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​How to transition from CFO into CEO blog

  • Publish Date: Posted over 1 year ago
  • Author:by Jodie Fox

In October, Chilworth Partnerships and Venture Recruitment Partners were delighted to host our first in-person event since pre-Covid. ‘How to transition from CFO to CEO’ was an opportunity for current CFOs to hear from our expert panel, who have all successfully made the journey from CFO to CEO.


Our panel included:

Will Crumbie - CEO at Fatface

Sheila Wye - CEO at Vaughan Limited

Mark Baskerville - CEO at Highwood Group

David French - CEO at University Hospital Southampton NHS FT


The questions posed to our panel helped us gain insight into key challenges faced by CEOs and the benefits having a former career as a CFO can bring to transitioning to a CEO role.


One of the biggest takeaways from the event is that you are in charge of your career. Finding balance, deciding on the style you want to lead in, and creating a solid network around you will be essential to becoming a successful CEO.


>>> Read on to discover what our experts had to share.

What are the challenges of a CEO?

For Mark Baskerville (CEO at Highwood Group), one of his biggest challenges was developing a new mindset. As a CEO, you don’t have the same deadlines and routine you have to deliver as you did as a CFO, and he realised you needed to take time out to think.


Fairly early in his CEO career, Mark joined a CEO group where he could take the time every month to meet with them, enabling him to talk things over with other CEOs and an executive coach. He admits he previously didn’t have much time for coaching, but now, he believes having the right coach and support network is vital.


Mark explained how one of the biggest challenges is letting go of the guilt that came with taking time away from the business to allow him to plan and think strategically. From a finance role, where you’d inevitably be sitting at your computer, to a role where strategic thinking and direction are essential, which can’t always be done at a desk.


One of the other challenges Mark identified in his role as CEO was his new responsibility for managing people. Spending 40% of his time on issues within his team, ensuring they are incentivised and motivated, and putting the right plans in place. This is not an area he was used to in his previous CFO role, but it’s one he now enjoys for its interactive and rewarding nature.


David French (CEO of University Hospital Southampton NHS FT) found going from a number-two advisory role to being the decision-maker quite challenging. You’re no longer the expert in your field as you were as CFO. Instead, you’re hearing from your team of experts and have to make a decision based on what’s presented to you, potentially with conflicting opinions, choosing the safest path.


He also identified that it takes time to adapt, from knowing the details to trusting your people and the processes to get the correct answers.

How can working in finance shape your approach as a CEO?

As Will Crumbie (CEO at Fatface) points out, coming from a CFO background means you already have a great base to work from. In addition, hard work, discipline, and attention to detail go into being a finance professional, setting you in good stead to become a CEO.


It will be your responsibility as CEO to look at the KPIs delivered by your CFO to identify any problems early. Sheila Wye (CEO at Vaughan Limited) gave a great analogy; if you were flying a plane, it’s the CFO’s responsibility to do all the checks and balances, ensuring there’s enough fuel and everything is ready for the plane to fly, but as the CEO, it’s your responsibility to look at the warning indicators and react to them.


Sheila also advised that as a CEO, you need a good CFO. Coming from a finance background, people may think you can do both, but you can’t. You need a really strong CFO. However, having that financial background can be a huge benefit as you’ll be aware of the numbers and can react quickly.


As Mark adds, having a finance background means you’re already used to looking at all areas of the business, which is essential when you become a CEO.

Do you have to change your leadership style as CEO?

It’s important to allow people space to do their jobs, David says, which can be difficult when you’re used to being more involved in a finance role. It’s important to show you have confidence in your people, especially because they are the experts.


You also have to be authentically you. David remarks on how Steve Jobs would come on stage cheering, “I love this company”, but that’s not David’s style. People can expect you to be something you’re not, but David decided from the outset that he would be him, and the organisation respects who he is.


He adds that the more you practise the Steve Jobs approach, the easier it becomes, and he’s surprised himself at how he’s become more comfortable with it. It’s important to be yourself, but recognise you have a different role to the one you had as CFO, and think about the type of CEO you want to be and how you want to position yourself within the company.


Will contributes by saying how you need to remember where you’ve come from but adapt to your new position. As CEO, you spend more time with your people than you ever would have done. These people will get stuff done. You need to delegate so you can focus on driving the business forward, but it’s important to remain authentically true to yourself. People will want a lot of your time, so you must be disciplined so you find the balance to do what’s needed and make your people feel good at the same time.


Communication is key. They are looking to you as their leader, Sheila highlights. Getting the message and tone right so you continue to motivate your people is key.

What are the key learnings of a CEO?

Sheila explains how you need to motivate people in different ways. You need to be decisive and stick to your guns, but you must have thought about what you’re doing. Managing upwards is also important. When you present plans and decisions to shareholders or senior stakeholders, you need to tailor them to speak in their language and convince them that the business is successful. How you do this can be completely different depending on the company’s ownership structure.


Will highlights the importance of taking your people with you. Using Liz Truss as an example of trying to make changes overnight, you must ensure you are in tune with the organisation. Understanding what’s happening on the ground and what your consumer thinks and feels is important. Keep the energy to talk to the whole business, and ask the right questions so you understand how your team works and how you can get the maximum out of them.


It’s also important to find the balance between keeping the board and the business happy. The board pays your wages at the end of the day, so it’s important to keep them on side but not to the detriment of the business. Balance is key.


It’s all about the people, David says. You are on show all of the time, and people are looking up to you. As Mark says, it’s about understanding the impact you have on everyone. Even down to a conversation in the kitchen, you must always remember your game face.


Another learning is to recognise when you need to pull back. David shares with us how you can only control the controllable. In a job that is 24/7, you need to know where your tipping point is, take notice of the signals, and have mechanisms in place to ensure you can pull back.

What are the critical challenges facing CEOs?

The people, Mark explains. Attracting, retaining and motivating are one of his biggest worries. From the brand you put out there to the values you instil, if you look after your people, then they’ll look after you.


It can also be really tough living in the uncertainty of a macro-economy. It can cause sleepless nights, cause issues such as funding challenges, and be pretty stressful to navigate.


Sheila seconds Mark’s point about the challenges of attracting people. She knows exactly what they need to do to grow the business, but she has to slow down growth without being able to recruit.


Support is also really important. It can be lonely at the top as a CEO. Sheila explains how she is fortunate enough to have a supportive chairman and how useful it is to be able to run things past someone. Even though the decision lies with you, talking through it with someone else will keep you sane.


Will emphasises that although it’s challenging times, you can’t control everything. As CEO, you can help remove some noise and keep your people focused and motivated on the job that needs to be done. You will carry a lot of the worry as CEO, and it’s about keeping it as positive as possible for others.

David also adds it’s not always about throwing money at recruitment and retention issues. Working in the NHS, he recognises that you need to identify what you can offer your people to stay in the market that doesn’t revolve around pay. You often need to be innovative as a CEO.

Are you a CFO looking to transition to CEO?

We are grateful to Will, Sheila, Mark, and David for sharing their knowledge and experience with us. All have shown that the transition from CFO to CEO can be done, and it can be done successfully.


It may come as a surprise to some, but the market at the moment is very good. If you are considering your next role, Chilworth Partnerships and Venture Recruitment Partners are here to help you take the next steps in your career.

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Then watch the full event on YouTube by clicking the following link.