WHEN Egon Zehnder launched the 25 by 25 initiative last September, aiming to quintuple the number of female CEOs in UK FTSE 100 companies within a decade, we committed to the same target in finance. Given that men and women now enter the profession in almost equal numbers, this should be an achievable goal but, critically, it depends on overcoming obstacles which confront many women mid-career.
The current paucity of female CFOs speaks volumes. While those who have made it to the top tell us they haven’t consistently felt a gender bias, have had opportunities – and indeed taken them – delivering “what it takes” has nonetheless proved too much for too many other talented young women. There has been an unacceptably high level of fall-out mid-career, with female candidates leaving in droves, and this needs to change.
We are now working with many companies, both UK and international, to help identify and address the factors which have driven so many young talented women in finance to leave and at the same time, help companies assess and develop the diverse talent they have in the best possible way. The picture is complex. However we believe a new mindset is needed – within organisations, certainly, but also for ambitious young women who want to become CFO.
Companies need to do much more to seek out and develop the most talented young people they already have – male and female. This isn’t just something for the HR department to think about.
The CFO’s legacy
Increasingly a measure of success we apply to the CFO is the legacy he or she leaves behind, and a key part of that is to have at least one successor. If he or she is serious about diversity, there should be at least one female successor.
When we work with clients to identify high potential candidates, we encourage them to think more laterally about career development; for women in particular, helping them to plot their progression and fill gaps in specialist knowledge with appropriate roles and timing.
For instance, in one company a woman being groomed for succession to the senior-most finance role was given an international posting while raising a young family, followed by another executive committee role back at HQ, continuing her development in a way that also suited her personal needs at the time while gaining different experiences and perspectives.
Individuals also need to take proactive charge of their own careers, and look to accumulate appropriate experience to reach wherever they’d like to go, often in a zig- zag fashion.
Honesty and clarity about the nature of their ambition is an important starting point; if they do not see themselves as the CFO (with all the obligations that come with it), they should admit it. But if they do, candidates of both sexes need to think more strategically about building their careers as a set of commercial experiences which, in the right combination, could take them to the top.
Most companies will look for experience in treasury, tax, a controller role, wider commercial experience and so on in a potential CFO candidate and, in an international group, also in-market experience.
And as we all know, it’s not all about what happens in the workplace. Many of the current generation of female leaders – CFOs and CEOs – would say that they have the right support mechanism around them to help them sustain such a career and make it happen.
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Ça?la Bekbölet is head of the financial officers practice at Egon Zehnder