The career path to CFO

The career path to CFO: A data dive into top finance executives

May 13, 2024

Adam Feber

Adam Feber

Product Marketing

The career path to CFO: A data dive into top finance executives

Becoming a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is a significant career achievement that represents the pinnacle of the finance profession. CFOs oversee growth plans, raise capital, manage cash, forecast revenue, support other executives, and the list goes on…

Being a CFO isn’t just a title, it’s a massive responsibility. It’s also a badge of honor that most finance professionals deeply respect and strive to achieve. But getting there is a challenging journey that requires a combination of education, experience, and skills.  

This got us wondering—what career decisions are correlated to reaching the top? Did they get an MBA? Did they start their career in investment banking or at a Big Four accounting firm? How many years of experience did they have before landing such a major role?

As a team that lives and breathes analysis, we were curious to see what the data would tell us. We dove in to explore the top finance executives' education, work experience, and time to reach their current positions.

We used the 2023 Forbes Cloud 100 list for our benchmarks. The Cloud 100 is a prestigious list created in partnership with Bessemer Venture Partners and Salesforce Ventures that reflects the who’s who of high-growth software companies and finance leadership.

So what did the data say? Keep reading to find out. 👇

Key takeaways

Methodology note: Our analysis is solely based on publicly available data. 88% of these companies had a dedicated CFO seat. If a company did not have a CFO, we looked at the finance leader with the highest title in the organizational chart (e.g. SVP/VP/Head).

  • 74% graduated from US schools
  • Of those, only 16% went to an Ivy League school, but 92% went to a Top 100 school (according to the 2024 U.S. News Best Colleges Database)
  • 83% hold a bachelor’s degree in finance
  • Of the 17% that don't, 94% received a postgraduate degree
  • Regardless of the undergraduate degree, 64% received a postgraduate degree
  • 81% of all postgraduate degrees were MBAs
  • 32% started their careers in accounting, 32% in corporate finance, 29% in investment banking, 7% in consulting
  • The average number of roles on the path to CFO was six
  • Only 17% of CFOs were promoted internally
  • It took 18.5 years on average before reaching the CFO seat


Where you go to school or what degree you get (or whether you even get one) doesn’t necessarily make or break a career in finance, but there is a strong correlation between these factors and the top finance execs.

Here are the details on where these executives studied, the degrees they obtained, and the role advanced degrees play.

Where they studied

American universities educated 74% of these executives. For comparison, 89% of these companies were headquartered in the United States.

Of the 74 that studied in the United States, 16% went to an Ivy League school. The strongest signal of success was tied to going to a Top 100 school (which 92% in our sample attended).

The chart below highlights these schools with four or more graduates. Stanford holds the title for the most graduates, and Santa Clara University tied Harvard for these executives' alma maters.

It’s also important to note that while California-based schools may dominate the top of this list, it does not necessarily correlate to a successful career as a finance executive. The Cloud 100 list is skewed toward companies headquartered in California. Of the 55 that were based California, 31 had finance executives that got their degrees from a California-based school.

What they studied

Most (83%) of the executives on our list possess an undergraduate degree in finance, but the other 17% did their undergraduate in an alternate field of study.

However, of those 17 who did their undergraduate degree in a field other than finance, 94% went on to get a postgraduate degree. An overwhelming 82% of this cohort went for an MBA to power their careers in finance.

This indicates that if you don’t have an undergraduate degree in finance, there is a strong correlation between getting a postgraduate degree and the path to CFO. More specifically, an MBA.

Regardless of their undergraduate focus, 64% of all these finance executives went on to complete a postgraduate degree.

An MBA was the most popular choice by a considerable margin, accounting for 52 of the 64 postgraduate degrees (81%). If you’re considering furthering your education—and finance career—an MBA is a pretty safe bet.

While an postgraduate degree can help propel your financial career forward, 36% of these finance professionals have managed to reach the executive level without one.

Career choices

Education may be important, but it’s not the only influential factor in the path to CFO. Career choices, especially early ones, also had a noticeable impact on their professional journey.

First finance roles

The data shows that most CFOs’ careers began in similar sectors before evolving. An almost equal number of professionals got their start in accounting, corporate finance, and investment banking. It was less common for CFOs to have started their career in consulting.

Longest finance roles

It’s not unusual to feel like you get stuck along the way. For many, it’s in a more entry-level role like an Associate or Analyst. For others, it’s an extended stint as a VP of Finance waiting for your shot at CFO to open up.

There was a long tail of many different types of roles, but below are the most role clusters (two or more matches) where these execs logged the most hours during the rise to the top.

Number of roles

While there were a handful of CFOs that held more than a dozen roles before securing the CFO title, both the average and median hovered around six roles.

Getting promoted vs. hired

These professionals built experience in a wide range of positions and averaged six roles, but how many of these companies promoted their CFO from within vs. hiring externally?

Surprisingly, only 17% were promoted from within. Below is the distribution of the roles before their promotions.

What’s the takeaway? If you’re keen on becoming a CFO, waiting around for the big promotion might not be the optimal strategy. Don’t be afraid to strategically jump ship at the right time to make it happen.

Based on this data, getting to a VP/SVP of Finance role increases your chances to be promoted from within. If that isn’t a reality at your company, then this is the step where ship jumping might make the most sense to build a launch pad for further promotion.

Interestingly, a similar number of CFOs previously occupied senior accounting and FP&A roles, indicating FP&A’s importance despite its relatively recent rise as a dedicated finance function.

Time to ascend to CFO

While the choices we highlighted above play a role in ascending to CFO, nothing beats work experience and time spent in finance roles. Our CFOs did not reach their positions overnight, even with their stellar qualifications.

The path to CFO is not a short one—the majority of the CFOs on our list took an average of 18.5 years to reach their first CFO role. Early and mid-career professionals looking to become a finance executive should be prepared to commit to nearly two decades of learning and experience before their first CFO opportunity arises.

Final thoughts

While the professionals we analyzed took various paths to reach CFO, the data says that the most straightforward path to the CFO seat is: 

  • Go to a top 100 school, get a bachelor’s degree in finance, and then get an MBA. 
  • Get your first role in accounting, investment banking, or corporate finance. 
  • Be patient and understand that it usually takes 18+ years.
  • Be prepared to average six roles, meaning you’ll average three-ish years in each seat.
  • Whether you aim to work your way up internally or get hired externally, you should seek upskilling opportunities with greater responsibility with each move.
  • Getting to a VP of Finance position will greatly increase your odds of reaching CFO.

But the reality is, how you get there can not be forecasted in a spreadsheet. 

The one thing for sure is that finance has dramatically transformed from a back-office function to a strategic business partner. Just look at all the MBAs on this list.

Ultimately, career progression in finance depends on how well you position yourself as a strategic aid to your business. Modern FP&A tools that help you get insights quickly and tell better stories with your data are invaluable.

Spolier alert

The data for this post was charted with Aleph’s new Dashboards tool. 

We’ve started rolling Dashboards out to our existing customers, and the early feedback has been extremely positive. 

For this post, we used a static spreadsheet as the source which is not the predominate use case. With Dashboards, Aleph customers can now feed their live data syncs into beautiful, dynamic charts to analyze data, monitor progress, and collaborate with other stakeholders. 

Stay tuned for much more information on Dashboards. Schedule a demo to see how Aleph can take your business and finance career to the next level.

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