For many accountants and accounting students, a company controllership is an attractive career ambition.

Controllers analyze and develop financial information. They are distinguished from traditional accountants by their forward-looking approach. Most accountants record and track current finances and review and analyze past performance but have limited input into the company's strategy for the future.

Key Takeaways

  • The controller has an accountant's background and skill set but a forward-looking role in the organization.
  • The controller is a senior manager with input into the company's strategy and planning.
  • An MBA and years of senior-level accounting are the usual prerequisites.

The controller, as the title implies, is a company's lead accountant. But in addition to taking responsibility for the company's financial record-keeping and regulatory compliance, the controller has a role in the company's future direction.

Background of the Financial Controller

Every controller job is unique, but there are universal skills and qualifications that any serious candidate should possess. It starts with a college degree in finance or accounting. Most openings also require a master's of business administration (MBA) or a certified public accountant (CPA) designation, or both.

A controller has two main functions. The first is to oversee internal financial record-keeping. The second is to execute an operational strategy for the finance team.

Many controllers have years of experience as auditors or accountants with one of the Big Four firms, followed by several years as an assistant controller. However, there are tens of thousands of controller positions in the U.S. in the private sector, in government, and at nonprofits. It is possible to get to a controller position without following the standard career path.

Controller's Role in the Organization

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

Controllers understand the company's financial objectives and work to make them achievable.

Specific Tasks of Financial Controllers

A controller has two primary functions. The first is to take responsibility for overseeing the completion of internal control audits, focusing specifically on possible errors or fraud. The second function is developing and executing an operational strategy for the finance team's day-to-day activity.

The controller manages monthly, quarterly, and annual financial accounts. Controllers manage payables, receivables, payroll, controls, and interdepartmental communications.

The Controller's Skills

This is an analytical position, requiring a firm grasp of accounting and business concepts. Controllers refine their technical skills through years of detailed accounting or auditing work.

A substantial part of a controller's job is reconciling the company's budget with realistic outcomes (known as "budget versus actual"), and that means explaining to colleagues how processes work and how numbers are calculated.

Since controllers are considered part of the company's leadership, they need to develop the soft skills that motivate and garner respect from staff.

Accounting students should consider courses in managerial finance, behavioral studies, and business leadership. Current professionals can seek out mentors and take individual courses in leadership.

In addition to 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 CPA certifications. Most assistant controllers need to demonstrate strong competency in the use of financial management software.

A current assistant controller interested in career advancement should consider acquiring a graduate degree such as an MBA.

Some employers also place a high priority on experience in their industry.

Timeline

Nobody gets a controller job right out of college, and it can take many years of dedicated work to earn the title.

The standard route starts with four years of undergraduate education with an emphasis in finance or accounting followed by an MBA. Work at a Big Four firm, and possibly a stint as a government auditor or senior-level accounting work, can lead to an assistant controller position. It's typically a 12- to 20-year path to a controllership.