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    The Path to CFO: Is the CMA Credential Just as Important as the CPA?

    By | September 20, 2010

    Many of you soldiering in public accounting have aspirations of one day achieving the pinnacle of many a numbers junkie’s career – Chief Financial Officer. You may think that becoming a CFO will mean hobnobbing with other C-suiters, first-class flights and access to exclusive swing joints but in all likelihood, it will consist of long hours, political maneuvering and maybe burning a few bridges.

    While there are many paths to ascending to such a heralded position, one has to wonder if the skill set obtained in public accounting will really prepare you for all the demands and headaches that will inevitably come with a CFO position.

    Because so many accounting grads get their start in public accounting, one of the first steps is obtaining the CPA credential. There’s no question that obtaining your CPA is a must for anyone that intends on spending a significant portion of their career in public accounting and little debate about the advantage of having those three letters on your résumé when you start looking outside public.

    Tthe timing of that move may determine what kind of path you have ahead of you in order to land that coveted CFO gig. If you manage to stick out life in public until partner or in some cases the director or senior manager level the path is more clear. You may jump right into it immediately or you assume a position that reports to the current CFO and be groomed to assume the big chair at the appropriate time.

    But what if you’re just starting your career and you’re fed up with public already? Or what if you’ve gotten laid off and you took a job in private. Are your dreams crushed at this point? What’s a wannabe CFO to do?

    Speaking with John Kogan, CEO of Proformative, an online resource for finance, accounting and treasury professionals, obtaining the Certified Management Accountant credential is something that often gets overlooked.


    “It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of finance certifications,” John told GC, “it doesn’t get enough respect.” The argument for today’s CFOs to have a CPA are being made and statistics have shown that more and more CFOs are, in fact, CPAs. The most recent data we can find shows that in 2009, 45% of Fortune 1000 CFOs were CPAs, up from 29% in 2003.

    However, the viewpoint of “Warren Miller” in the comments of Francine McKenna’s guest post at FEI Blog on the subject, is that accountants usually make terrible CFOs:

    [A]ccountants tend to make lousy CFOs because (a) they see everything as an accounting problem, (b) their ignorance of finance AND of human nature (where incentives are concerned) can be breathtaking, (c) they look backwards, and (d) they are conflict-avoiders. If accountants wanted to deal with the ambiguity of the future, they’d have never become bean-counters.

    In addition, most accountants LOVE “rules.” They avoid conflict by hiding behind rules. They are go-along/get-along people. I’m fond of saying this: “If accountants had been running our country in 1776, we’d still be working for the King.”

    So if the gamut of accountants are ignorant about finance matters, does the CMA provide a bridge to closing that knowledge gap? John Kogan thinks so, “The CMA designation wants to be the ‘CPA’ for finance professionals,” he said, “but it’s so far from being that.”

    When you look at the two sections of the CMA exam on the Institute of Management Accountant’s website, you certainly get the impression that the CMA could be the “CPA for finance professionals” based on the curriculum:

    PART I – Financial Planning, Performance and Control
    • Planning, budgeting, and forecasting
    • Performance management
    • Cost management
    • Internal controls
    • Professional ethics

    PART II – Financial Decision Making
    • Financial statement analysis
    • Corporate finance
    • Decision analysis and risk management
    • Investment decisions
    • Professional ethics

    So why isn’t the CMA a more coveted credential? John Kogan claims it’s due to poor marketing on the IMA’s part, “The CMA [credential] has similar requirements, not identical but similar, and they don’t enjoy the reputation of the CPA,” John said. “The CMA is getting its butt kicked because it doesn’t market itself well.”

    You can easily make the argument that the AICPA has the distinct advantage of partnering with the Big 4 – firms that’s primary purpose is to serve as CPAs – on marketing and promotional efforts while the IMA has no apparent equivalent.

    That being said, our recent conversation with IMA Chair Sandra Richtermeyer shed some light on the careers that are available for accountants moving into a financial role that the CMA designation complements well. She was of the notion that the CMA is simply not about cost accounting and John Kogan agrees, “I think anyone who knows anything about [the CMA] knows that the [designation] is broader than that, it’s just that very few people know what the heck it’s about,” he said. “Without a doubt, the skills that the IMA are teaching and certifying are corporate finance skills.”

    If you consider yourself to be on the path to CFO Rockstar, maybe you have the CPA locked up but what’s next? Having the CPA credential may make you an attractive candidate on paper but it’s won’t guarantee success with the wide range of knowledge that CFOs need. So, while it may not hold a candle to the CPA in terms of prestige, the skills and knowledge that fall under the CMA are essential for any successful CFO.