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Financial Officers

Inside the Mind of the CFO

Rigor in motion and balance. Russell Reynolds Associates' Inside the Mind of... series addresses the leadership and behavioral attributes of various groups of executives.

August 13, 2015

Russell Reynolds Associates’ Inside the Mind of … series addresses the leadership and behavioral attributes of various groups of executives. In this installment, we examine the CFO—rigor in motion and balance.

Of all C-suite figures, chief financial officers (CFO) often are tasked with the most difficult balancing act. They are asked to be detail-oriented experts in everything from accounting to information technology, while, at the same time, they are expected to generate a strategic vision at the highest level for a company’s financial path forward. With each passing year, the CFO role grows in complexity and accountability, and the robust and rich capabilities of those filling the role reflect this expanding responsibility.


The Russell Reynolds Associates database—unique in that it contains more than 5,000 data points from the top ranks of corporations worldwide—allows us to make statistically driven observations about the characteristics possessed by leaders in a particular field.

Our methodology was straightforward: We compared 129 CFOs with our broader database of executives (as well as with chief executive officers (CEO)) on 60 psychometric scales from well-validated leadership assessments to understand on which scales the CFOs showed statistical differences from the other populations. We then conducted similar analysis comparing CFOs assessed in various years, public vs. private CFOs and enterprise vs. divisional CFOs.

CFOs are rapid-fire analytical engines and play a key role in keeping the C-suite in balance.

Unsurprisingly, CFOs have the greatest data orientation in the C-suite. What’s interesting, though, is that this strong analytical bent serves them for far more than just crunching numbers—it drives an objective and logical approach to problem solving that nicely counterbalances the more emotionally inflected nature of figures such as chief marketing officers. Coupled with an interpersonally centered temperament, CFOs’ ability to take action rapidly is a tremendous asset to their senior team colleagues. Not surprisingly, we see the same trait when we examine successful CEOs.

CFOs eyeing the CEO job bring both significant assets and developmental challenges to the role.

When we examined CFOs’ leadership and behavioral attributes vs. those of CEOs, a fascinating picture emerged. As the CEO role changes under ever more competitive and chaotic business conditions, CFOs have a number of traits that will equip them to truly flourish in the CEO role. To succeed, though, they will have to address certain behavioral facets that may hold them back from optimal performance as a CEO.


  1. Find their "innovation sweet spot"—bringing new data-driven ideas to life.

  2. Embrace the power of introverted leadership. Significant recent research shows that introverts can be compelling and highly effective leaders when they leverage their contemplative authenticity properly.

CFOs turned CEO have found the transition challenging but rewarding.

CFOs with different personality attributes have served the needs of the full spectrum of the economic cycle.

Our analysis of CFO data by year shows a fascinating relationship between CFO attributes and the global economic cycle. In boom times, CFOs were less cautious and more unassuming; when boom turned to bust in 2008, a new breed of CFOs used imagination and bold leadership to help their company through the recession. Today’s CFOs are focused on keeping things on track and out of trouble—often to the point of perfectionism. We might connect this trend to the rise of the qualified accountant as CFO. However, we see this characteristic manifested even among advisor CFOs (former bankers, consultants and the like) and thus also attribute this movement to ever greater regulatory pressure for CFOs to be absolutely crisp on the details.

Do CFOs in divergent roles show marked personality differences?

Yes and no. Perhaps owing to the fact that the underlying talent pool is quite similar, public and private company CFOs showed very little differences from each other. When we compared enterprise vs. divisional CFOs, though, the enterprise CFO group was both calmer by nature and more willing to jump in and take the right risks.

What’s next for CFOs?

  •  Increasing complexity and regulation mean that boards are requiring CFOs to possess a strategic mindset in addition to technical/commercial/operational know-how:
— In particular, a passion for complexity and deep intellectual curiosity characterizes the CFOs who succeed most prominently against this mandate.

— This breed of CFOs truly can be considered a co-pilot alongside the CEO of their company.
  • Growing stakeholder challenges may generate a class of CFOs with stronger attributes around interpersonal and written communications—and a more CEO-like lack of reserve.
  • Continued swings in the economic cycle may continue to shift needed CFO attributes, with a higher degree of boldness emerging in more difficult economic times.
  • CFOs have an ever greater range of options when they leave the CFO role—the most interesting of which is a pipeline becoming increasingly more direct to the board chairman role.


JENNA FISHER leads the Financial Officers Practice in the Americas and specializes in leading senior financial officer and board-level assignments, serving clients across various sectors, including the technology, consumer, healthcare and retail industries. She is based in San Francisco.

SUZZANE WOOD leads the firm’s European Financial Officers Practice across all sectors and is a member of the CEO/Board Practice, specializing in CFO succession and audit chair appointments.

MELISSA SWIFT is the firm’s Global Knowledge Leader for Leadership & Succession. She is based in New York.

Analysis conducted by ERIN MARIE CONKLIN.

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We work with public, private, family-owned, private equity-backed and growth stage companies around the globe to recruit transformational financial executives.
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Inside the Mind of the CFO