Their bosses get all the attention, and if the books don't add up, they get the blame, yet most chief financial officers are content with their careers, says a new study of Canadians in the No. 2 corporate job.
The DNA of a CFO report, from recruiting firm Hays Specialist Recruitment Canada, says 95 per cent of CFOs are happy working in the shadow of the chief executive officer and appreciate that the position has evolved into working more with people than just spreadsheets.
A strong grounding in finance is still mandatory, but how these professionals work with and inspire other people have become "true hallmarks of a successful CFO," the report said.
"Over the years, the role of the CFO has turned into a leadership job as opposed to just being the accountant," said Rowan O'Grady, president of Hays Canada.
It's these extra responsibilities and challenges that have CFOs smiling these days, Mr. O'Grady said.
"For ambitious people, just being the number cruncher … isn't going to be particularly satisfying," he said.
Wal-Mart Canada Corp. CFO Bill Tofflemire can relate to the survey's results after having worked in the retail giant's top accountant role for the past three years.
"Very early on in a career, you find getting the right answer is no longer the most important part of solving a problem. It's how you get folks to work with you on an action plan to solve that problem," Mr. Tofflemire said.
He believes the growing emphasis on what are called "soft skills" is in part because of an increasingly complex business environment.
"The days of having a CFO who, all they do is make sure the books are accurate, that the control environment is in good shape … you really can't afford to have some of the most talented folks on the team playing that more backward-looking role," Mr. Tofflemire said.
Many CFOs say landing in the C-suite wasn't part of their career plans. Among the 150 CFOs surveyed, 48 per cent second-guessed their career path when they were moving up into a management role. What's more, 45 per cent didn't aspire to be a CFO when they first launched their finance careers.
Nearly 46 per cent cited passion and interest as reasons for entering the field of finance, while only 14 per cent said it was the earning potential. Another 14 per cent said they simply had a talent with numbers, while 19 per cent said they stumbled into the profession. Just 2.5 per cited the "prestige" of the role.
Wouter Vosmeer, CFO of Molson Coors Canada, the Canadian unit of Molson Coors Brewing Co., said he was partly inspired to get into the accounting field by his father, who ran a small clothing business back in the Netherlands when he was growing up.
"He always had the longer term in his mind with every decision he'd make. He would never make a short-term call that he knew up front would hurt the longer term," Mr. Vosmeer said. "He also wouldn't spend all of the money without thinking."
It's that type of strategic thinking that he enjoys most about being a CFO.
"You can really influence the direction of a company," said Mr. Vosmeer, who took the job two years ago, his first CFO position, after a long career in various finance roles at consumer goods firm Unilever in both the Netherlands and in Canada.
"On one hand, it's really cool. Sometimes it's pretty frightening as well. … Decisions you make you'll never know 100 per cent if it's the right one."
The difference between the CFO job and other finance roles he's held over years is that "the issues end on your desk," he said.
"That pressure is a completely new thing in this role and you need to find a way to deal with it," without unnecessarily burdening others, Mr. Vosmeer said.
"For me, it's about influencing people, influencing decisions," he said. "You can be the smartest guy with the numbers, but if [you are] not able to tell the story or engage people with discussion, it's difficult to make it happen."
Mr. Vosmeer said he's content being second-in-command, although wouldn't rule out a president or CEO position, maybe at a smaller company later in his career.
The Hays survey said only about 20 per cent of the CFOs interviewed had their eye on the president or CEO office. Thirty per cent responded that they are "looking for a larger CFO or finance director role within an organization."
They also understand that getting to the very top isn't easy. The survey shows about 40 per cent of finance professionals found making the leap from the director to executive level "the most difficult to reach."
The Hays survey was conducted with 150 CFOs in March, mostly from Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.
Among the participants, 79 per cent were male and 21 per cent female. Among the companies they represented, about 22 per cent had revenue of less than $10-million and 17 per cent had revenues of more than $500-million.