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Event Report | The Path to CFO

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Ambition recently hosted our latest boardroom series event: ‘The Path to CFO’.

We were delighted to be joined by a panel of three high profile CFOs from the Legal and Professional Services sectors: Neil Morling (Olswang), Steven Rowan (Reynolds Porter Chamberlain) and Michael Boot (previously at King & Wood Mallesons and Clifford Chance), who shared their insights and experience on what it takes to succeed as a CFO.

The event led to a great open discussion, during which the panel answered questions from the audience, giving an insight into the steps you can take to become a CFO and the challenges faced once in the role.

Here are some of the key points raised during the discussion:

What does it take to be a CFO?

  • Hiring the right people into your team is crucial as they will be your support base moving forward. They have to be people that you can trust and rely on.

  • As a leader, your job isn’t to manage the day to day transactions of the finance team, but to ensure your finance team are helping you to steer the firm into the right direction. Your job is to deliver results.

  • Having a strong network is important for a CFO. Be open minded to attending events and participating in forums. Having a senior level peer group will allow you to be at the forefront of trends and challenges within the market and will give you a network of individuals that you can reach out to.

What are the key traits of a CFO?

  • Be an optimist and present your board with solutions, not problems.

  • Confidence is key.

  • Be transparent - as the CFO you are expected to deliver factual information, even in the face of adversity.

  • You must be able to deal with difficult decisions that will better the business but may not be the most popular.

  • Be proactive in building relationships with your Managing Partner and the CEO, as well as establishing strong relationships with the new generation of partners.

  • Be a storyteller - bridge the gap between those who work with numbers and those who don’t by presenting results that are visual, which may include dashboards and graphs.

What is the difference between a Financial Controller/Director and a CFO?

  • A Financial Controller’s role is to manage the day to day running of the finance team. As the CFO, your role is to lead them with a more strategic approach.

  • It is important to align yourself with the wider business, including IT, Business Development & Marketing, HR and the practice group heads. Be proactive in participating in meetings with the wider group.

  • Your network with senior stakeholders is key. Take the time to find out what the senior fee earners/partners do and what their challenges are.

  • Strong communication skills are crucial as a CFO and public speaking/presenting will play a large part of your role.

Challenges faced as the CFO

  • One of the main challenges of the CFO is meeting expectations and maintaining the business confidence in you as a senior leader within the firm.  You are the ‘go-to’ person when it comes to financial matters. You are expected to know the impact of how certain decisions will affect the business from a financial perspective, and you will need to be ready to provide that information.

  • The CFO must be seen to be impartial as it is not always possible to give good news. This could mean presenting news of redundancies, outsourcing and mergers which can be difficult messages to deliver.

  • If you are new to the CFO role, one of your first challenges should be to find outwho the decision makers/influencers are and who you should quickly establish strong relationships with.

Pearls of Wisdom

The panel ended the discussion with some top tips for anybody looking to become a CFO:

  • You are an influencer – relationships you build with the business, from the Managing Partner, to the wider business services teams are crucial. Immerse yourself in meetings, presentations and the business as a whole to be a true trusted advisor.

  • Be positive and solution-focused, both internally and externally.

  • Turn numbers into stories - this will allow you to reach a common ground when presenting financial results and lead to a greater understanding of what these results mean.

  • Build your network with the future generation of the firm as they are the future leaders.


Many thanks to our fantastic panel, as well as to everyone who attended our event.  If you are a senior finance professional working in Professional Services and would be interested in attending one of our future events, please contact us

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