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Dec 20, 2017

Six Steps on the Road from Controller to CFO

Michael F. Cade, CPA, CGMAMichael F. Cade, CPA, CGMA


The position of controller is one of the most recognizable roles in financial leadership. But if you want to continue your journey, the role of chief financial officer (CFO) is likely in your sights. To make the move from controller to CFO you will need to embrace some new ways of thinking and take some uncomfortable actions. This article identifies six of the biggest steps you can take on the path toward becoming a CFO.

  • CPA Making a Financial PresentationLose the lingo – CFOs translate financial data into useful and accessible information for nonfinance folks. If you want to take on this role, forget debits and credits, charts of accounts, deferred assets, and so on. These terms should be translated into broader concepts that form the basis of the value that the CFO adds to an organization, namely an understanding of business.
  • Embrace ambiguity – This can be tough because the role of a controller tends to deal with the concrete. In your current role things are usually right or wrong; they balance and can be reconciled. This is not so much the case for the CFO who is called on to make decisions with less than complete data every day. CFOs rely on analytics, supporting facts, the skills and competencies of others, and judgment. The role is still financial, but it is also much broader. Being able to make decisions without certainty is a critical capability.
  • Get out of your office – When you are the controller, people tend to come to you with issues. That certainly doesn’t change for the CFO. However, you can benefit more if you proactively seek out people in your organization in their own environment. People are much more open in their own spaces, and you may notice a few interesting things while you are out walking around. Also, get out and meet people in your industry or profession to build your network. Your future CFO position may not be with your current employer.
  • Broaden your horizons – The CFO position is not an extension of the controller role. You need more than accounting experience, so find opportunities to take on roles outside of accounting. This may be a lateral move, or something that you need to do earlier in your career. Find a position in financial planning, business development, internal audit, or leadership development. Take these opportunities to grow your perspective and consider how your role impacts customers, vendors, partners, or investors. Test the waters of providing input on topics that are more than financial in nature.
  • Maintain and grow credentials – Keep your CPA license active and consider other certifications, such as Chartered Global Management Accountant. Also, consider adding industry-related certifications or skill concentrations like program management or process improvement. These steps show that you are committed to keeping current with trends in your profession and industry. A master’s degree in business administration is a good step, as it remains a strong indicator that you think about more than numbers.
  • Find a mentor or coach – The most important thing that most CFOs learn along the way is that you rarely succeed alone. A mentor or coach can help you explore your path, identify areas for improvement, and monitor and assess your progress. They have experienced similar situations and have mentored or coached others. Mentors and coaches can provide valuable insights, keep you focused, and apply a swift kick in the posterior if needed.

These six steps can help map out your path toward becoming a CFO, but they are not instructions to be followed. Rather, they are ideals to be embraced. The trip from controller to CFO is an adventure, and it is different for every person. If these items are not for you, you may want to consider remaining a controller and becoming the best one you can be. If you do decide to set your sights on the CFO role, embrace these concepts, find someone to guide and support you, set your plan, and get started on your journey.


Michael F. Cade, CPA, CGMA, is a strategy consultant and executive coach for MFCCoach LLC in Morrisville. He is a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board and PICPA Not for Profit Technical Issues Committee. He can be reached at mfcade@nfpbeyondthenumbers.com.



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