What it really takes to reach the top

With the recent news that Google has appointed ‘the most powerful woman on Wall Street’ as its new CFO, Mark Lewis, head of CFO Services for Rutherford Cross, takes a look at what it really takes to reach the top.

Ruth Porat is a woman to be reckoned with.  Formerly CFO at Morgan Stanley, she has recently returned to her Silicon Valley roots as CFO of Google, filling the shoes of Patrick Pichette who left the role to make amends for a poor work life balance.

Porat seems happy for work to enter all aspects of her life and is known as a workaholic, reportedly even answering business calls when in labour.  Whilst some may see this as going above and beyond the call of duty, what is clear is that Porat’s relentless work ethic has taken her to the top of her field.

So what does this mean for the rest of us?  How can we replicate success such as this?   In my experience, most accountants in the early stages of their careers when asked will claim that they eventually want what Porat has, at least in their local market.

What I think we can take from Porat’s path to the top is just how much commitment, hard work and tenacity is required in order to get there.   We are conditioned to express ambitious goals but often without much thought as to whether they are achievable or, more fundamentally, whether they are what we actually want.

As accountants move through their training and start climbing the promotional ladder, it can be viewed as career suicide to express anything less than the loftiest of ambitions.  With the number of CFO positions naturally in shorter supply than the number of roles leading to that level, unfortunately not everyone  is going to make it, however talented they may be. For an accountant it is a simple calculation of probability.

I would challenge anyone setting out in accountancy to give serious thought to what direction they wish to steer their career.   Although the financial rewards can be attractive, the life of a CFO is rarely an easy one. It can be a pressure cooker environment and the CFO is often the first person to blame for poor financial performance, whether or not they are directly responsible.

If this is a challenge you wish to rise to, it is critical to have a vision of your eventual end goal, even if it is only an outline of how to get there.  This vision can be shaped into a workable plan with the help of peers, mentors or recruitment experts.

At Rutherford Cross we know that a successful career is often built on taking small, regular steps, growing experience, skills and networks – both internal and external – along the way. The tricks are not to stand still for too long and to ensure you do the jobs you should do as well as the ones you want to do. A CFO needs to have an understanding of all areas of finance, including those that speak less to their skills or interest.

Having placed CFOs in roles around the country, and interviewed many candidates, invariably we see that what sets successful candidates apart is an overwhelming drive to succeed, whatever the costs.  As Porat’s story tells us, the route to CFO requires significant hard work and sacrifice. Only the most single minded are likely to make it.

Rutherford Cross runs regular ‘Next Generation CFO’ events where CFOs from some of Scotland’s most successful companies give insights into their career progression and experience.   Recent speakers have included David Arden of Sainsbury’s Bank and George Watt of STV plc.  To find out more about these events, or to discuss any recruitment requirements, please contact Mark at [email protected]