To ascend to CFO role, controllers must take a broader look at business

BY NEIL AMATO
November 9, 2012

Controllers hoping to make the move to CFO must be willing to add new words to their vocabulary.

The focus on numbers, while important, has to change from lookback mode to look-ahead. Concerns about month-end close should not be forgotten, but they should be accompanied by thoughts such as, “How can we grow in the coming months?”

That willingness to learn a new language—the language of the executive suite—is one of several skills controllers can hone in hopes of becoming a CFO. Paul Shillam, CPA, CGMA, offered tips for how controllers can make that leap during a session Thursday at the AICPA Controllers Workshop East in Atlanta.

“The controller is the tactical engineer of the accounting information, and the CFO is going to be the designer and developer of what goes on, the architect,” he said. “You have someone who does the detailed drawings and someone who has a vision … [about] where I’m going to use all these resources.”

Shillam, the controller at Pacific Medical Centers in Seattle, has worked previously as a CFO. He enjoys the hands-on, detail-oriented controller role but also has enjoyed the strategic aspect of being a CFO. “I like the directional aspect of it and being more of a reviewer,” he said.

Many controllers have what it takes to make the move to CFO. But they need to develop more soft skills, demonstrate they can collaborate, and show that they can take a longer view.

Myles Boyce, CPA, the controller at Hylife Foods in Manitoba, Canada, said that change in focus can be difficult at first. Boyce took on some CFO duties a few years back when a previous employer’s CFO job opened up. “The biggest thing is just extraditing yourself from the details,” he said.

Boyce attended Thursday’s session to brush up on skills in hopes of becoming a permanent CFO if the opportunity arises. “A good point was collaboration with other departments, more projects,” he said.

“That’ll get your name out with the company, that you’re a person that can take on these responsibilities,” he added.

Whose role to develop CFO skills?

The presentation focused on what controllers can do to expand their skills, but Shillam said businesses should play a role as well.

“Companies need to think about developing their staff to have talent in place, for no other reason than contingency,” he said. “If something happens unforeseen, they need to have someone who can walk in and keep the place going. Part of that is developing your staff, and the other part is people do leave unexpectedly. They need to have some succession planning in place at least conceptually (to say), ‘If this person leaves, do I have the talent who can step in on an interim or permanent basis?’”

On the other hand, the development of controllers is in their own hands. They should find a coach or mentor, continually update their skills, and network both inside and outside their company.

“I have a greater responsibility to myself to control my future,” Shillam said. “I have to make sure I have the requisite skills to make the change when appropriate. I’m constantly trying to renew and update and maintain my skill sets.”

Shillam said some controllers will explore the requirements to become a CFO and decide they are better suited to remain controllers. Not everyone has the risk appetite, or strategic skills, to become a CFO.

“I have people on my staff who are really good staff accountants, and that’s all they want to be,” he said. “That’s OK, as long as they’re maintaining currency in their field. If a controller decides they don’t want to take on the CFO role and the risks, they should still maintain their skills with respect to controllership.”

Neil Amato ( namato@aicpa.org ) is a JofA senior editor.

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