The differences between the roles of a CEO and a CFO

Author: Kevin Henderson
Kevin Henderson
Kevin Henderson
Private Equity | Corporate Finance

Kevin is currently the Head of Execution and a Vice President at Ion Pacific, a merchant bank and asset manager based Hong Kong that invests in the technology sector globally. Prior to joining Ion Pacific, Kevin was a Vice President at Accordion Partners, a consulting firm that works with management teams at portfolio companies of leading private equity firms.

Previously, he was an Associate in the Power, Energy, and Infrastructure Investment Banking group at Lazard in New York where he completed numerous M&A transactions and advised corporate clients on a range of financial and strategic issues. Kevin began his career in corporate finance roles at Enbridge Inc. in Canada. During his time at Enbridge Kevin worked across the finance function gaining experience in treasury, corporate planning, and investor relations.

Kevin holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a Bachelor of Commerce Degree from Queen's University and is a CFA Charterholder.

Reviewed By: Sid Arora
Sid Arora
Sid Arora
Investment Banking | Hedge Fund | Private Equity

Currently an investment analyst focused on the TMT sector at 1818 Partners (a New York Based Hedge Fund), Sid previously worked in private equity at BV Investment Partners and BBH Capital Partners and prior to that in investment banking at UBS.

Sid holds a BS from The Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon.

Last Updated:September 1, 2023

What is a CEO vs. CFO?

A chief executive officer, commonly known as a CEO, and a chief financial officer, commonly known as a CFO, are two of the highest-ranking leaders in a company. They are both considered part of the C-suite, or C-level, which refers to all of the chief management positions in a company. 

The role and responsibilities of the CEO and CFO differ greatly within a company, and the job of the CEO and CFO will vary greatly from company to company and industry to industry. For instance, the role of a CEO in a technology company will be very different from a CEO who leads a financial institution, such as a bank.

This article will discuss the general roles and responsibilities of the CEO and CFO within an organization and how they both work together to execute a company's mission and objectives.

Key Takeaways

  • CEOs and CFOs are high-ranking leaders in a company's C-suite, but their roles and responsibilities differ significantly based on the company's industry and life cycle.
  • The CEO is the highest-ranking executive responsible for executing the company's mission, growing it, and increasing shareholder value. 
  • The CFO, often second in command, manages financial activities like planning, reporting, and accounting. They ensure adequate funds, manage budgets and oversee financial partners and investments.
  • CEOs report directly to the board of directors and influence the entire organization, shaping culture, decisions, and image.
  • CFOs typically report to the CEO, influencing financial strategy and reporting, and might also sit on the board.
  • CEOs drive overall strategy and execution, while CFOs focus on financial strategy aligned with the broader corporate goals. 

Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

The chief executive officer (CEO) is the highest-ranking senior executive in a company. They are responsible for overseeing and executing the company's mission and maximizing its value, which will increase shareholders' returns. The CEO is often elected by the board of directors and its shareholders.

It is important to remember that the CEO isn't always the company's founder.

CEO—Board Of Directors

The board of directors is a group of individuals voted in by a company's shareholders to oversee high-level company affairs, such as budget approval. The board is also in charge of electing the CEO.

The CEO of a company usually reports directly to the board of directors; however, it is also common for the CEO to hold a board seat as the board chairman, a position that holds the most influence and power among the directors.

It is also common for a CEO to sit on the board of other companies. For example, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, sits on the board of Nike, Inc.


The board of directors usually determines the responsibilities of the CEO. These responsibilities will vary from company to company and the life cycle the business is in. For example, a CEO of a start-up will likely be more involved in the company's day-to-day operations than a CEO of a large consumer packaged goods company.

The responsibilities of the CEO are usually very high level and include:

  • Executing a strategy set out by the board of directors.
  • Growing the company in size and profits.
  • Increasing shareholder value.
  • Overseeing all segments of the company. Segments may include human resources, finance, and technology.
  • Speaking to analysts and the press during earnings calls.

Given the CEO's role of overseeing the company's success, they are often held accountable when the company is underperforming. If the company is underperforming, shareholders and the board of directors may vote the CEO out of the company. If the company is public and large, the outgoing CEO usually receives payment in the form of a golden parachute, which is a lucrative severance package that includes their salary, bonus, and other forms of compensation.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO)

The chief financial officer (CFO), who is often viewed as the second or third in command behind the CEO, oversees a company's financial activities. These financial activities include FP&A (financial planning and analysis), financial reporting, and financial accounting.

The CFO usually reports to the CEO and the board of directors. Like the CEO, they may also have a seat on the board.


The chief financial officer (CFO) is responsible for overseeing the company's finance operations and decisions and reports directly to the CEO and the board of directors.

Some of these responsibilities include:

  • Executing the financial strategy of the company.
  • Ensuring the company has enough funds to pursue new strategies and mitigate risks.
  • Creating a company's annual budget.
  • Working with financial partners, which include banks and insurance.
  • Overseeing new capital investments and potential acquisitions.
  • Overseeing accurate financial reporting.
  • Speaking to analysts during earnings calls.


Depending on the company and industry, the CFO can have a large influence over the company's strategy. For example, at a financial institution, such as a bank, the CFO is often the next in line to succeed the CEO if they were to leave.


The CEO and CFO of a company differ in their responsibilities, reporting hierarchy, and influence. These differences are discussed in greater detail below.

1. Key Responsibilities

The CEO's main responsibility is to ensure that the company is moving towards achieving its strategic goals, keeping in touch with managers and supervisors to learn of new developments and challenges, and ensuring that all departments work flawlessly together.

They do not participate in the company's day-to-day operations but instead look at the overall picture.

Instead, they are responsible for communicating the company's goals to its various stakeholders in ways they can understand. For example, they may need to explain to the technical team how to work with the sales team (two teams notorious for not working together) to generate the best possible outcome for the company.

On the other hand, the CFO is in charge of overseeing the financial side of the organization. They are responsible for accurate financial reporting, budgeting, and monitoring new and current capital investments and can be considered the highest-ranking financial manager of the organization.2.

2. Reporting Hierarchy

The CEO is the highest-ranking senior executive in a company and reports directly to the board of directors. 

Since the CEO is the leader of the entire organization, the CFO usually reports to the CEO. They usually provide financial information to the CEO that helps them make informed decisions. However, in many instances, the CFO may also have a seat on the board of directors.

3. Influence

The CEO influences the entire organization. They are required to establish the company culture, take business decisions, develop leaders, and maintain the company's image in the eyes of the public.

The CFO influences the financial strategy and financial reporting of the company. 

4. Strategy

The CEO is responsible for the organization's overall strategy, as well as the means used to accomplish that strategy.

On the other hand, the CFO is only responsible for the organization's financial strategy, which in turn is designed to support the organization's corporate strategy.

Here's a table summarizing the main differences:

Aspect CEO CFO
Key Responsibilities Ensures strategic goals are met. Oversees company-wide coordination. Communicates company goals to stakeholders Oversees financial side of the organization. Manages financial reporting and budgeting. Monitors capital investments
Reporting Hierarchy Reports directly to the board of directors Typically reports to the CEO, providing financial information for decision-making
Influence Influences the entire organization. Sets company culture Makes business decisions Influences financial strategy and reporting
Strategy Responsible for overall organizational strategy. Implements means to achieve the strategy Responsible for financial strategy. Supports corporate strategy with financial measures


More Resources

To continue learning and advancing your career, check out these additional helpful WSO resources: