Back to school & back to work.

Author:Kranc, Joel

The 2014 Summit Leadership Conference held earlier this summer shed a bright light on the next phase in the life of a Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Mike Walsh, CEO of innovation research lab, Tomorrow, spoke of current financial leaders as a "strategic CFO" that play the traditional role of supporting the financial growth of a company but also creates the innovation that helps a company grow. Similarly, Xerox CEO, Ursula Burns, spoke of the CFO's role morphing from a strict finance role to one that helps establish strategic goals and acts as a partnership with the CEO.

Clearly, a career as a financial executive, even one as specialized as CFO, can take many paths. Therefore, the educational choices are not necessarily as blatant as they used to be.

The traditional MBA, accounting and finance degrees, while still important, are slowly taking a backseat to the practical and strategic tools needed by today's financial professionals. So-called "softer skills" of management and everyday interaction, along with a greater emphasis on goals and transparency need to be part of the (future) CFO's arsenal.

Start With Something Else

"The idea that someone gets 120 hours of accounting education and then maybe gets a CPA, works for a public accounting firm, then crosses over and becomes a corporate controller to work their way up the ladder, is probably not the best route today," says Robert Howell, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. "I think a broader education rather than a narrower one is a better way to start," he stresses. Howell points to Leslie Seidman, former Financial Accounting Standards Board Chairman, as an example of someone who started her career by studying something non-financial. Seidman completed an English degree from Colgate University before she studied accounting or received her MBA.

Howell, himself, cites his education in electrical engineering, prior to his studies in accounting. "I didn't need all that undergraduate accounting," he says.

But some students, even at the undergraduate level, may already know they are aiming for careers in finance and accounting or are still searching, albeit in some financial discipline. When this is the case, notes Mary Ellen Morris, Director MS Programs and Lecturer in Accounting and Finance at Clark University, students should consider getting a "solid base" in all of the business disciplines as well as technical skills in finance and accounting.

"Either through an internship or first work experience, they can experiment whether or not the career path they have chosen is for them, they will have an opportunity to decide if it is, refocus and then decide on a Masters program where they can really specialize in the area that they've chosen."

A prime example of the type of internship that allows students to grow into the field as they learn occurs at General Electric. GE's Financial Management Program (FMP) provides a two-year cycle within four rotational assignments, which often include: auditing, treasury/cash management, forecasting, accounting, financial planning and other various...

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