Expectations and paths don’t always align for controllers

By Neil Amato

Most controllers are expected to shape and execute strategic initiatives, an evolution of the finance role that mirrors that of the CFO. Yet, few companies clearly define a path for controllers to take on greater responsibility, according to a report by Deloitte released Wednesday.

Ninety-two percent of North American controllership professionals say the CFO and the business are requesting the controllership function to play a more active role in shaping and executing strategic priorities. And 88% are confident that their controllership function has the skills and capabilities, according a survey by Deloitte.

How exactly that strategic contribution occurs is one controllers and chief accounting officers are uncertain about, as illustrated by a question about vision. Just 24% say that their company’s controller or chief accounting officer has a clearly defined and communicated vision that sets the future direction of the function.

Controllers seem to have approval to take on a more strategic role, but not all of them are seizing that opportunity.

“In the majority of cases, they have the license to deliver more [strategic value],” said Anthony Waelter, national managing partner of Deloitte’s controllership services. “But on the other side, they have to be prepared to deliver that value.”

Nnamdi Etoh, CPA, the controller at Rock Springs Capital Management LP in Maryland, said that partnering with the business—for example, delivering data that can increase sales—creates far more for an organization than low-value, repeatable tasks that could be automated or outsourced.

And while finance still must be a leader in compliance, Etoh said, supporting the business should be more of a focus than check-the-box activities. “Telling the CEO that the tax returns were filed on time once again is not going to get you a pat on the back,” Etoh said.

A company’s culture can also play a role in the strategic contributions of the controller, according to Beth Kaplan, managing director of the Deloitte Center for Controllership.

Deloitte offered several ways that the controllership function can enable a more enhanced vision for future strategic contribution. First is to seek input from other stakeholders. In the survey, respondents were asked who their most important stakeholder was, aside from the CFO: The top choices:

  • CEO, 34.1%
  • Business line leaders, 32.9%
  • Audit committee chair, 13.5%
  • Other finance leaders, 13%

These answers show that executive sponsorship is important, along with the desire of the controllership function to be a better business partner. Next, controllership leaders should assess existing skills and create the capacity to take on new responsibilities. Finally, controllers must communicate the vision and their value to the organization.

Top priorities

Half of respondents said that improving efficiency of people, processes, and technologies was the top priority of their organization’s controllership for the next 12 months. That was followed by implementing new accounting standards required in the near future (16%), providing more strategic counsel to the CFO, other executives, and the board (15%); broadening knowledge outside the finance function (7%), and recruiting and retaining top talent (5%).

Neil Amato (Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA senior editor.

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