A CEO is the most important person in a company. Jumping from meeting to meeting, calling shots, taking risks, making and sometimes breaking businesses. We see these larger-than-life figures giving talks, announcing products and lining the pages of the Forbes Rich List. But where do they come from?
A recent survey has shown that nearly one quarter of FTSE 100 CEOs come from a background in accounting. For some this may come as a surprise. How could so many humble bookkeepers end up running high end firms?
There are, however, many reasons why accountants are well-suited to the role of CEO.
1. Accountants are innovators
Those who witness accountancy from afar may have formed an image of the accountant as something of a pencil pusher; sitting hunched over a calculator and frantically scribbling down sums. This stereotype is inaccurate.
The best accountants do more than merely fill out tax returns and process invoices; they innovate. It starts small, with accountants looking for ways to save money and to simplify the accounting process. Then, for many, an entrepreneurial spirit takes hold. How do they gain more clients? How do they get more done? How do they get better results?
Andy Lark is one of the world’s top CMOs, and he has offered some insight into why accountants have the innovative skills and tenacity to take on CEO roles. Discussing the success of his latest venture, online accounting platform Xero, Lark goes over the ways accountants have the potential to adapt their practices to suit the modern marketplace.
Moving towards mobile is one way. Since the majority of web searches now take place on mobile, accountants have to meet potential clients there. This involves creating accounting apps that can be used on mobile phones. Lark also stresses the importance of disrupting common business models, citing Uber as an example accountancy firms can and should follow. Uber, of course, tore up the rulebook on taxi cabs. Though accountants should play by the rules, there is no reason they can’t be equally revolutionary.
Xero itself is a disruptive company that shook up the market; giving streamlined, cloud-based accounting software to thousands of small businesses worldwide. These cloud-based solutions have helped small businesses and startups get to grips with their finances, and the innovators behind these developments have reaped the benefits. These individuals are no doubt on the way to becoming CEOs of major firms in no time.
2. Accountants are good with money
The obvious but important fact is that accountants are finance experts. CEOs need plenty of skills—risk assessment, initiative, vision, etc—but when it comes down to it, the most important thing they need to master is money.
During their time as accountants, these CEOs-in-waiting see all the numbers. They know what needs to goes in and what can afford to go out. They know which decisions paid off and which ones did not. Many of the accountants on this rich list earned their money by investing wisely. They have seen successful and unsuccessful investments throughout their careers, so they know which investments to make and which to pass on.
This knowledge is hugely useful to a CEO of any company, and, crucially, it allows accountants to garner capital from investments in order to become entrepreneurs and fund their own business ventures.
3. Accountants need to be decisive
Aside from fluency in finance, CEOs need to excel in another area: decision-making. Three of the world’s most successful CEOs discussed the importance of decision-making in their jobs with McKinsey&Company.
Sir Martin Sorrell, the highest-paid CEO in the UK, said decision-making is at the heart of his role. Weighing up data, analysing consequences, and avoiding mistakes are all part of his job, he says, and equally they are the job of the accountant.
Randy Komisar of Kleiner Perkins told McKinsey that balancing out biases is an important part of his decision-making process. Accountants are very experienced in this, since they approach their work without bias consistently.
It is not just the transferable skills accountants learn that make them great decision-makers and future CEOs; they also learn straight-up decision-making on the job, as they are consulted on many big decisions for their opinion of the accountancy side of things by the companies they work for. This gives them, by osmosis, a knowledge of the wider issue at hand, and of which choices lead to which consequences.
An accountant’s knowledge and expertise is strongly valued by company higher-ups. As the accountants advance in their careers, they can cut out the middlemen and start making the executive decisions themselves.