In recent surveys accounting powerhouse, Deloitte, attempted to identify skills, mindsets, characteristics, etc. that made a successful CEO out of a CFO. In spite of the vast array of people Deloitte surveyed, many of the responses similarly recognized that the notion of working in operational roles built broad skills but did not prepare candidates for the role of CEO.

On the contrary, Deloitte discovered that it was not the differentiated activities themselves that helped prepare CEO candidates, rather how well those candidates were able to embrace new perspectives and paradigms.   In other words, for CFOs transitioning to CEOs, it is far more important to practice open-mindedness about new responsibilities and problems in lieu of perpetuating the same conventions that may have made him or her a good CFO.

Moreover, Deloitte identified three characteristics that aid CFOs in achieving and succeeding in the role of CEO:


They work well with their team to express ideas to the board and can garner the board’s consent and encouragement.

As put by founder of Cambria’s executive coaching practice, Ellen Kumata:

Boards are particularly interested in CEOs who are able to articulate a strategic vision, who can articulate what the future might look like, and who are great at seeing around corners. Boards also want adaptability rather than the “hero-leader” who’s got all the answers. Realistically, this means someone who has vision and is adept at processing information from multiple inputs; someone decisive and yet not so hung up on “my way is the right way.”

Balancing a visionary identity with a decisive one can be difficult for any executive, let alone the prototypical CFO for whom decisiveness comes naturally but vision-related thinking can feel like an exercise in fantasy-creation. That side of leadership can be difficult, if not painful. One of us (Lipton) found in his research a decade ago that CFOs struggle more than other C-level executives to articulate and embed a corporate vision. The good news is they can not only develop this “flat side,” going against their preferred personality attributes, but they can excel as visionary leaders. What’s the catch? They have to be highly motivated to get beyond the strong discomfort that vision-level thinking often evokes for them.


CFOs can have a bad rep.  Some people see them as uninspired, indifferent and cold.  Stereotypes carry weight, even if they are untrue, and it is up to any potential CEO to break down these stereotypes.

Successful CEOs are ready to work on their abilities of leadership, team-building, forward-thinking, communication, delegation and much more.  They understand that the skills they have developed thus far are not good enough; they must continue to be honed and they will never be perfect. 

Harvard Business School professor of Management Practice, Joseph Fuller, said that “All successful executives develop a set of heuristics, pattern recognition skills they’ve assembled, ways to process events and uncertainties and to reach better judgments. The big gap here is that the heuristics of a good CFO are not those of general management. They have to use the heuristics developed over a career and build other, new ones, and they have to do it relatively quickly.”


As previously discussed, CFOs interviewing for CEO positions can be more introverted and may be more intimate with data than with people.  To win over the hearts of the board, a candidate must show that they are capable of seeing things from thirty-thousand feet. 

Henry Mintzberg, professor of management at McGill University, said “When the world is predictable you need smart people; when the world is unpredictable, you need adaptable people.”  Mintzberg continues “Learning is not doing;” learning necessitates recurrent “reflecting on doing.”

There is a lot more that goes into making a great CEO out of a good CFO but these are some important highlights that will help along the way.  Just remember that CEOs are very different than CFOs and to become a leader worth following may require some big changes.