From FP&A Analyst to CFO

  • By William Washington III, CFO, Baker McKenzie
  • Published: 5/28/2024
From FPA Analyst to CFO Header

When I started as a financial analyst, I did not know what my roadmap was going to look like. One of my early jobs had very clear progressions, from financial analyst to specialist to manager over a set number of years. You just worked really hard and hoped you got the promotion at the time that most people got promoted.

Every career takes a different path, and it is about matching who you are with where you want to be and then allowing the process to play out as you take on different roles at different places. In my work as an analyst or as a CFO, I always saw myself as bringing that finance thinking to the business. Even today, I still feel like I wear the hat of a financial analyst because I’m still the same person that I was 20 years ago.

Every business has some type of financial analyst. I’ve worked in a cotton seed company, a real estate investment trust and a professional services firm, and in each of those, people wanted to understand what happened and how they could do better by examining the revenue and expenses. They want to know their variances in budgets and forecasts and how their key performance indicators are tracking. That requires them to relate the story of their business, not to see their job as delivering a hundred different spreadsheets. Now, as CFO, I need the FP&A analysts to help me and the business partners to see around corners and surface the most important information even before someone asks for it.

People trust FP&A because of our understanding of the numbers, and they listen to us because of our ability to tell the story. Take a moment to ask yourself, “Why am I being asked for this? What is the next person going to do with it? How is this helping the business?” The goal is to learn how to add more value as you grow in your career, and to do this, analysts need to move from reporting to analysis to storytelling, in both their work and their career.

Early in my career, I thought the great analysts were the ones who had mastered spreadsheets. I thought that if I couldn’t run the pivot tables or understand the software or be the greatest version of what we were being asked to do that day, I would never progress in my career. However, what I’ve learned is different people are great at different things. Some of the people I have worked alongside were great at Excel and have gone into more technical versions of finance, even in leadership roles. My strength wasn’t in my ability to crank out a bunch of different data as quickly as possible. I became great in my own way by really working on communicating insights to my business partners.

You have to make some type of progression in your career, and you should think about what’s needed for the next step in this process. I think all of us need to set a goal early on to be the best version of ourselves, and one of my core tenets is continuous learning. Even after I earned my BA and MBA, I kept taking classes. I went back to school and got a master’s in law firm management to deepen my skills in this area.

I could probably list for you about 30 other classes that I took along this journey, whether it was Spanish classes, golfing at junior college because I heard that was something that successful people do, classes to get my Six Sigma Master Black Belt certification, or typing because that would help me to process my work faster. It’s about carving out personal development time — alongside personal and social time — and learning skills that “sharpen the saw,” as Steve Covey says.

Of all the finance functions today, FP&A is probably the vertical that leads closest to the CFO position. Most CFO job descriptions are looking for the head of FP&A if they need a person who is more strategic, or the head of accounting if they need someone very technical. My FP&A experience helped me as CFO by preparing me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable reality that the future is not known.

Looking ahead, I think the financial analyst position is getting ready to go through one of the most disruptive changes that any corporate finance position has ever gone through. The rollout of generative artificial intelligence, ChatGPT and other things is going to change the job; it is going to make the reporting a lot more automated and take a lot of the steps that we take early in our career out of our hands and move us quicker to the analysis part.

Let’s all get into AI early on; let’s become the early adopters and experiment with it on our own. I can research it and figure out what’s next for my firm, but imagine if all 1,400 finance professionals on my team experimented and bubbled their ideas up to me. And it is the same for the AFP community. If all of us get involved, I think that the younger generation might be the smartest generation in terms of helping us to change.

This article is an excerpt from the AFP FP&A Guide to What Is Financial Analysis.

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