What Makes a Great CFO?

As I conduct executive searches for CFO’s, I am often asked what makes the difference between a good CFO and a great CFO. I’ve met and worked with many talented CFOs who are highly valued, but very few great CFO leaders. In most cases, a good CFO is seen as a strong financial partner, but not as a leader of the business as a whole. This becomes an impediment to advancement into broader leadership roles for a  CFO with bigger ambitions. Why? Because the decision-makers need to see a CFO as a multi-dimensional leader and not just a finance or accounting leader.

So, how does a good CFO become a great CFO and put themselves on a path to a higher level position such as a president or CEO role in the future?

Almost universally noted by a CEO when we start a search, is that they want a CFO who gets out of their office. We all know a CFO needs to be detailed, however this important attribute can often be tied to being perceived as an introvert. Regularly getting out of the office to spend time with Operations, Sales, Clients, and Functional leaders, will make a big difference, both in your performance and in the perception of you as a leader.

Getting out into the operations of the business helps you in multiple ways:

Peter Olmsted

Managing Director

  • You build important relationships and establish trust with other leaders of the business. This trust will allow you to build a partnership with most organization leaders and, specifically, your sales and operations leadership. You will need their support if you ever want to be considered as a candidate for a higher-level position..
  • You will gain credibility throughout the whole organization. This broad credibility will lead naturally to you helping every manager and leader in the business to understand how their actions impact financial performance.
  • You will increase your contribution to the entire organization by helping your Operations, Sales, and Functional leaders to understand the financial trade-offs of their everyday decisions, which helps them improve the organization’s bottom-line.
  • You will help grow the business by using your financial skills and natural ability to notice details that others have missed. Making a broader impact on profitability will certainly get positive attention.


The biggest thing to remember is that you won’t see these improvement opportunities by sitting in your office!

Taking these actions above will help you  be seen as a great CFO – because your CEO and the entire organization will see you as a leader and not just a functional expert. As you proceed down this path, remember to stay humble at all times and let others promote your abilities. When a President or CEO vacancy comes up, the key decision-makers will see you as the natural choice for successor. That is the difference between a good CFO and great CFO. Who do you want to be?