How to Become a Finance Director

Gavita Phull 15.10.2014

Becoming a FD is the aspiration of most qualified accountants. Responsible for leading a key business function and often becoming a number two to the CEO, it is seen as the ultimate finance position. But the process of becoming a FD can be opaque, with even the most motivated finance professionals sometimes struggling to climb the ladder.

With this in mind, I spoke to Chris Filer, previously of Coca-Cola and now Global Finance Director of Soap and Glory, to get his tips on becoming a FD/CFO. Chris’ advice is gleaned from over 12 years working and leading finance teams for some of the world’s largest consumer branded businesses, as well as high growth start up businesses.

How did you get into finance?

I was inspired by my uncle, who spent a large portion of his career working in finance for Unilever. He got to travel the world, earning good money, and I thought that is the life for me!

How long did it take you to get to FD level?

About 12 years in total. I joined the ICI grad scheme, studying CIMA, and from there I joined Heinz and L’Oreal, before securing my first Director level role at Coke. 

What is the best thing about being a FD?

The autonomy is key. You live and die by your own performance. If you do well, you get the credit. But if you do badly, well....let's just say you won't be employed for long!

What is the worst?

You can be the end location for a lot of work. Most issues/problems will need finance involvement at some point. Being the FD means you need to deal with these challenges on a daily basis.
You have worked for large and SME companies, which would you recommend?

Both have advantages, but without doubt it is better to start your career in a big organisation. You get the chance to see what a world class finance function looks like, and the value of having a well-known brand on your CV should not be understated. Once you have gained 5-10 years experience in a big corporation, you will be ready to add significant value in a SME environment.

What is your advice to someone looking to become a FD

Make every move count.Plan your career carefully and don't move for money! If you decide to move companies, make sure it is for a better role, or more experience. If you do that, the money will find you. Make every move count.

What key skills do you need to be a FD?

Commercial acumen is the most important skill. The role of a FD is far more commercial than it is technical.

Does this mean it is possible to be a FD without technical experience?

No. While it is possible to progress to FD level without having spent time in a controller or technical role, you run the risk of low credibility with your team. You need your financial accounting team to have confidence that you can guide them. You need your financial accounting team to have confidence that you can guide them. Also, the CEO is equally relying on you to fill the gaps in his finance knowledge. I don't think I would have become a FD without my year as a financial controller at Coke.

What has been the biggest mistake of your career?

I took a role fairly early in my career that in retrospect was a mistake. I knew that the role and culture wasn't right, but I thought I could change things through force of personality. The reality was very different. If the culture fit is wrong, things are unlikely to go well.

What happened?

I learnt that culture fit is key. If this is right, everything is possible. But if you don't fit the culture, you will struggle.

What do you look for when interviewing?

Passion and personality. I can get the key skills from a person’s CV, but unless they have a passion for what they do, and for their career, I'm not going to hire them into my team.

So you wouldn't hire a "typical accountant?"

It depends on the role… but as a general point, I look for personality. Some of the onus falls on me as an interviewer to help the candidate feel relaxed and at ease, so their personality can shine through.

Dream job: Musician (aka Rock Star!)
Inspiration: My first mentor at ICI. He is a far better accountant than I am, and has provided many words of wisdom over the years.
Hobby: Tennis, Running, Family! 

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Gavita Phull's picture
Senior Manager | HR, Finance & Technology Recruitment