Diamonds in the rough? Thoughts on CFO to CEO transitions in the Middle East

Businessman Looking Over Wall

They are some of the most educated, professionally-qualified and experienced business professionals working in the Middle East. So why do not we see more CFOs transitioning to the role of CEOs in the region? Of course the traditional stereotype immediately will come to mind – “These are accountants, financial controllers. They only see the past. They don’t have the necessary vision for the future”, “Too conservative in personality and points of view,” “They do not speak the language of a CEO.” And the list goes on.

As someone who works with CFOs in the region on a regular basis, I can say some of these criticisms remain true, but there are also many CFOs who do not reflect these qualities and have the aspiration and talent to assume the top role. The stereotyping however is very difficult for them to overcome from their stakeholders such as Boards of Directors, HR specialists and executive recruiters. Well, let this blog sound the alarm to these people: There may be a diamond in the rough you are not considering. They would make an excellent CEO, in the offices already right down the hall. And for those CFOs who do have the aspiration to become CEOs, here are 5 suggested areas for you to consider to help yourselves build a compelling story and hopefully overcome the knee jerk stereotypes.

1. Less focus on figures – If you aspire to become a CEO, you have to be “famous” in your company for more than just producing financial information. A good starting point is to begin sharing points of view with the Board of Directors and Senior Management on the external business environment, where you see competitive threats and opportunities, potential for innovation and business disruptions in the industry.

2. More active in strategy – Work closely with your CEO to add value to the strategy of the company, find ways to complement the CEO strategic skills; most importantly, before you do this, make sure you have a written CFO finance strategy or agenda which you can own and demonstrate clear alignment to the wider company strategy.

3. Board exposure – Many CFOs are already members of their company’s Board of Directors but do not use this time effectively to advance their personal agenda and image building. Taking above points 1 and 2 into account and selling your CEO qualities to the Board are an imperative to overcoming the stereotypes.

4. Think and communicate outside the box – What is your company doing regarding brand building, social media, innovation, business continuity planning? Take ownership of these evolving business areas and make something out of them. Also spend time with your senior management and help them to develop themselves strategically and to ensure there functions and decision making are aligned to the company’s strategy.

5. Courage and risk taking – Nobody is looking for “CEO in a Bunker.” You have to be willing to lead from the front and to direct the company and share your vision and be willing to take responsibility for it. A clear, well-written CFO agenda which is shared with the Board, CEO and other key stakeholders is a good start to demonstrating these qualities.  If you are waiting for others in the company to write your CFO agenda, it is unlikely anyone will come asking you for a CEO agenda anytime soon.

Let’s hear what you have to say. CFOs to CEOs in the Middle East.  Diamonds in the rough?

by: James Babb, partner and CFO Program leader at Deloitte Middle East

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