Finance Professionals: How to Pave the Way for a Career Pivot
As part of this year’s CFO Connect Summit, we addressed a topic which often lies in the back of finance professionals’ heads as they evolve in their careers: how can one take the right steps and grow the relevant skills to prepare for a potential career pivot?
Especially in tech companies, which tend to be product- or sales-centric, it’s fairly uncommon for CFOs to become CEOs. Indeed, CEOs are expected to have a product or a sales background, with finance relegated to second place. So, how can we change these expectations?
To answer this burning question, we invited two seasoned professionals. Thibault Remy is CEO of Meilleurs Agents, the French real estate service for individuals selling property, and Aviv Seller Group, one of the world's leading digital publishers (part of Alex Springer). Younès Rharbaoui is CFO of The Family - a fellowship helping founders build repeatable, scalable and profitable business models in exchange for 5% equity.
Back when they were kids, neither of them envisioned a finance career… While Younès pictured himself an NBA player, Thibault wanted to become a race driver. And yet, their journeys led them along a very different path. But today, neither of them feels ‘trapped’ in the financial industry, and they expect their career to keep evolving!
They shared with us the key ingredients for a finance professional to build an agile profile, wide enough to one day potentially be a CEO. Watch the full replay, or read the highlights below.
Table of contents
The skills you need to become a CFO
The conversation mainly focused on pivoting from finance to another career or department. But our guests also exchanged insights about the range of experiences one can pursue within a finance career itself.
As Thibault mentions, “having worked in finance for more than 10 years, there are many wonderful things to do in [various] financial departments, and also many career paths [one] can take.”
Becoming a CFO is already in itself quite the journey for finance professionals. This is why we asked our guests for the essential skills to master to be eligible for this position!
According to Younès, “the most obvious one is the management. When you’re a junior, you [have to] do things yourself. Being in an executive position means that you’ll trust people to do that. And your job is to bring them up to speed on the different topics that the company requires.”
For him, this means thinking more like a coach. “You try to put the people in the right mindset first, and then in the right position to actually be able to deliver the best as an organization. That's something that matters a lot to me.”
Second, “you get more into governance questions. Decision making is much more important as a skill, because you get to see all of the moving parts of the business.”
Thus people skills are increasingly necessary within a finance career. As Thibault sums up, “the key when you become a CFO is to surround yourself with the people who will be able to go really deep in all of the specific areas of expertise needed for you to then look at the bigger picture.”
Building the right skillset to anticipate a career pivot
A career pivot from finance to a role like CEO can sound like a daunting task. Indeed, one may imagine that this transition comes with a substantial list of requirements and new skills to learn.
But as Thibault and Younès explain, it actually all comes down to developing the right mindset and solid routine.
According to Thibault, “what’s really important for any change in your career is to be able to embrace change.”
“It's not that easy when you’re working in finance, because we tend to like when things are quite steady, when we can work for hours on a specific model or spreadsheet. [But change] is how [you] will learn. And that's how [you] will become a more powerful CFO, and be able also to open up to other solutions or career opportunities.”
For Younès, the best way to augment your skills is “by being on the lookout for what's new in tech, what's new in product. [This is especially true] because we're in an environment where a lot of new things are happening.” His second tip concerns skills: “I think another thing that CFOs can do is expand their range of personal skills. For example, doing a little bit of automation can be very helpful.”
Switching industries to gain more diverse experience
Flexibility is an essential skill to pivot from a finance career to another sector. And changing industries can be a great way to upgrade your knowledge
For Thibault, this type of professional move yields several benefits: “Learning from all these different industries, of course opens up your mind, and then you are able to replicate things that you've seen. It gives you much more perspective on what you are going through. That's really helpful to have these kinds of insights.
“It's of the utmost importance for me to be able to surround myself and to hire people from different backgrounds. I needed to compensate for this lack of ‘personal knowhow’ of all these different industries which I didn’t explore.”
Another alternative to consider is going into consulting, as a way to diversify your knowledge. As Younès explains, “From the moment you start raising money, it's obvious that you’ll need a CFO. Very often, you can rely on external help to do that. And these external consultants quite often come from finance backgrounds, they have been doing that from within a team.”
“They have boomed through Series A, Series B at several companies, and then they decided to start their consulting business. It's a very entrepreneurial journey, but you get to retain all of your finance skills, expand them, replicate them... You get to see a lot of very different cases, [as] you move from industry to industry. That's a great path for people who want to [pivot in their career] while they're in the finance team somewhere.”
From a junior finance position to CEO: Thibault’s career pivot
From finance manager to CFO to CEO, Thibault Remy has experienced a rich professional journey. When asked about the elements that facilitated his career pivot and made him right for the position, he replied without an ounce of hesitation: “the biggest asset I would say I had for me was that I was really close to the founders. I already knew and embraced the vision and the strategy of the company. It was easy for me to become the CEO. Indeed, I was able to continue the job that we had done over the past years and to replicate it.”
But how can finance managers and CFOs become ‘close to the business,’ as Thibault advocates? According to him, it all comes from “the way you are doing your job on a day to day basis as a CFO, because there are many different ways of doing this job. You can either be a consultant who just develops controlling tools, and [monitors] what happens. Or you can also - and that's the path I chose to take - concentrate on everything related to being able to anticipate and create predictive models and work on where the company is going, how the company will evolve. Upon doing this, you become able to make smart proposals to [optimise how] the different teams [perform].”
This mindset is exactly what made Thibault a business partner to all of the different top managers in his company.
And last but not least, he points out that management skills make a difference. “When my own team grew, I was able to develop my management skills. That was also very crucial to me to understand and that I really liked that.”
Entrepreneurship, the missing link in finance careers
During the webinar, our team asked attendees which (non financial) skill they would like to develop most. 42% of respondents named entrepreneurship as the ‘missing piece’ in their career! An interesting statistic, which calls out to the broad need felt by CFOs to grow more soft skills and move away from ‘pure’ finance positions.
According to Younès, “it’s fairly frequent for CFOs to want to start their own thing afterwards, because you're in a position where you get to observe everything in the company.”
But how can CFOs operate this transition smoothly and nurture their entrepreneurial skills on the job? Younès shares three tips which, according to him, make all the difference:
Trying to gain a lot of insights on the job, every day;
Practicing strategic thinking as much as possible;
Attempting to anticipate things based on the data one has at hand.
As Younès mentions: “[as a CFO], you get to ask a lot of questions. You have the data at hand to find out if your intuitions about the business are good or not. And that's exciting! This is also what makes good entrepreneurs: having a lot of intuition, and turning data into actions. If you have that inner flame burning, and you are asking a lot of business questions all the time… Then I’m pretty sure that you would make a good entrepreneur.”
Staying ahead of the curve in your finance career
Whether you are a junior finance manager or a seasoned CFO, one thing emerged as key during the conversation: the ability to stay ahead of the curve. And per Thibault, this can be done through “attending summits, being part of a community, talking to your peers. This helped me many times. You can join a community like CFO Connect, and you can also go beyond that: having lunch with other CFOs, [building a network of] people you can call when you encounter difficulties”
Besides building a strong and engaged network, Thibault emphasizes the importance of staying curious.
Younès, on the other hand, decided to challenge himself when he was promoted to CFO of The Family, and this challenge took the shape of a newsletter dedicated to CFOs, Chasing Paper. “The newsletter helps me process my own thoughts, but also [forces me] to do a lot of research and talk to people, because I cannot figure everything out on my own.”
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