CFO vs CEO: What Are the Differences?

In small businesses, business owners are typically the final authorities. They handle most of the critical big-picture decisions, decide on the company’s vision, and often own all or at least most of the business.

For the approximately 20,500 U.S. large businesses, things are typically a little different. Instead of an owner who makes most decisions, you end up with a corporate structure that uses C-suite executives, such as a CFO and CEO.

For someone first looking at incorporation, the differences in the CFO vs CEO roles can appear vague or arbitrary. If you’re wondering how the two roles stack up against each other and how they differ, keep reading for our guide to the CEO and CFO positions.

What Is a CEO?

The chief executive officer role is the highest position in any given company. In broad terms, the CEO guides the company in terms of strategies, and the company mission, and may take a hand in the company’s organization.

CEO Guide

The CEO role deals primarily with strategic decisions rather than tactical decisions. For example, the CEO may propose buying a smaller company because the smaller company has assets or capacities that would benefit the larger company. The CEO would likely not spend much time or any time on the specific details of how the companies integrate.

To better understand the CEO role, let’s dig into some of the specific duties and features of the position.

CEO Duties

CEOs handle a broad range of responsibilities and duties. Arguably, their primary duty is setting overall strategy for the company such as making final decisions regarding new products, moving into new markets, and managing risk to the company.

They oversee operations for the many departments typically found in a corporation.

CEOs often take a large hand in building the C-suite team by identifying and recommending talented options. While formal offers typically come from the board of directors for C-suite positions, they will routinely accept CEO recommendations.

It typically falls to the CEO to make overall financial decisions, such as budget allocations, debt repayment, raising funds, and corporate investment. It’s also on the CEO to ensure profitability for the company and to keep share prices up.

A CEO is also the public face of the company. They handle substantial PR duties and interact with key stakeholders.

CEOs may interact with:

  • The public
  • Member of the press
  • Politicians
  • Regulators
  • Major vendors or supplier
  • C-suite executives from other corporations

These duties can soak up much of a CEO’s time.


While the CEO is in the highest position in the company, they don’t act without oversight. The CEO must answer to the board of directors, who can fire an underperforming CEO. It’s also the responsibility of the CEO to act on the directions of the board of directors.

CEOs often sit on the board of directors as internal members. In some cases, the CEO also serves as chairman of the board.

CEO Salary

While the median CEO salary is around $20 million, the salary for any given CEO can vary wildly from company to company. On the low end with small companies, CEOs may only a $150,000 a year. On the high end with massive international companies, CEOs may clear $100 million or more per year.

What is a CFO?

The chief financial officer holds the highest financial role in a given company. Broadly speaking, they deal with the finances of the company in terms of financial reporting and financial operations.

CFO Guide

Much like the CEO, the CFO operates largely at the strategy level. For example, the CFO might ask for a financial audit of a department, but they won’t take a hand in the actual auditing process, barring some kind of unprecedented disaster.

For a clearer picture of what a CFO does, let’s dig into some common CFO duties.

CFO Duties

The CEO of each company will often decide the scope of the CFO’s duties. A restrictive CEO might limit CFO’s duties to maintaining the corporate books, ensuring compliance, and financial reporting.

In most cases, though, the CFO role extends far beyond that. CFOs often sit on the board. They will routinely interface with key stakeholders, such as the stockholders and the board, on financial matters.

The CFO will often provide financial risk assessments to help the CEO make strategic decisions about the direction of the company. CFOs will also handle some aspects of financial planning, such as finding ways of keeping the costs of financing down.

CFOs must track revenue and, if appropriate, make recommendations for reducing costs.

CFOs usually take an active hand in selecting and training staff for financial departments, such as the accounting and budgeting departments.

The CFO will take a lead role in developing and maintaining relationships with the financial institutions that the company deals with on a regular basis. They may also help develop relationships with private investors.

Not every business or company needs a full-time CFO. In cases like that, a business can hire a CFO consultant through a third-party service, such as Finvisor.

CFO Salary

Much as with the CEO position, CFO salaries can vary substantially based on company size. CFO compensation can also vary based on things like stock performance. Depending on the company size and the exact terms of the stock performance bonus, it can add millions of dollars in overall compensation for a CFO.

With that said, the median salary for CFOs hovers around $393,000 per year.


The differences in the CFO vs CEO roles are, when you get into the details, profound. While both are senior roles in a company, they address very different concerns.

The CEO focuses their attention on overall strategy, PR, and general operations. It’s also on the CEO to ensure the company meets profitability goals.

The CFO focuses their attention almost exclusively on finance departments. The CFO keeps the books, ensures compliance, deals with budgets, as well as providing financial analysis to help the CEO make decisions.

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