Here's how these controllers became CFOs

Learn what it takes to get the top finance role.
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5 min read

One lunch changed the course of Regina Steele’s career.

Steele, formerly controller and associate vice chancellor at the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, made a habit of taking people out to networking lunches where she would ask them about their career paths. During one such lunch, she let Karen McCauley, president and CEO of the Clemson University Foundation, know that she hoped to take on a stretch assignment. When the foundation needed a CFO, McCauley encouraged Steele to apply.

“She said, ‘Regina, you were the first person I thought of,’” Steele told CFO Brew. She was hired and started in the new role earlier this year.

Many controllers aspire to become CFOs. But though that move can seem like a natural progression, there are significant differences between the controller’s job and the CFO’s. Controllers tend to be more tactical and operations-oriented, while CFOs must be more strategic. They’re usually more internally focused, whereas CFOs act as the financial face of the organization. And the demands of their role mean they’re naturally more centered on accounting and past performance, while CFOs have to be more future-forward.

To step up to CFO, then, it can help for controllers to show they are able to see the bigger picture, work with different areas of an organization, and prove they are proactive and ready to take on a broader role, as Steele did.

She and other controllers who’ve recently become CFOs shared with CFO Brew how they landed the position.

Getting cross-functional experience. James Roberts became CFO of gourmet meat supplier Agridime in Fort Worth, Texas, after working as a controller at Dot It Restaurant Fulfillment. He suggests that aspiring CFOs get broad organizational experience.

“Have the ability to work cross-functionally. You may have to get out of your accounting zone to hear what other departments are doing,” he said, mentioning operations, HR, and marketing as some key departments to understand.

Look for areas where you can add value to other departments, said Will Sanchez, CFO of mobile software company Mobivity, in Chandler, Arizona. He formerly held controller and other finance roles at various Bay Area tech companies.

“Get involved with the sales group,” he said by way of example. “Look at key contracts that come in, or commissions…On the operating expense side, look for those key cost drivers and then talk to the managers who are in charge of that. Are there opportunities to reduce those expenses?”

Honing your emotional intelligence is key both as a CFO and as someone who hopes to become one, Roberts said, precisely because CFOs need to coordinate with so many different types of people. “Now you’re working diversely across groups,” he said, “so emotional intelligence, understanding what the other person needs, [and] being able to listen” will prove invaluable.

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Assist with deals. Sanchez said he believes his experience with complex financial transactions helped him to secure a CFO role. He’s worked on traditional IPOs, SPACs, de-SPACs, and reverse mergers over the course of his career.

Those experiences led him to develop a more strategic approach, something he recommends future CFOs cultivate. “Move away from the mindset of just closing the books” towards “actually [being] a business partner to drive revenue growth and to increase cash in your company,” he suggests.

Be proactive about your career aspirations: Let others know about your career goals, Steele said. “Many times, we assume that people are content in their roles. And it’s not that they’re not content or happy. But sometimes we don’t realize that they are looking for the next level,” she said.

Roberts sat in on board meetings as a way of making himself more visible. “I started answering more questions, aligning with the CFO,” he said. That’s when he “started thinking like a CFO,” he said.

Find mentors: Roberts said he had several mentors, all women he worked with previously. Like Steele, he was proactive in reaching out to them, holding 15-minute phone calls with them to talk about their careers and plans and his own.

Your company’s CFO can serve as a mentor, Bonnie Tomei, CFO of semiconductor company Spectra7 Microsystems, told CFO Brew in an email. The CFO “would be in a great position to expose you to the financial analysis side of the organization and to your executive team and the CEO, teach you investor and bank relations, and [help you] have more board interactions,” said Tomei, who was previously head of finance and controller at other semiconductor and tech companies.

Build your brand. Steele said she feels that consciously building her personal brand—which she identifies as excellence, integrity, and transparency—contributed to her being tapped as CFO.

“Be very intentional about developing your brand,” she said. “Make it known that when I show up in the room, this is what shows up. Does innovation show up when I show up? Does excellence in some way show up? What is it that now is present because I’m here?”

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.