CFO vs CEO: What are the fundamental differences?

March 13th 2024 | Posted by Phil Scott

Are you assessing two key roles within your organisation and trying to understand the differences between a CFO vs CEO?

While both are essential for the strategic and financial health of a company, their responsibilities, focus areas, and impact on the business’s direction and growth diverge significantly. Here, we aim to demystify the two significant roles – CFO Vs CEO, highlighting their unique contributions, strategic importance, and how they integrate into the operational and strategic fabric of companies across different industries and sizes.

Chief Financial Officer: The Architect of Financial Strategy

The Chief Financial Officer is the guardian of a company’s financial health, overseeing all financial functions including reporting, risk management, forecasting, and investment strategies. This executive is responsible for shaping the company’s financial future and ensuring that its financial practices align with its long-term objectives. Their expertise extends to areas such as optimising capital structure, engaging with investors, and developing strategies to navigate financial challenges and opportunities.

Key responsibilities include:

  • Financial planning and analysis (FP&A)
  • Management of financial risks
  • Strategic investment planning
  • Stakeholder relations

Chief Executive Officer: The Visionary Leader

The Chief Executive Officer, on the other hand, is the highest-ranking executive, with the ultimate responsibility for making major corporate decisions, managing the overall operations and resources of a company, and being the main point of communication between the board of directors and corporate operations. The CEO’s role encompasses a broad spectrum of responsibilities that go beyond financial management to include setting company culture, strategic vision, and operational efficiency.

Key responsibilities include:

  • Establishing and executing the company’s strategic direction
  • Making major corporate decisions
  • Overseeing all operations and business activities
  • Building and maintaining high-level relationships
  • Representing the company to the public, shareholders, and government entities

The Interplay Between CFO vs CEO

The relationship between Chief Financial Officer and Chief Executive Officer is pivotal, characterised by collaboration and strategic alignment. The CFO brings financial acuity to the executive team, advising the CEO on financial strategy, implications of major decisions, and risk management. This partnership ensures that the company’s financial strategy supports its overarching goals, with the CFO often acting as the CEO’s trusted advisor in matters of fiscal importance. Quite often CFOs are CEOs in waiting, with Chief Financial Officers increasingly progressing into the Chief Executive Officer role. According to the Financial Times, in 2023, 8.4% of open CEO roles were filled by CFOs, marking the highest rate since 2013. Moreover, one-third of FTSE 100 CEOs have a background as CFOs, a significant increase from 21% in 2019.

Strategic Planning, Execution and Navigating Challenges

Together, the CEO and CFO are instrumental in strategic planning and execution. The CEO sets the vision and strategic direction, while the CFO ensures that financial strategies and models are in place to support these goals. This synergy enables the company to pursue growth opportunities while maintaining financial stability.

In times of financial uncertainty or challenges, the CFO’s expertise becomes invaluable in advising the CEO on corrective actions and financial restructuring. This collaboration is crucial for making informed decisions that will steer the company through difficulties and onto a path of sustainable growth.

Communication and Investor Relations

The Chief Financial Officer supports the Chief Executive Officer in communicating with shareholders, analysts, and the investment community, providing transparency and building confidence in the company’s financial stability and growth prospects. This relationship is key to maintaining investor relations and securing the trust of stakeholders.

Gender Representation in Executive Roles: A Crucial Consideration

The Pipeline’s Women Count Report 2023 sheds light on the distribution of women in executive roles within FTSE 350 companies, revealing that only 1 in 5 commercial roles on these companies’ executive committees is occupied by women. Furthermore, while the representation of women on boards has exceeded 30%, only 13% of FTSE100 and 9% of FTSE350 companies have a female CEO. Additionally, despite nearly half of qualified accountants being women, only 18% of FTSE350 companies have a female CFO. This statistic highlights the ongoing challenge of gender diversity in top executive positions, underscoring the importance of addressing this disparity as part of broader strategic and operational considerations in UK companies.

CFO vs CEO Salary

Salaries differ significantly between CFOs and CEOs. If you are looking to find out salary differences between the two roles specific to your organisation’s size and local area in the UK, you can download our CFO Salary Guide, or alternatively, visit our sister company, Executive Recruit to view their CEO Salary Guide.

Complementary Forces Shaping Business Success

In conclusion, the roles of CFO and CEO, while distinct, are deeply interconnected, each bringing essential strengths to the leadership team. Understanding the nuanced differences and the collaborative dynamics between these positions can help businesses structure their executive teams for optimal strategic alignment, financial health, and operational efficiency. Whether navigating through periods of growth or addressing challenges, the partnership between the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Executive Officer is central to driving the company forward, making strategic decisions that ensure long-term success and sustainability.