41% of business leaders have cited the increased movement of Chief Financial Officers to Chief Exec positions as a key instigator of the UK’s current CFO shortage.

New findings from specialist recruitment company Robert Walters highlights the main triggers around the CFO talent gap and how employers can work around them. Indeed, there has only been a 2% increase in the number of CFO’s entering into this role in the past 12 months.

Lucy Bisset, Director of Robert Walters comments: “The role of Chief Financial Officer has changed rapidly over the last 18 months – and with recently reported gaps in the talent pool it is more important than ever that employers are not only aware of the aspects driving professionals away from the position but also how they can attract them back.” Currently, around 1 in 3 FTSE 100 CEOs have previously served as CFOs, a 21% increase from 2019.

Indeed, the Robert Walters poll found that 45% of professionals believe that a financial background is the most advantageous background for a CEO to come from in the current climate. In comparison, 21% feel that those from a legal background serve well in the Chief Exec position, followed by just 9% who think those from a HR background would be suitable for the role.

Lucy commented: “It’s unsurprising that we are seeing an increased movement of CFO talent to CEO roles – in recession markets, companies and their boards want Chief Executives who have a keen financial and strategy-driven head – skills essential in a CFO’s repertoire – there is real value placed on the ability to sail a company through choppy economic waters rather than just consider its top-line growth.”

38% of business leaders cited the increased number of more senior, seasoned CFOs opting for an early retirement as another key contributor to the gap. The trend of CFOs taking an early exit in their late 50s rather than early 60s – and given the average age of a CFO sits at 52 years whilst the average age of appointment stands at 46 – it leaves a tight window of time between appointment and an early retirement. In fact, twenty-nine FTSE 100 businesses, including Unilever and Schroders, changed their CFO in 2023 — the most since at least 2013.

“The movement of more seasoned talent out of the hiring pool will pose a problem to companies who don’t have a strong succession plan in place for this critically important position,” Lucy said. “The experience and skills which are accrued across a career, cannot simply be replaced by a quick hire.”

In 2023, Chief Financial Officer positions came top of the list on the Times’ highest paid jobs. According to Robert Walters’ Salary Survey, last year Chief Financial Officer roles in the North of England saw earnings of £110-220k – in 2024, this has increased to £175-250k.

In 2023, similar roles in the Capital drew in earnings of between £140-250k+. In 2024, this has risen by £50k to between £190 - 300k.

Lucy continued: “Many candidates are aware of their value in the market – with 15% of CFO candidates in the UK having moved positions in the last year – showing a clear confidence to move for more.” Considering the degree of economic as well as geopolitical turbulence over the last several years, CFO’s are increasingly expected to operate the role of strategic head for their companies – with skills in strategic leadership up +79% and commercial skills up a third.

Whereas half of business leaders stated that the most important area driving financial leadership is technology – namely within financial analysis, optimising both financial and business-wide strategy. Indeed, according to the Robert Walters poll, 46% cited ‘broadening the remit of CFO’s’ and ‘investing in transformation’ as key retention tactics.  

“CFO’s are increasingly being the ones turned to in order to help steer and strategize their companies through a landscape of national as well as global economic instability and tighter hiring – transformation has a key part to play in this but CFO’s require the authority and resources to fully leverage its potential,” she said. “However, whilst company heads are more likely to turn to CFO’s for support or leadership in the case of company strategy or transformation projects, they will just as likely be expected to take the fall if the company finds itself in situations of missed guidance – another contributing factor to the high turnover we are seeing.”

Lucy shares five ways employers can tackle the CFO gap:

  1. More diverse candidates– the issue of professionals opting for earlier retirements has a considerable influence due to many of them falling into the same age groups, this can be alleviated by employers widening searches to reach more diverse candidates.
  2. Broadening their responsibilities– often being second or third in command, after a company’s CEO – means not only being responsible for financial decisions but strategic and operational ones. So, it’s important they have the remit to aid them in making decisions on issues across the board.
  3. Investing in transformation– transformation can have a big impact in streamlining and optimising financial and business processes and so it’s important that companies invest where possible, in order for it to be leveraged by CFO's to its full potential
  4. Involvement in business decisions– more and more CFOs are expected to take on a more commercial, front-facing role within businesses and so it’s important that every effort is made to keep them not only updated, but a visible presence in any key, business-wide decisions.
  5. Solid succession strategy – there is only so much employers can do to hold onto their CFOs, that’s why it’s important to have a clear succession plan to ensure they are as prepared as possible for every eventuality.