Becoming a More Effective Controller

January 17, 2023 Theresa Rex

successful finance team in a meeting with controller

Today's controllers are some of the hardest working senior executives on the management team. The driving force behind financial planning and strategy, a successful controller plays a critical role in helping companies realize their full growth potential, characteristics and long-term goals. Sure, a characteristic of any good controller worth its salt can generate accurate financial statements and reports. But a controller is worth their weight in gold when they can turn the information on those statements and reports into insights that can be applied to drive financial transformation.

More on CFO Weekly: Essential FP&A Skills for Finance Teams and Business Leaders

In modern accounting departments, separating good controllers from bad controllers means being able to identify the ones that have more than just technical expertise and a good grasp of GAAP. Modern controllership requires the development of a robust set of leadership skills and soft skills and being a more effective controller means rolling it all into a powerful, data-informed strategy.

Skills & Characteristics Every Successful Financial Controller Should Have

financial controller presenting year report with employee skills to improve

There are some skills that every financial controller should have to be effective at work, including the ones they're best known for: overseeing the accounting function's internal financial controls and bookkeeping function. But as the controller's role continues to evolve toward strategic initiatives, so has the skill set they deploy in day-to-day work.

This means developing the ability to work closely with other senior executives to develop and implement financial plans and goals, analyzing financial data to inform decision-making, and participating in strategic planning processes.

  • Financial expertise: A controller should have a strong understanding of financial concepts and principles and be able to analyze and interpret financial data.

  • Attention to detail: The controller is responsible for ensuring the accuracy and completeness of financial records and reports, so attention to detail is crucial.

  • Leadership skills: The controller may be responsible for managing a team of accounting professionals, so strong leadership skills are important.

  • Communication skills: The controller should be able to effectively communicate financial information to a wide range of stakeholders, including senior management, board members, and external parties such as auditors.

  • Problem-solving skills: Controllers may encounter a variety of challenges in their work, so strong problem-solving skills are important to find solutions.

  • Time management skills: The controller's role can be very demanding, so the ability to manage one's time effectively is important to meet deadlines and stay organized.

Leadership, Technical & Soft Skills Modern Controllers Need to be Effective

Accountant writing down soft skills to become a modern controller

Think of the skills listed above as the base controllership model. They're fundamental, and besides the ones that are specific to the finance function, pretty universal to most business administration roles. To be truly effective as a standout controller, however, requires the careful development of skills that fall into three buckets: technical, leadership and soft skills.

Technical Skills, Characteristics & Expertise of a Successful Controller

  • Extensive knowledge of financial controls, bookkeeping and accounting: Controllers should have a deep understanding of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), tax code and relevant compliance procedures — and be able to apply them to financial reporting. This includes preparing accurate, timely and useful financial statements, budgeting and forecasting, and analyzing financial trends and performance.

  • Software & ERP proficiency: Since modern controllers typically use financial software to manage and analyze financial data, so proficiency with these types of tools is important, especially enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

  • Providing financial information and insights: Controllers who have developed financial expertise and analytical skills are better equipped to act as a partner in strategic decision-making when they deliver insights to the CEO and other stakeholders.

  • Implementing financial systems and processes: Controllers can help to ensure financial visibility by implementing systems and processes that are effective and efficient. This may include selecting and implementing financial software (and no, it probably won't be Excel), establishing financial policies and procedures and developing internal controls that increase efficiency.

  • Understanding the ins and outs of the industry: Controllers are most successful when they have an in-depth understanding of the industry they're working within. Not only is it necessary to be able to work within the relevant regulations and governance specific to the industry, but it also makes it possible to benchmark financial performance against competitors.

Leadership & Soft Skills for Controllers

  • Working closely with all other departments: Finance and accounting is, at its core, cross-departmental work. For example, the controller may need to work with the sales department to understand revenue trends and forecast future performance, or with the operations department to identify cost-saving opportunities. In addition, the controller may need to work with the HR department to manage payroll and benefits, or with the IT department to ensure that financial systems are functioning properly.

  • Builds relationships and engages with employees at every level: Controllers can use open and effective communication to build relationships with team members throughout the organization, whether they manage them or not. Because so much of the strategic workload of controllership involves optimization and knowing how and when to leverage resources, successful controllers understand how their entire company functions and can spot ways to partner with other departments to improve it.

  • Identifies and nurtures top accounting talent: In case you haven't heard, there's a war for talent on. The most effective controllers work to identify, recruit and retain the best qualified accounting professionals when they're building their teams to staff a winning accounting department. They know each member's strengths and aspirations and invest in developing everyone they manage, from the entry level bookkeeper to the senior level treasurer with decades of experience.

  • Partners with and provides guidance to fellow leaders: As controllers take on more of a strategic role within their organizations, working closely with other senior executives to develop and implement financial plans and goals, analyzing financial data to inform decision-making, and participating in strategic planning processes is critical to success.

Take Control of Controllership

cfo looking out the window

Like the role itself, the characteristics of a successful controller are bound to evolve as the finance function itself continues to move away from transactional work and toward data-driven strategy. One thing we doubt will change is the tendency of controllers to meet — and tackle — the challenges these changes will bring. And Personiv can help them do it.

For over four decades, we've partnered with finance leaders to build the virtual accounting solutions they need to stay on top of — and ahead of — the changing landscape of modern accounting.

With solutions that start with a single qualified resource and scale when you do, Personiv is the competitive edge you need to be a more effective controller in the year to come and beyond.

Check out what we have to offer to learn more about the characteristics of a successful controller and read a case study to see us in action — then, give us a call when you're ready to put us to work for you.

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