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How do I become a portfolio CFO?

cfo to portfolio cfo recruitment
​What do I need to do to transition from CFO to portfolio CFO in the recruitment sector?

Transitioning from a CFO position to a portfolio CFO role is an attractive prospect for many who have had a successful career in senior finance in the recruitment sector and are seeking new challenges for their career. Portfolio CFO work can offer flexibility, variation, and high levels of remuneration. But making this switch is not always straightforward, and advice on how to do so is thin on the ground. Read on for a complete guide to the reasons for making the CFO to portfolio CFO transition, how to successfully execute it, and what to expect once you are a portfolio CFO. 

Why should I become a portfolio CFO?

Portfolio CFO work is usually sought by those who have extensive and wide-ranging experience in the sector, which will allow them to provide companies with guidance on how to navigate various different opportunities and obstacles. 

A key factor here is flexibility – orthodox CFO roles entail vast amounts of responsibility and an often unrelenting workload. The challenge of this work is, of course, attractive, but it is natural to desire a change of pace and an improvement to your work-life balance once you are well-established in the sector and have accumulated significant experience. This is what a portfolio CFO role can offer.

Nevertheless, this is not to say that portfolio CFO work cannot be exciting or that it necessarily represents a step towards retirement. On the contrary, it often constitutes an entirely new challenge, particularly because of the amount of variation involved. Working with multiple businesses means your work will be different from one day to the next, and you can enjoy the satisfaction of seeing companies to which you are providing crucial support grow and succeed.

Additionally, the flexibility on offer means you can choose to maintain a full-time schedule if you wish. In this scenario, you have just as much demanding work to fulfil your ambition, but have considerably more variation to keep you on your toes.

Click here for an explanation of the finance function's role at different stages of company growth

How can I become a portfolio CFO?

When seeking to make the transition to portfolio CFO work, it is important to consider what you can offer. Your skillset will be most attractive to companies whose future reflects your experience. For example, if your experience is mainly in SME businesses, it is companies of a similar profile to whom you can offer the most. If you have successfully turned around an underperforming business by overhauling their finance function, your skills could be beneficial to another company in a similar predicament.

This is particularly true of experience with various forms of growth and expansion. If your previous work has involved taking a company through a funding round or private equity exit, this will be useful to businesses seeking to do the same. Another example is expansion into new markets - if a business is seeking to break into the American market and you have experience of this, you could be a potentially invaluable asset to them.

Additionally, many companies will want you to impart your expertise to a senior finance professional within their business through mentoring, such as a Finance Director or Financial Controller. In some instances, you may mentor a CEO. In this case exposure to non-finance elements of the business, such as sales and operations, is a useful tool on which you can market yourself.

If you are currently employed as a CFO, it is prudent to test the market for your skills and your suitability to the world of portfolio CFO work, rather than transitioning directly. It can take a while to find the right companies to build into your portfolio. As such, you are best off finding a role that requires one or two days per month of your time, while staying in your current position. Gaining experience in your new role can help gauge the long-term feasibility of portfolio CFO work for your career and build your brand as a portfolio CFO.

But finding portfolio CFO roles is not always easy. It is extremely rare to see them advertised, and most of them are circulated through word of mouth and niche recruitment agencies. It is important to know how to market yourself. To this end, it is advisable to create a one-page portfolio profile, separate from your CV, that clearly lays out your skills, the experience underlying them, and how they can be applied in your prospective role as a portfolio CFO. 

It is also important to have strong networking abilities. As a portfolio CFO, you are effectively a one-person business, meaning that building connections is a key skill. Once you have worked in your first few portfolio CFO positions, this will help you catch roles that are disseminated through word of mouth. However, it is extremely difficult to do this from a standing start, hence why it is important to get in contact with a high-calibre specialist recruiter who can help you get your portfolio CFO career off the ground and guide you through its early stages. 

What should I expect as a portfolio CFO?

Some recruitment companies that you join as a portfolio CFO may also have little previous experience of the role of a Non-Executive Director, particularly if they are start-ups or scale-up businesses. This represents an opportunity for you to lead the way in defining your responsibilities and impress company management with the value-addition that you can bring to the table. In many cases, you may become somewhat of a confidant for the CEO, whether or not you mentor them directly. They will rely on your experience and ability to provide counsel when tackling the various challenges a growing business encounters. 

Nevertheless, it should be noted that this can be something of a double-edged sword. It is important to set boundaries on the time you make available to the different companies in your portfolio. Inevitably, some work will occur outside the days specifically allocated to businesses in your portfolio, as they are likely to encounter pressing problems that need your immediate attention. However, this must stay within reasonable bounds. If you end up working significantly more than the agreed hours, you are lowering your rate of pay. In this case, may be necessary to have frank conversations with company management about restrictions on your availability. In exceptional circumstances, you may have to negotiate added payment for extra services. In order to maintain optimum relations, this scenario should be avoided where possible, underlining the importance of initial boundary setting.

A further important distinction to draw in the marketplace for portfolio CFO work is between businesses seeking a turnaround and fast-growth companies. Both have their merits and drawbacks. If the turnaround is successfully executed, the former will provide steady, long-term work, meaning it can form a reliable part of your portfolio. On the other hand, once the ship has been righted, it may not offer as exciting or dynamic challenges as those found in a fast-growth company. But there is a caveat; if the company grows according to plan, it is likely to require a full-time CFO. Accordingly, the maximum tenure for portfolio CFOs at businesses of this profile tends to be three to four years. A third case of businesses seeking to do something specific, such as overhauling their financial reporting process. In this case, executing such a project can be a useful addition to your CV but is also likely to be short-term in nature

Click here for an article on how finance leaders can influence change and transformation

Portfolio CFO work can be a rewarding new chapter in your life after decades of hard work and sacrifice to reach the position you find yourself in today. However, it is not an easy world to break into. A successful transition requires the support and expertise of someone with deep understanding and strong connections in the recruitment sector. This is where Camino Partners can help you. We have extensive experience placing portfolio CFOs into excellent companies. Our specialist CFO/FD consultant, Molly Hogan, places exclusively into the recruitment sector and is therefore a natural choice to help with creating, building and refining your portfolio. Don’t hesitate to get in contact today and find out about the fantastic portfolio CFO work we can help you find.

Molly Hogan