interest responsibility and a professional accountant in this role provides confidence to the market and stakeholders.

The question of whether a CFO should be an accountant – while important – misses a larger point about the future of the accountancy profession and what motivates people to join it.

The reality is that most professional accountants do not necessarily strive to be CFOs when they “grow up”. Career paths are no longer linear and hierarchical.

Changing Career Paths

With the expectations on CFOs and their finance teams changing, many new roles and opportunities are on offer. Accountancy is now seen as a pathway to a career in business – and securing the CFO position is not often the end-goal. Many accountants apply their business and finance skills in commercial or operational roles. Others assume strategy and planning-based roles. And many hold senior positions beyond finance and accounting.

Career pathways for accountants are increasingly non-linear. The ACCA report, Future ready: accountancy careers in the 2020s, shows how career paths in the profession will become more diverse as technology blurs the work divide between humans and machines.

The research shows that career pathways are, and will be, less anchored on the traditional hierarchical and pyramid-shaped organizations. This means that lattice career trajectories will prevail as organizational structures become more fluid and traditional hierarchies are reimagined. In flatter organizations, upward progression is not as important as it once was. Indeed, new approaches to securing needed talent and a distributed workforce will mean more contingent or contract work.

Accounting and finance professionals are already working within organizations to improve decision-making and business performance in a range of settings– a trend we expect to continue in the future.

Accountants now work in a variety of areas, including financial planning and analysis (FP&A), information systems, technology and data, commercial or business analysis, planning, appraisal, cost, risk, project and sustainability management. Accounting professionals also contribute uniquely through specialist roles, such as in treasury, reporting or investor relations.

The Rise of the Chief Value Officer

In addition to evolving accounting roles, today’s CFOs are experiencing another kind of transformation. CFOs and their teams must increasingly focus on accounting for value creation beyond a balance sheet or shareholder perspective.

IFAC believes that the CFO role will evolve into a “Chief Value Officer” (CVO) role, which will focus on accounting for the business and value creation. The CVO must ensure that all relevant aspects of value creation and destruction are accounted for and communicated to boards, management, and external stakeholders.

This transition will lead to a greater diversity of professionals occupying the CFO seat. And the more experiences and competencies these professionals bring to the table, the better they will be able to deal with a broad set of stakeholders, and to address a wide array of opportunities and risks facing the organization.

Revisiting the Question “Should a CFO be an Accountant?”

The initial question I raised yields no specific answer, but instead reveals two important points:

  1. The evolution of the CFO and finance function is inevitable and represents a great opportunity for professionals – whether they are accountants or not; and
  2. The skills that professional accountants possess transcend disciplines and functions – which is important as skills become more diffuse and must support value creation and protection.

The attraction of accountancy is that it provides a range of challenging and unique opportunities in business and the public sector. With a focus on solving business problems and preparing for future challenges, it is not only the CFO role that provides accountants with a platform to make a difference.

 

Stathis Gould

Director, Advocacy, IFAC

Stathis Gould heads up the development of international services for professional accountants working in business and industry at IFAC. A key element of his work is developing thought leadership and guidance in support of finance professionals and their roles facilitating sustainable organizational performance. Before moving to IFAC, he was at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) responsible for planning and overseeing a program of policy and research. Prior to serving the accountancy profession, Mr. Gould worked in various roles in the private and public sectors in the UK. See more by Stathis Gould

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