This is an exciting time for Controllers, one of changing expectations and increasing opportunities. Controllers have traditionally been responsible for keeping track of the everyday movement of an organization’s money. That role remains the same, but its significance to the company’s current operations and strategy is being reassessed. As an example of the growing recognition of this role’s importance, one head of business consulting and risk for an international construction management company told GAA Accounting, the journal of the Global Accounting Alliance, that private equity firms are now asking for background information about financial Controllers in addition to the details they traditionally have requested on CEOs and CFOs, because Controllers are the ones supplying data to the top executives. According to the article, Controllers are called upon to have a range of skills, including “in-depth knowledge of a company’s operations, human resources, sales and marketing departments.”
That means that, in addition to the requisite foundational technical knowledge, those who want to succeed as a Controller will need to develop the kinds of competencies that will enable them to make a wider contribution to the organization. It will require:
1. Brushing up your people skills. Soft skills will be as important as business acumen. For example, a CFO.com study last year that found that “communicating with other groups in the firm” was considered one of two skills most lacking in finance and accounting professionals. Yet communications skills are fundamental if Controllers are called on to discuss or make presentations about accounting and financial topics with professionals at all levels who may or may not have accounting expertise. They must also be able to nurture relationships with people in different departments and develop an understanding of their goals and needs.
2. Getting the big picture. The CFO.com study, which surveyed CFOs, Controllers and Senior Finance Executives, revealed that “thinking about the company’s goals and focus as a whole” was not happening as often as it should, but it is a requirement if Controllers are to align internal reporting with the organization’s strategic needs. “Displaying abilities to take charge of situations” was another challenge for finance and accounting professionals identified in the study. It will also become critical if Controllers are to make sense of an organization’s data and understand what information will be most critical for executive decision making.
3. Recognizing and adapting to constant economic and organizational change. A Controller’s responsibilities involve keeping up with trends that may affect their organization in the near term. In the fourth quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey, for example, the respondents—who include CEOs, CFOs, Controllers and other CPAs in executive or senior management—were optimistic about their own organizations’ prospects in 2014, but they remained very pessimistic about the overall U.S. economy. While business expansion plans were little changed from the previous quarter, hiring expectations had fallen slightly. Keeping tabs on executives’ attitudes and overall business prospects can help Controllers target the details that will meet an organization’s changing needs.
Controllers play a critical role in the analysis and communication of information that can be used in their organization’s strategic planning. In addition to maintaining financial controls, they are also in a position to take on the role of change agent. If they do, they have the chance to make a significant contribution to their organization’s success, and their own.