Only 13% of sitting Fortune 2000 CEOs in 2015 came from the CFO role. That’s despite the fact that such a move can be very prudent for a company, according to Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.
Korn Ferry is a global executive recruitment company that also offers leadership and talent consulting services.
Business Insider sat down with Burnison, a former CFO who made the move to CEO, to talk about what it takes to successfully transition into the top leadership role.
Burnison says it all comes down to a “right brain gap issue” that can be corrected.
Business Insider: Does it make sense to internally promote CFOs to the CEO role?
Gary Burnison: Promoting a CFO from the inside can be very prudent because the executive knows the culture, knows the strategy, and can maintain a healthy continuation of that strategy.
Given their interactions with the board and the street, a likely successor would be the CFO.
Why do CFOs rarely move directly into a CEO role?
At Korn Ferry, we have examined the leadership roles for thousands of executives. We have found that the CFO and CEO have many similarities as it relates to strategic thinking and surprisingly even innovation.
However, there is a huge gap that is focused around the “right brain.” The left brain is very clinical, analytical, and decision-making focused. Those are things that you have to have when acting in the CFO role, but there is a big “right brain” issue.
That gap primarily revolves around inspiring and motivating people.
The single biggest reason to move a CFO to a line position, before they are promoted to CEO, is not only to get that experience with customers, but also to develop their skills around people.
What is the biggest shock to a CFO when they accept the CEO role?
For CFOs who move into the CEO role, you climb the pyramid and you get to the top and you realise no one else is there. It is significantly different than any other position because you stop becoming a person and you become a function.
There is another pyramid that inverts upon you — it could be media, labour unions, or the board of directors. You are at the intersection where the two pyramids meet.
You suddenly have a relentless focus on customers and employees, because they are going to determine your success.
What right brain skills does a CFO need to develop to become a successful CEO?
As an organisation, we have looked at leadership and thinking styles for the very best CEOs and there are several things they must have.
First, they have to have financial acumen. This is a given for CFOs.
Second, they have to be strategic. CEOs need to have a sense of strategy and be able to examine different kinds of options as they are presented.
Third, they have to be able to manage a crisis both internally and externally.
Finally, they must possess a deep level of curiosity. At Korn Ferry, we call this learning agility, or “knowing what to do, when you don’t know what to do.”
Is there a wide divide between CFO and CEO skills?
Our research shows that CFOs are actually very similar in terms of their ability to use strategic thinking.
However, they often do not have crisis management skills. The way to fix that is to move them into different positions. You grow and learn to deal with customers and you grow and learn to inspire people when you are moved into a more operational role.
What tips would you offer to someone who wants to make the move from CFO to CEO?
Number one is to develop a sense of self-awareness.
I was at a dinner in South Africa very early on in my CEO role. It was around 11:15 at night and nobody would get up from the table. I started to look very uncomfortable and the person next to me noticed and said, “Mr. Burnison, nobody has gotten up because you haven’t gotten up.” You have to be self-aware or you run into those situations.
You also have to realise that sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. That difference is absolutely huge and that begins with self-awareness.
Look in the mirror and recognise that you have to make people feel better after an interaction than they felt before that interaction. That rings true in any situation you face as a CEO.
You also need to gain experience. We believe at Korn Ferry that 70% of learning is on the job. There is no better experience than taking other types of roles, whether they are lateral or otherwise. You need to get some real hands-on experienced in dealing with customers and dealing with employees if you want to succeed as a CEO.
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