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Career Lessons for Accountants Climbing to CFO

See how Jacqueline Purcell went from first-time to seasoned CFO.

People   |   Chelsea Wise   |   Dec 21, 2021

Jacqueline Purcell is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Deputy, a workforce management company with global offices in Australia, the UK, and the US. Looking back at Jacqueline’s career journey, her path to becoming a CFO has been anything but traditional.

She started her career as an attorney and pursued her MBA from Stanford University, after which she joined Morgan Stanley. It was after over eight years in M&A deal-making at Morgan Stanley that Jacqueline had a career-altering realization about the CFOs that often sat directly across from her: they incorporated and applied deep operating experience to their decision-making.

This realization is what inspired Jacqueline to become a CFO. Determined to apply an operational lens to her extensive investment banking experience, Jacqueline stepped into her first CFO role in 2017.

Discover what she’s learned along the way and her tips for landing and succeeding in a CFO role.

Q: Being a first-time CFO is a big deal. What has the transition into the role taught you?

A: I think in life and at work, when you’re in the middle of making a big change, it’s hard to get perspective on it. It’s only once you step back and reflect at how big of a shift you’ve made — for me, moving countries and into the CFO position — that you appreciate the change.

Reflecting too, I wonder what role gender plays.

When looking at a first-time role, we, as women, often feel unprepared. As such, you anchor to all the things and items that you haven’t done.

You anchor to all the boxes that you don’t tick, as opposed to anchoring to all the boxes that you do tick or anchoring to what your experience will add to the role that a traditional candidate or someone who’s already been an experienced CFO may not bring.

So, I think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to have been a CFO before to be a really impactful one. Remind yourself to anchor to the experiences and capabilities you’ll bring to the role.

Q: What tips do you have for interviewing to be a first-time CFO?

A: When I was interviewing to be a CFO at a company called Culture Amp, I had to really think about how to effectively sell myself and convince the team that not only could I do the job, but that I could also do it really well.

I didn’t fit neatly within the box of what they’d seen or imagined — after all I’d never been a CFO. I had to give them the confidence that I had all the right skill sets to be a really effective CFO.

I think for any first-time CFO — regardless of whether you’re coming from a traditional track or not — one of the hardest things is just convincing someone that you’re ready to be a CFO.

If you’re going into roles that you haven’t had before, being able to sell yourself and articulate the value you add and the differentiated experience that you bring is really important.

It’s also equally important to find people and companies who are interested in talent and not just experience. I think those are the people that you want to work for anyway, as they’ll help you develop and give you growth opportunities. Talent-focused organizations allow you to take more risks than organizations that are looking for a square peg for a square hole.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge to stepping into the CFO role and your advice for tackling it?

A: The biggest challenge, especially for those following a more traditional accounting path, is effectively making the leap from being very technical to strategic. There are two really good strategies to overcome this though. The first is to continually hire yourself out of a job — build a great team under you and hire people who are better than you. Don’t be intimidated by having the right talent around you, because a great team lifts everyone and it’ll free you up to take on new things.

The second is to start by truly understanding your customers — your internal stakeholders — and what they need. What blind spots do they have in their area of the company? How can finance help? What reports are useful or not useful to them? How can you deliver those reports in a more real-time way?

By building a great relationship and dynamic with teams outside finance, you’ll be able to deliver more value and re-position finance from the back office to the center of the organization.

Q: What’s a key initiative every CFO should take on?

A: It’s so important and impactful to get various stakeholders in the organization together and get them on the same page about data and metrics.

I’m sure lots of people can relate to the fact that you’ll have different versions of the same metrics being calculated differently across the organization. Then you spend so much time wondering why someone has a different number for the same metric. It often comes down to not having a common definition. So, once everyone agrees on a common segmentation, you’ll start to develop a common language. The benefits of a common language are immediate. For example, the consumption and use of data becomes much easier when everyone in the organization starts from the same foundation. The central role of definitions is extremely important since there’s so much flexibility in how certain metrics can be defined and measured. As CFO, don’t underestimate your role in helping teams arrive at an effective way to construct metrics.

Check out our webinar with Modern Finance Forum (FSN) on Agility in Financial Forecasting