How to Go From CPA to CFO to CEO

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Entrepreneurs can bypass this path to become CEO.
Entrepreneurs can bypass this path to become CEO. (Image: Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images)

Climbing the corporate ladder from CPA to CFO to CEO requires not only top accounting, finance and management skills, but also discipline and a mental toughness that eliminate most from seriously considering it. According to a report from Executive Education, most CFOs have a wide breadth of experience outside accounting, in addition to an educational background beyond the bachelor's degree. And CEOs require not just financial and business acumen, but also leadership, communication skills and charisma.

Enroll in an MBA program. While Executive Education says that getting your CPA certification is a great start, most CFOs have advanced study under their belts. Top programs turn out top executives. To prepare, you'll need to investigate the schools' requirements; you may need to take the GMAT exam. You'll also need top recommendations and good undergraduate grades.

Focus on small companies first. It's easier to rise through the ranks in a small organization, and will provide you with a breadth of necessary experiences sooner. Smaller organizations usually require employees to wear many hats; while that can be frustrating, it allows an ambitious employee to quickly learn the cause and effect of problems and solutions. This knowledge can be applied elsewhere when the time comes. Demonstrating an understanding of the business and your market while showing financial acumen will be favorably regarded.

Practice your people skills. Don't stay in your office all day; make your face and diplomatic opinions known. Don't be afraid to take ownership -- and the risks that go along with it. Don't backstab; instead, make others look good. Develop personal but professional relationships with your colleagues at all levels, not just at the top. When the time comes, throw your hat in the ring for the CFO promotion you want -- your bosses may not even know you're interested otherwise.

Read nonfiction and network frequently. Executive Education states that most C-suite executives read an average of seven nonfiction books per year. These books should be about business, leadership or other required management skills. Not only will the knowledge gained from these books enrich you, it'll also give you something to talk about with other top executives. As CFO, you'll be networking frequently with them; showing yourself as an educated, experienced and socially savvy executive will leapfrog you above others when a CEO position opens up.

Show you can lead your organization as CEO by taking smart, well-considered risks as CFO. CEOs are, above all, leaders who understand the whole picture, not just the finances. Showing an understanding of the competition and how the market is -- or isn't -- changing is key. Getting people to bend to your will -- and like it at the same time -- is another important skill. CEOs must be able to consider not just the financial goals of the organization, but other goals as well, such as improving the workforce's diversity or impact on the environment. Keeping abreast of the latest developments in all aspects of your industry will make you knowledgeable, valuable and effective.

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