Controllership is an attractive and potentially lucrative career path for accountants and aspiring accounting students. Controllers analyze and develop financial information, distinguished from traditional accountants by their forward-looking approach. Accountants, by contrast, generally only review past financial performance.

Every controller job is unique, but there are universal skills and qualifications that any serious candidate should possess. For example, every controller needs a college degree, preferably in finance or accounting. Most openings require a Master's of Business Administration (MBA) and/or a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation.

Many controllers spent years as auditors or accountants with Big Four firms. Contemporary controllerships actually begin after a few years as an assistant controller. However, there are tens of thousands of controller positions in the United States. Some work for nonprofits, some with for-profits and still others work in a public capacity. This diversity makes it possible to ascend to a controller position without following a standard, cookie-cutter career path.

Role of a Financial Controller Within an Organization

Controllers either work with or directly under an organization's chief financial officer (CFO), providing key financial information with an eye on future performance. While the traditional role of an accountant is to show historical information reliably, the role of a controller is to anticipate and highlight coming issues.

Theoretically, controllers help structure cost control and streamline revenue decisions by blending the firm's present capabilities with market reality. The idea is to understand financial objectives and make them achievable.

Specific Tasks of Financial Controllers

Every controller serves two primary functions, although some companies may require more or less than is normal. A controller is responsible for overseeing the completion of internal control audits, with focusing specifically on possible errors or fraud. The second primary job of a controller is to develop and execute an operational strategy for the finance team's day-to-day activity.

The controller must take control of monthly, quarterly and annual financial accounts. Controllers manage payables, receivables, payroll, controls and – perhaps most importantly – interdepartmental communication.

Skills and Qualifications

This is an analytical position, and it requires a firm grasp of accounting and business concepts. Controllers refine their technical skills through years of detailed accounting and/or auditing work. A large part of any controller's job is reconciling the company's budget with realistic outcomes (known as "budget versus actual" in the industry) to executive staff, and that means explaining how processes work and numbers are calculated.

Since controllers are considered part of the leadership, they need to develop the sort of soft skills that organize, motivate and garner respect from staff. Interested students should consider courses in managerial finance, behavioral studies, and business leadership. Current professionals can seek out mentors or take individual courses in effective leadership.

Outside of a CPA or MBA, aspiring controllers could consider a certified management accountant (CMA) or a chartered financial analyst (CFA) title.

How to Become an Assistant Controller

The most common path to controllership includes a multi-year tenure as an assistant controller. Most assistant controllers come from auditing or cost control backgrounds, and many already have their CPA certifications. A current assistant controller interested in career advancement should consider adding a graduate degree, such as an MBA, to her resume.

Some employers place special emphasis on experience in their industry; it may not be enough to have a strong technical understanding of the position. In addition to accounting knowledge, most assistant controllers need to demonstrate competency with financial management software.

In addition to possessing the right skill set, the best way to get hired as an assistant controller is to understand the company and its industry thoroughly. The greatest separation between accountants and controllers is in focus and market understanding, and employers need someone who can make decisions based on reality.

Timeline

Nobody starts as a controller right out of college, and it can take many years of dedicated work to earn the title. The standard route involves four years of undergraduate school, with an emphasis in finance or accounting, followed by an MBA, work at a Big Four firm, possible work as a government auditor and senior-level accounting work, just to become an assistant controller. It's likely a 12- to 20-year path to controllership.