As the role of the CFO becomes increasingly complex, a number of competing theories have emerged regarding what’s required to excel in the job today. In an attempt to provide greater clarity around this issue—and separate fact from fiction—Russell Reynolds Associates analyzed the career patterns of every CFO in the Eurotop 100 to establish the experiences and underlying capabilities that define the route to the top and indicate how (if at all) that route has changed in recent years.
A New Generation of CFOs at Top European Companies
- Fully 74% of Eurotop 100 CFOs have held their current position for less than five years, indicating the emergence of a new class of CFOs across the largest companies in Europe. Perhaps more notably, 59% of this group have held their current position for less than three years.
- This new generation especially is prominent among internally promoted CFOs (77% have held their current position for less than five years) but also is notably prominent among externally hired CFOs (69% have held their current position for less than five years).
Majority of CFOs Promoted Internally; Meaningful Minority Hired Externally
- Sixty-four percent of Eurotop 100 CFOs were promoted internally, while 36% were recruited externally.
A Modest Shift toward Internal Promotions
- In the last three years, internal promotions have gained a slightly higher share of CFO appointments, representing 68% of all CFO hires. By contrast, 59% of CFOs appointed prior to 2009 were promoted internally.
A High Bar for External Hires
- Seventy-five percent of externally hired CFOs previously have held a top CFO role.
- Sixty-four percent of external hires were CFOs in their most recent role, 11% most recently held a deputy CFO position and 6% most recently served in a general manager position.
- Sixty-one percent of external hires have worked outside their home country. Of note, however, a comparable 64% of internal hires also have had international experience.
For the Majority of Internal Promotions, a Patient Path to the Top Job; for a Select Few, a Quick Step Up
- Fifty-five percent of internally promoted CFOs had at least 11 years of tenure with their organization prior to their promotion. More strikingly, 25% had more than 20 years of tenure with their organization prior to their promotion.
- That said, a meaningful share of internally promoted CFOs made very quick ascents to their post. Twenty-two percent of internally promoted CFOs had five years of tenure or less prior to their promotion to the top job. Perhaps more notably, fully 14% were clear heir apparent hires with less than one year of tenure prior to their promotion.
Common Roles on the Route to the Top
Dominance of Divisional General Management and Divisional CFO Experience
- Divisional leadership roles (both divisional general management and divisional CFO roles) are the most common jobs on the route to the top CFO post for Eurotop 100 CFOs:
- Fifty-eight percent of Eurotop 100 CFOs have had divisional or regional general management experience, making this role the most common job on the route to the top.
- Fifty-four percent of Eurotop 100 CFOs have had divisional or regional CFO experience, making this the second most common experience across the group.
Corporate Accounting Experience Significant
- Not surprisingly, corporate accounting experience also is prominent, with 43% of CFOs noting important leadership experience in this field.
Corporate Strategy and Business Development Highly and Increasingly Prevalent
- Corporate strategy and business development experience rank highly, with 40% of Eurotop 100 CFOs reporting a significant leadership role in this field.
A Small Club of Bankers … and a Very Small Club of Management Consultants
- Prior experience in banking is prevalent but not prominent. Twenty-five percent of Eurotop 100 CF0s have held senior banking roles.
- By contrast, significant management consulting experience is scarce. Nine percent of CFOs reported notable management consulting experience.
A Wide Mix of Finance Roles Broadly Typical; a Handful of Roles Decidedly Less Prevalent
- Senior corporate finance (32%), divisional/regional controller (18%) and treasury (18%) round out the most frequent roles across Eurotop 100 CFOs. Investor relations (12%) and financial planning and analysis (10%) experience notably are less prevalent.
Shifts in Route to the Top
Clear Shifts toward Safety and Strategy in Recent CFO Appointments
Recent CFO assignments point to a growing appetite for safe bets (i.e., those with relevant industry experience) and strategic perspectives (i.e., those with corporate strategy experience). The already strong desire for general management experience grew even stronger.
- Eighty-one percent of all Eurotop 100 CFOs hired in the last three years have had relevant industry experience vs. 63% for all CFOs hired prior to 2009.
- Forty-four percent appointed in the last three years have had corporate strategy experience vs. 34% hired prior to 2009.
- Sixty-one percent of those hired since 2009 have had general management experience vs. 56% hired prior to 2009.
- Seventeen percent of all Eurotop 100 CFOs hired since 2009 have reported a deputy CFO role vs. only 10% of CFOs hired prior to 2009.
Notable Shifts for External Hires
- An Increasingly Dominant Emphasis on Proven Experience in the Top Job: Of external candidates hired within the last three years, 84% already had been a sitting CFO vs. 65% of external candidates hired more than three years ago.
- Strange Bedfellows? A Growing Emphasis on Corporate Audit and Strategy: The prevalence of corporate audit experience grew substantially among externally hired CFOs appointed in the last three years (32% held this experience vs. 18% of those appointed more than three years ago). Likewise, corporate strategy/business development has become far more common among external hires (42% of those appointed in the last three years held this experience vs. 29% of those appointed more than three years ago).
The Elusiveness of “Check-All-the-Boxes” Candidates
- Even with their impressive backgrounds, few Eurotop 100 CFOs possess all the experiences commonly cited as must-haves on the route to the top. For example:
- CFOs with general management, strategy/corporate development and international experience: Only 6% of Eurotop 100 CFOs cite having all three of these experiences.
- CFOs who already have been a sitting CFO are operationally oriented (held divisional CFO role) and have an accounting qualification: Only 11% of Eurotop 100 CFOs cite having all three of these experiences.
Other Findings of Note
Women Still a Distinct Minority in the Eurotop 100 CFO Population; All Are Recent Appointments
- Women represent only 6% of Eurotop 100 CFOs.
- Five of the six female CFOs were promoted internally.
- Notably, all six have been appointed within the last three years.
- Three of the six are American citizens.
- British, French and German companies and their respective citizens are (perfectly) proportionally represented among Eurotop 100 CFOs:
- British companies represent 24% of the Eurotop 100 list, and 24% of Eurotop 100 CFOs are British.
- French companies represent 18% of the Eurotop 100 list, and 18% of Eurotop 100 CFOs are French.
- German companies represent 14% of the Eurotop 100 list, and 14% of Eurotop 100 CFOs are German.
- While British, French and German citizens collectively represent 56% of Eurotop 100 CFOs, the balance of the CFO population is represented by citizens of an additional 18 countries. In other words, three countries claim 56 CFO seats, while 18 countries claim the remaining 44%.
Russell Reynolds Associates is a global leader in assessment, recruitment and succession planning for Chief Executive Officers, boards of directors, and key roles within the C-suite. With more than 300 consultants in 41 offices around the world, we work closely with both public and private organizations across all industries and regions. We help our clients build boards and executive teams that can meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital, economic, environmental and political trends that are reshaping the global business environment. www.russellreynolds.com. Follow us on Twitter: @RRAonLeadership