How to Master the Controller/CFO Role

by Kathleen Hoffelder, content editor, NJCPA – June 26, 2019
How to Master the Controller/CFO Role

How would coworkers describe today’s CFO/controller? Hopefully terms associated with “business partner,” “financial planner” or “strategist” come to mind and not “bean counter” or “that person that says no.” According to Jim Lindell, CPA, CSP, MBA, CGMA, author, speaker and coach at Thorsten Consulting Group, Inc., and presenter at the NJCPA 2019 Annual Convention & Expo, if someone refers to the CFO as a “business person” then the CFO has transcended the realm of an accountant to being a CFO who is of value to the company.

As Lindell explains, CFOs/controllers need to be well-rounded and more of a generalist even though they may face mountains of other tasks in which they are required to be involved, such as facilities management, working on contracts, and HR. This way, he says, they can free up time to focus on their main task — finance. While that’s easier said than done, CFOs/controllers must take the time to work on their core value to the company and not be a slave to their daily routines. That is harder than ever with smaller organizations combining the functions of controller, CFO and treasurer all rolled into one.  

Nontechnical Skills

These accountants by trade need to have top notch people and non-technical skills as much as financial prowess if they want to show their true value to a corporation. “If you look at the people that go the farthest in an organization, they have the ability to work with other individuals,” said Lindell. With data and analytics altering the role of accountants everywhere, people skills matter— and matter a lot.

The designation of Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) is also important for CFOs/controllers to have since it offers non-technical training, according to Lindell. The CGMA consists of four sections, such as business, technical, leadership and people skills, and the “all around accountant” is going to be somebody that can master those, he says. Continuing education is far too technical in nature, he adds, and it does not include enough people skills and leadership training. These skills are necessary to be able to present to a board, give necessary feedback to a coworker or develop better efficiencies with staff. 

Managing Beyond the Numbers

On the technical aspect of a CFO’s function, Lindell asks, “are you able to go beyond the financial numbers?” He says CFOs need to make sure systems are integrated.  “Are we just patching things together?” CFOs/controllers need to be able to successfully work with IT to help their department stay efficient and have more automated processes so as not to waste time on transactions, though budgets vary.

Different management styles are necessary for working in large, midsize and small office environments, but a CFO/controller’s focus on the main finance task at hand should still be the same. Being a CFO/controller of a very large group, for example, such as managing 200-plus people, actually has a downside, he said. “We lose the ability to focus and the ability to get back to the focus,” he said. Alternatively, working at a smaller organization can mean doing journal entries oneself, for example. Regardless of company size, a helpful tip for CFOs to stay on focus, he says, is to spend the first half hour of the morning on one’s own objectives and then check on emails as opposed to simply reading emails first thing and working off of someone else’s agenda.

CFOs/controllers today need to not only perform their daily tasks but manage expectations of the board — and that can mean different things to every CFO.  “If you have never taken on board members in a board meeting, you don’t know what fun is. That’s a very dangerous thing,” said Lindell.

CFOs/controllers must work well with all kinds of department managers. Lindell noted that overly complex accounting codes can add to the tensions between CFOs/controllers and department managers. For example, some accounting systems use account codes with 16 or more digits. This can cause problems, he added, if both sides are unsure of what actually goes in into those codes, which is why both sides must work towards reducing complexities.

Andrew Donofrio, consultant, coach and trainer at Andrew Donofrio LLC, and also a presenter at the Convention, reminds accountants, whether a CFO/controller or in practice at a CPA firm, to leverage their staff more for work as well as strategic thinking. Relationships, both internal and external, can help free up one’s time to identify alternative revenue streams.

And clients/customers are also key for reasons other than just revenue — referrals. “Never underestimate the value of referrals,” he said. Accountants, by nature, do not always ask for these but they can help any business grow. However, he notes that sometimes what he refers to as the “shiny nickel syndrome” can take over and a company or executive can spend too much time with the “new” client or customer at the expense of the existing ones.