Moving from CFO to CEO: A Half Brainer

Moving from CFO to CEO: A Half Brainer

Want to be a CEO? Good luck. Among chief executives in the Forbes 2000, a listing of the world’s largest publicly held companies, only 13% are former finance chiefs.

However hard you work, however successful you are as a CFO, however strategic your orientation, the reason the odds are against you comes down to something you may be hard-pressed to overcome: the way your brain works.

CFOs are far ahead of their bosses in financial acumen and in lock-step with regard to other technical, left-brain characteristics that drive things like decision quality, strategic mindset, global perspective, and execution alignment. But CEOs have a clear right-brain advantage that wins the day on the leadership front. They are better at building relationships and at influencing, engaging, and inspiring others; they are more courageous and optimistic; and they have a stronger customer focus.

All of that is according to Gary Burnison, CEO of executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry and the author of a new white paper on the topic of CFO advancement. The document offers no empirical evidence for its conclusions, which were drawn from a highly scientific quantitative analysis of data on the firm’s 2.5 million executive placements. Still, the white paper offers a compelling narrative.

“CFOs tend to be very linear in their approach, which is consistent with a more narrowly defined position in which one is highly cognizant of rules and regulations,” writes Burnison. “CEOs, on the other hand, are less apt to tell people what to do and instead [likely to] guide them to what they should think about.”

Given their oversight of capital deployment, CFOs are expected to frequently say “no.” CEOs say “no” as well, but need to do it in a way that does not dampen enthusiasm or creativity, writes Burnison.

His perspectives are informed ones: before being named Korn Ferry’s chief executive in 2007, he was the firm’s finance chief.

“When I was an operating officer and a CFO, I could be one of the guys,” he writes. “I was even allowed to have a bad day once in a while…. Then I became the CEO. Suddenly, people were reading my mood as if it were tea leaves. I wasn’t speaking just for myself anymore. I represented a position and an institution. Motivating and inspiring people, displaying optimism in the face of challenges, and being highly attuned to others took on great importance.”  Read more on CFO.