From Controller To Strategic Leader: Advice From Experienced CFOs 

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Adobe Stock Images/bahadirbermekphoto
"Seizing opportunities and continuously learning on the job is crucial," said SeekOps CFO Angela Smoller.

Making the leap from finance and accounting expert to strategic leader is one of the greatest challenges— and opportunities—for a first-time finance chief.  

To explore this critical transition, the CFO Leadership Council recently hosted a panel discussion featuring three CFOs of varying career paths: Joy Mbanugo, CFO of ServiceRocket; Angela Smoller, CFO of SeekOps; and David Spinola, President and CFO of SproutLoud Media Networks. 

In their discussion, they delved into the key areas that controllers aspiring to become CFOs need to focus on to ensure their evolution is impactful and integral to the success of their organizations. 

Diverse Experiences: The Foundation 

Diverse career experiences can help shape a strategic CFO. Mbanugo journeyed from auditing and tax roles to law school, then focused on capital markets at BlackRock, and eventually joined Google in treasury and tax before becoming finance chief at ServiceRocket.  

“Having a diverse set of experiences allows you to see the bigger picture and understand how different business functions interconnect,” Mbanugo said. “A CFO needs to be more than just a numbers person; you need to be a strategic partner who can contribute to the company’s overall vision.” 

Smoller started in public auditing with Deloitte and Crow, worked in finance at Xerox, and then moved through various roles at private equity-backed software companies before joining SeekOps, which monitors and tests emissions for energy firms.  

“Seizing opportunities and continuously learning on the job is crucial,” Smoller said. “When I moved to smaller portfolio companies, I had to learn everything from scratch, which gave me a deep understanding of how different systems and processes work together,” Smoller said. 

Jau Mbanugo headshot
Joy Mbanugo

Digital Savviness 

Being tech-savvy is no longer optional for CFOs. Mbanugo emphasized the importance of understanding and leveraging technology in her role, particularly in integrating systems and using AI for business operations and forecasting. 

“Technology is at the core of everything we do,” she noted. “From ERP systems to CRM and AI tools, understanding how these technologies work and how they can be used to drive business growth is essential for any modern CFO.” 

When Smoller was at Xerox, she learned how to use the systems but said she did not understand how they worked and how information got from one place to another. However, when Smoller moved to small PE portfolio companies, she had to learn everything because she needed to implement and build on existing systems. 

Angel Smoller headshot
Angela Smoller

“You need to know where the information comes from, how it flows, and how it can be used effectively,” Smoller said. 

Forging Relationships 

Building strong relationships within and outside the organization is critical for a CFO’s success. Spinola, who has a dual role as president and CFO at SproutLoud, stressed the importance of trust and collaboration. 

“Trust is fundamental,” Spinola said. “You need people to believe that you’re on their side. Being a helpful and reliable colleague can make you invaluable.” For example, Spinola, a former investment analyst, has worked closely with a sales team member to analyze data and improve sales processes. “By helping others with what you’re good at, you build strong relationships and become a key player in the organization’s success,” he said. 

What about outside the company? Smoller moved to a new city during the pandemic; she made efforts to connect with local CFOs and attend events, which helped her build a support network and stay informed about job opportunities. 

“You need to build your network before you need a job,” Smoller said. “People who know you’re a good person and know what you’re talking about will refer and recommend you.” 

Taking Initiative 

While building relationships inside a company is essential, a CFO must also learn about the business to be a better strategic partner. That can mean inviting themselves to meetings instead of waiting for an invitation.  

“Inviting yourself to meetings allows you to learn about what’s happening across the organization and contribute to discussions,” Smoller explained. “It makes you a more effective and strategic CFO.” 

David Spinola headshot
David Spinola

Mbanugo said being proactive, even to the point of being “nosy,” works when a CFO tries to be an effective leader and partner. “You need to be in everybody’s business to understand what’s going on and how you can help,” she said. 

Creativity and Problem-Solving Skills 

The panelists agreed that creativity and problem-solving skills are now among the most important skills for a CFO. 

“Problem-solving is where I can add value,” Spinola said. “It’s about asking the right questions and using data analysis to drive growth and make informed decisions.” 

For Mbanugo, creativity means encouraging teams to think outside the box and explore new ideas. 

“Giving your team the opportunity to be creative and think about the future can lead to innovative solutions and business growth,” she said. “It’s about being open to new ideas and using them to drive the company forward.” 

Continuous Learning 

The transition from traditional controllership to strategic leadership requires continuous learning and preparation. “Continuous learning and adapting to new challenges are key to becoming a successful CFO,” said Moller.  

Joy Mbanugo addressed the importance of mentorship. 

She told her mentor she wanted to be a CFO, and, after looking at her background, he explained the areas she needed more exposure outside of treasury and tax. “Having a mentor who can help you map out your course and provide guidance is invaluable,” Mbanugo said. “It helps you stay focused and prepared for the challenges ahead.”  

At ServiceRocket, Mbanugo tries to give her controller and other finance team members the opportunity to present their ideas. “They may have good ideas, and they may not have had the opportunity to present their ideas, or they may be afraid to present their ideas because they think they’re wrong,” she said. 

Aspiring CFOs should seek opportunities to contribute to strategic discussions, offering insights that reflect financial acumen and a deep understanding of the business. 

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