What does it take for a CFO to become CEO?

What does it take for a CFO to become CEO?

You may have seen me in your inbox twice this morning. 

I had the opportunity to write today’s CEO Daily, filling in for Fortune CEO Alan Murray. The column is all about how CFOs are increasingly seeking the CEO role. You can read it here.

However, the transition of a finance chief to a chief executive can have some complexities, even though CFOs and CEOs are strategic partners who work together closely, according to Jenna B. Bayard, a consultant at Spencer Stuart, a global executive search and leadership consulting firm.

“CFOs have spent the majority of their careers looking at decisions based on numbers and data,” Bayard explains. “For decades, as they rise through the ranks in a finance department, they are being asked to look at the pros and cons of a particular strategy and to help identify and mitigate risk. We find this approach is often in conflict with unfettered visionary thinking, where risk-taking might be required to drive innovation or invest in growth.”

For insight on the transition, I talked with Ali Dibadj, the former CFO and head of strategy at the investment firm AllianceBernstein (NYSE: AB), who became CEO in June 2022 at the global active asset manager Janus Henderson Group PLC (NYSE: JHG).

“Successful CFOs typically have a proven track record of weighing investments in top-line growth with bottom-line results, working closely with the CEO and board,” he tells me. “That ability to balance is essential for a CEO as well, of course. However, to be a good CEO, financial executives must offer the organization they lead a broader set of skills.” And it’s a robust list. Dibadj ticked off: “team problem solving; developing a strategy; articulating a vision; creating followership; and communicating effectively internally and externally with many stakeholders like clients, employees, shareholders, regulators, communities, partners,” among the necessary skills.

No two CFOs share the same background or experiences, Dibadj says. “Some financial executives are problem-solving people while others are more tactical,” he says. “Some CFOs are highly effective communicators and motivators while others are in roles that may be less visible to internal and external stakeholders. Good CEOs must possess all of these dimensions.”

Dibadj also offered advice for CFOs wanting to reach the CEO seat: “Say ‘yes’ to opportunities that will give you a chance to learn new skills essential to being a CEO—especially if it’s a bit uncomfortable.” He continues, “Try not to devote all of your time to projects that feed into your strengths. Putting yourself in new situations that require filling some of your gaps around communicating a vision for the future or motivating teams will better prepare you for the next step.”

A Spencer Stuart report released in July analyzed more than 1,300 CEO transitions and found about 8% of CFOs-turned-CEOs steered their companies to what the researchers consider the “top-quartile of performance.” While 60.5% had mid-quartile performance, and 31.6% had bottom-quartile performance. But Bayard also says there are steps a current CFO can take in preparation for the CEO role: “Finding ways to problem solve with new perspectives is critical; that could be getting closer to the commercial aspects of the business through additional role responsibilities, but it also could be spending time to reflect on the biases one might bring when making a recommendation. ‘Am I thinking about growth potential? Or am I only worried about cash flow and how we’re going to fund x, y, and z next year?”

Other critical steps include, “building your peer set internally that can help broaden your perspectives” and “developing your own succession plan in the finance department; this demonstrates people development skills, which are critical for a top-performing CEO,” she says.

The path of CFO to CEO takes work. But the results can certainly be worth it if that’s your career goal.

Have a good weekend. Take care.

Sheryl Estrada
[email protected]

Upcoming event: The next Fortune Emerging CFO virtual event, “Addressing the Talent Gap with Advanced Technologies,” presented in partnership with Workday (a CFO Daily sponsor), will take place from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. EST on April 12. Matt Heimer, executive editor of features at Fortune, and I will be joined by Katie Rooney, CFO at Alight Solutions; and Andrew McAfee, cofounder and codirector of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and principal research scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management. Click here to learn more and register.

Big deal

Many short sellers did not see the recent failures of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence data. Short interest in financials stocks sold on all major U.S. exchanges was at 1.41%, at the end of February, the lowest of any sector and 9 basis points lower than it was at the end of 2022, the analysis found. However, at the end of February, short interest in consumer discretionary stocks was at 5.67%. The most-shorted sector continues to be consumer discretionary as sellers “continue to bet that persistently high inflation will lessen demand,” according to the report.

Courtesy of S&P Global Market Intelligence data

Going deeper

Here are a few Fortune weekend reads:

“Citigroup boss Jane Fraser blames banking crisis on a few bad apples: ‘This is not a credit crisis'” by Christiaan Hetzner

“U.S. Banks are sitting on $1.7 trillion in unrealized losses, research says. That’s not a problem—until it is” by Will Daniel

“Workers of all generations finally agree on something: Putting happiness above career ambitions” by Megan Leonhardt

“Finland tops list of world’s happiest countries” by Chris Morris


Here’s a list of some notable moves this week:

Christine Dorfler was named CFO of The National Football League (NFL), effective May 1. Dorfler is a 21-year veteran of NBCUniversal. She was most recently the CFO of NBC Sports. Before NBC Sports, she was the CFO of the NBC and Telemundo-owned television stations. Joe Siclare, who served as the NFL’s CFO from 2011-2022 before transitioning to his current position as EVP of finance and league policy, will continue his 30-year career at the league and assist in Dorfler’s transition.

Lance Tucker was promoted to CFO at Papa John’s International, Inc. (Nasdaq: PZZA). Tucker succeeds David Flanery, who will retire from Papa John’s after 16 years with the company. Tucker, 42, has served as Papa John’s SVP of strategic planning and chief of staff since 2010. He has 20 years of finance and management experience, including previously serving in manager and director of finance roles at Papa John’s from 1994 to 1999. Before Papa John’s, Tucker was CFO of Evergreen Real Estate, LLC.

Terry Murphy was named CFO at LastPass, a password manager. He brings more than 20 years of experience in financial leadership roles at public and private companies. Before joining LastPass, Murphy served as CFO at Qualio, a SaaS B2B life sciences provider. He’s also previously served as CFO at Kenna Security and Whitehat Security.

Narayan Menon was named CFO at Matillion, a data productivity cloud company. Menon brings over 25 years of experience in finance and operations. Most recently, Menon served as CFO of Vimeo Inc., where he helped raise multiple rounds of funding and took the company public in 2021. He’s also held senior executive roles at Prezi, Intuit, and Microsoft. Menon also served as an advisory board member for the Rutgers University Big Data program.

Christopher R. Riley was named CFO at Nymox Pharmaceutical Corporation (Nasdaq: NYMX). Riley is a globally experienced executive. He was previously CFO for Frito-Lay Australia, where he was in charge of the snack food division. He also served as CEO of PepsiCo Australia.


“This is not the financial crisis. The majority of banks will be fine. All large banks will be fine.”

—Alexander Yokum, an equity research analyst at CFRA, told CNBC about the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank.