CEO versus CFO – who is the real leader?

Updated on 3 February 2016

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The difference between a chief executive officer (CEO) and chief financial officer (CFO) are clearly defined with the latter being the head of an organisation, while the CFO is the highest ranking financial position.

US-based research indicates that there are core differences between the two, says Auguste Coetzer from Talent Africa, a South African talent solutions company.

While CFOs and CEOs achieve similar scores when tested for left-brain attributes (decision quality, strategic mind-set, solving complex, intractable issues and execution alignment), CFOs scored better for financial acumen.

However, CFOs lag in right-brain areas such as the ability to influence others, build stakeholder relationships, walk the talk, exude optimism and customer focus.

“When learning agility was assessed, CFOs scored better at ‘results agility’. CEOs were way ahead at ‘change agility’ and ‘people agility’. The ‘mental agility’ gap was quite narrow. Many CFOs were learning agile – indicating openness to new challenges and skills,” says Coetzer.

Making the change

Typically it is assumed in most companies that the CFO is the CEO in waiting, however, an analysis by Korn Ferry, a corporate leadership and executive talent company, of CEOs at Forbes 2000 companies shows this might not be the case, Coetzer says.

Their analysis found that only 13% of CFOs move on to become CEOs.

The number rose to just 18% if parameters were widened to include CEOs who previously held senior financial responsibilities (as controller, chief accounting officer, treasurer, etc.).

The study advises CFOs preparing for a CEO’s job to move beyond left-brain skills and develop right-brain competencies like getting the total workforce engaged and inspired, networking and communication expertise.

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