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5 Steps to Go from CMA to CFO

5 Steps to go from CMA to CFO - Plan for your later career now

[By: Stephanie Ng]

As a professional accountant, I’ve had many rewarding moments in my career. When I was offered the position of the executive committee member responsible for finance at New Sight Eye Care, an international charity, I was excited to take it. In this article, I’ll share 5 steps to go from CMA to CFO. Plus, I’ll outline why you should start planning for your later career to make your journey a little easier and a lot more enjoyable.

What is the CMA?

A CMA, or Certified Management Accountant, is the “gold standard” credential in management accounting. CMAs have advanced accounting and strategic and financial management skills. They understand complex accounting concepts and how they apply in the business world. CMAs can look at a company’s financial data and help leaders make data-backed decisions about the company’s future. Basically, a CMA can explain both the “what” and “why” behind a budget or balance sheet.

Benefits of the CMA Credential

Here’s a shortlist of the many benefits of becoming a CMA:

  • Global Recognition: Right now, the CMA is the fastest-growing credential on the globe. No matter what country you work in, your peers will understand the value you bring to a team with this qualification.
  • Higher Earning Potential: In most settings, CMAs make more money than their uncredentialed peers.
  • More Leadership Opportunities: CMAs can explain the significance of financial data and make sound strategic moves based on those numbers. For that reason alone, CMAs are often assigned leadership and decision-making positions.
  • Job Security: In today’s uncertain business climate, it’s nice to know that CMAs will always be in demand. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for financial managers will increase by 16% by 2028.

Requirements to Become a CMA

The IMA, or Institute of Management Accountants, sets the requirements for becoming a CMA. These requirements, sometimes referred to as the “3 E’s,” are as follows:

  • Education: Earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in any field within 7 years of passing the CMA exam
  • Exam: Pass the entire 2-part CMA exam within 3 years of your enrollment into the CMA program
  • Experience: Within 7 years of passing the CMA exam, work at least 2 continuous years in a professional management accounting or financial management position

What is a CFO?

CFOs, or Chief Financial Officers, have skills in both accounting and business strategies. But ultimately, CFOs can move beyond the accounting space and visualize a company’s big picture. They must understand everything from balance sheets and budgets to sales, marketing, strategic planning, public relations, supply chains, distribution channels, and how to improve its position in the market. Basically, a CFO needs to comprehend how finances affect a company’s operations to make strategic decisions about future moves.

5 Steps to Go from CMA to CFO

It doesn’t matter if you are already a CMA or plan to get your credential in the future: if you want to go from CMA to CFO, you need to start taking steps today. Here are five steps that will get you going in the right direction.

Step 1: Get Broad Work Experience

If you want to work your way up to CFO, you’ll need a breadth of experience. Look for positions that will involve analysis, analytics, budgeting, compliance, and risk management. Plus, it’s best if you can gain experience implementing and evaluating internal controls.

But keep an essential tip in mind: Although you need to have enough experience in all of these areas, you don’t need to become an expert per se. However, you have to have enough understanding of each sector to be able to make decisions for your company.

Step 2: Broaden Your Role in Your Current Position

Grab every opportunity to broaden your role while still in your current position. If your firm is looking for someone to take on some extra duties, be the first to sign up. When you take on additional roles with your firm—even if those roles seem minor at the time—they add up over time.

Unpaid Experience

A great way to accomplish this step is to volunteer your accounting know-how for a local non-profit. Organizations from PTAs and school groups to book clubs and charities need accounting services and advice. IMA provides members plenty of volunteering opportunities. Plus, volunteering keeps you in touch with your community and can lead to business contacts.

The boards of nonprofits are often an untapped resource to gain new experience and take on leadership positions. When you sit on the Board of Directors for a non-profit or NGO (non-governmental organization), you’ll be tasked with making strategic decisions that shape the organization’s direction. Since these decisions are often financially-driven, you’ll gain first-hand experience helping your fellow board members break down and analyze financial data to plan for the future effectively. Sound familiar? This type of experience will directly prepare you for being a CFO.

How I Broadened My Roles

It’s essential to broaden your role, even if you don’t get paid for it. Every time I took on an unpaid position—whether it was for my employer but didn’t come with increased compensation or if I volunteered for a non-profit—I reminded myself that this extra work was worth it. Not only did it help me gain new skill sets and increase my network, but I knew that my efforts would lead to a CFO position down the road.

For example, as the executive committee member responsible for finance (the term for non-profit CFOs) for New Sight Eye Care, I often meet with major donors who want insight into our financial health. I must be able to talk about cash flow projects, budgets for capital projects and other significant expenses, operational budgets, and program vs. administration costs. I learned how to breakdown these issues and use them to make strategic decisions when I volunteered on non-profit boards earlier in my career.

Step 3: Network and Look for Opportunities

You already know the importance of networking to land that first entry-level position or build your way up the corporate ladder. However, if you’re aiming for an executive-level position like CFO, networking throughout your career is just as important.

Also, keep your eye out for opportunities. If you haven’t found your dream position yet, make a list of where that dream position might be located and complete regular searches.

Talk about Your Goals

And in my opinion, what’s one of the best ways to find excellent opportunities? Simply let the people in your network know what your goals are. Often, the best opportunities are not made publicly available or are not advertised. But if the contacts in your professional network know that you’re really shooting for a CFO position—and more importantly, you’ve proven to them that you have the skills for it—you’re more likely to receive a phone call the next time an opportunity opens up.

Step 4: Gain Additional Educational Credentials

If your goal is to be a CFO, you already know that CFOs need unique skill sets in business strategies and understanding how a company works from top to bottom. As a CFO, you’ll deal with a diverse range of issues related to budgeting, planning, weathering uncertain financial markets, and monitoring a company’s financial health. More importantly, you’ll need to be able to identify appropriate corrective actions and have the leadership skills to implement those actions.

As you can see, CFOs need to be financial jacks-of-all-trades, so to speak. If you don’t have that skill set, then some extra educational courses or credentials might be in order. This is especially true if you’re aiming for a CFO position in a large or global organization.

Get Your MBA

Another good step could be to get your MBA. A Master of Business Administration degree is catered to those who seek leadership roles in business administration and related fields like corporate relations, investment banking, marketing, and strategic planning. Since MBA students are required to take a range of courses and are trained in leadership and business strategies, this degree could give you the breadth of knowledge needed to be a CFO. Plus, most MBA programs have extensive alumni networks to help you with step 3, as listed above.

However, I want to make an important point. If you are shooting for a CFO position with a small- to mid-sized business, you might not need additional credentials to bring your name to the top of the potential candidates list. Instead, you should focus on perfecting your skill set, building your network, and widening your professional experiences.

Step 5: Find a Mentor

At some point in your career, you’ll find a professional who you admire and respect. I suggest that you ask that person to mentor you through your career. In my experience, many high-level executives are happy to serve as mentors. However, you have to take the initiative to seek them out and ask for their help.

My mentor has been one of my biggest allies; I’m not sure I would be where I am today without her guidance and support. She helped me identify personal and professional growth areas and kept me pointed in the right direction when I started to get lost on my career path.

My Path to the Executive Committee Member Responsible for Finance (CFO)

I would like to share my thoughts about the benefits of the CMA and share my journey to becoming a CFO for the international charity New Sight Eye Care.

New Sight Eye Care is an international charity registered in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong that operates in the Republic of the Congo. I perform the organization’s accounting, compliance, financial management, and taxation activities and manage internal controls.

I made myself the right candidate for this position by following the steps listed above. After gaining my accounting credentials, I got broad work experience. I even took on pro bono work from time to time if it meant an excellent professional reference or sharpened my accounting abilities. I sought out leadership positions in the companies I worked for and volunteered with non-profits. I also broadened my role in the accounting community by authoring books and articles. I even started a series of blogs to advise future CPAs, CMAs, and other professionals. All of my experiences have given me the know-how to help New Sight strategically plan for the future and continue to make an impact in the world.

Start Planning Now

Here’s my last piece of advice: If the CFO title is one of your goals, start planning now. It doesn’t matter if you are at the beginning of your career or if you are a seasoned professional, take the first steps of that journey today.

The road to becoming a CFO is not easy, so the more time you have to perfect your craft, broaden your experience, and build your network of peers, the better.

The Future of CFOs

Now that you know a little more about the steps to take to go from CMA to CFO, I would like to give you some insight into what CFO positions might look like in the future. If you take my advice and start planning now for your future CFO position, you must build a foundation for the skills you’ll need.

The members of the Forbes Financial Council have compiled some insight into the future of CFOs. Here’s a summary of their predictions:

More Dependent on Technology

CFOs are expected to analyze data in such a way that they can relate important information and help make executive-level decisions. More and more, CFOs are dependent on innovative software for data analysis. CFOs will also be expected to understand blockchains and how blockchain-based solutions will impact finance and accounting. So if you plan to become a CFO, get comfortable with technology.

I can personally attest to this increase in technology. For example, I use software to help me quickly generate financial reports for New Sight Eye Care. I can update these reports in real-time, which allows the whole decision-making team to analyze issues and take corrective actions quickly.


In the past, companies often had distinct COO (Chief Operating Officer) and CFO roles. However, as companies are becoming more nimble, more companies are merging these positions. To be ready for this reality, CFOs will also be asked to lead operations decisions and planning.

Some Final Thoughts

Each person’s path to go from CMA to CFO will be different. My journey won’t be the same as yours, but I hope these steps help you plan for your future. Get broad experience, gain as much education as you can, and find a mentor. And when in doubt, network, network, network.

Portrait of author Stephanie Ng

Stephanie Ng is the Executive Committee member responsible for Finance at New Sight Eye Care, a charity registered in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. She oversees the financial aspect of New Sight in Hong Kong, including accounting, taxation, financial management, and compliance.

She began her career as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers in New York and Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong. She later joined her client to work in the Group Finance Department, where she spent five years specializing in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, and debt refinancing. She also extended her role to management accounting and financial accounting and obtained her U.S. CPA qualification.

Stephanie also is a published author of the book How to Pass the CPA Exam. Additionally, she created I Pass the CMA Exam, the first CMA help site. Her guidance and mentorship have helped hundreds of thousands of candidates pass their exams.

Stephanie graduated with Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago, majoring in economics with a second concentration in public policy studies.