Climbing the corporate ladder takes time, patience, and the right skill set. Moving from controller to CFO isn’t something that happens overnight, though it still may be a daily dream.

Many individuals aspire to the ranks of the C-suite, the catch-all description of a company’s “chief” professions, including Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and Chief Operating Officer (COO). 

In this post, we’ll show you a typical roadmap to help you transition from controller to CFO, while also highlighting some skills that can help you get there.

Career Path

Keep in mind that there’s no single path to the top, though getting there will always demand certain operational skills and experience. 

The following roles can be useful in preparing financial controllers to ascend to the ranks of upper management.

The Big 4

Most accountants are already familiar with “the big 4,” referring to the four largest accounting firms in the United States:

  • Deloitte
  • Ernst & Young (EY)
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)
  • Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG)

These firms offer services that include auditing, strategy and management consultation, market research, and tax and legal advisory services.

Reputation alone makes these firms a valuable addition to anyone’s resume, and the broad base of services offered by these firms can help financial professionals gain valuable experience on their career path.

Tax Advisor

Many CPAs and other professionals start in the world of tax preparation and planning. Ideally, controllers should be familiar with business tax planning and strategies that benefit the corporate world. This will provide a skill set that will be helpful as you transition from controller to CFO.

Financial Reporting Analyst

While many financial reporting analysts get by with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, many employers require their analysts to possess CPA certification. 

A financial reporting analyst is responsible for preparing a company’s financial documents, which are then used to prepare budgets, issue stock, and conduct audits as necessary.

This is a lower position, but it can provide some valuable skills that turn it into a stepping stone for larger financial responsibilities, such as auditing.

Auditor

Auditors are responsible for ensuring that a company’s financial statements remain in compliance with generally accepted accounting principles. 

An auditor isn’t the same as an accountant, though the two share some similar responsibilities. The role of an auditor is to evaluate the financial health of a business based on its reporting capacities. They also investigate sources of error or fraud.

Auditors must, at a minimum, possess CPA certification in order to hold this position. But what makes the role of auditor an attractive stepping stone toward future success is that it demonstrates the ability to sort through a comprehensive analysis of a company’s overall financial standing. 

This ability naturally finds value among upper levels of management, and for many controllers, this role can provide a path toward higher positions within a company.

Accounting Middle Manager

Reaching mid-level management means that you’ll not only be contributing to a company’s financial processes, but you’ll also be supervising other accountants within your department. 

For financial controllers, this type of experience demonstrates a proficiency with numbers and data but also the leadership skills that are sought after among members of the C-suite.

Admittedly, mid-level management can be a broad category, and the path from here tends to vary by industry and corporation. However, many controllers can leverage these types of positions into greater levels of responsibility, perhaps even culminating in a corporate leadership position.

Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A)

The FP&A career path typically requires an MBA, which can then lead you to a series of career steps, including:

  • Senior FP&P Analyst
  • FP&P Manager
  • FP&P Director

Once you reach the director position, you can then transition to the role of CFO. However, many people find themselves rotating in and out of other roles as an auditor and controller before finally taking on a senior management role. With this in mind, be prepared to build out your resume before you finally attain that corner office.

Additional Skills Needed to Move from Controller to CFO

While operational experience ranks highly on the list of demands for upper management, it’s important to understand that today’s CFOs are expected to have a broader range of abilities. This means that in addition to refining your technical skills in accounting positions, you’ll have to also demonstrate clear proficiency in skills such as:

  • Leadership/management
  • Communication
  • Industry knowledge

While many accounting roles require highly specialized knowledge, your best shot at the C-suite is to demonstrate a broader background of varied experiences and skills.

Always Be Prepared to Advance

When you want to move from controller to CFO, you’ll need to take advantage of specific opportunities. After all, you never know when the next position will become available. Upper levels of corporate management often have to resign for age or health-related reasons, which means you may want to shore up your experience now so that you’ll be ready when a position opens up.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all path to career success, these steps can improve your chances of reaching corporate success.

Discuss More about Controller to CFO in Our Community

Looking to learn more about Controller to CFO? Controllers Council is a national community and platform of Controllers, Accounting and Finance professionals focused on accounting best practices, information and resources, recognition and networking. Membership has many features and benefits to propel your career and expertise, and to be an active participant in our exciting community. Discuss topics like the CPA licensure and more in our forum. Become a member today.

How to Leverage Financial Close Automation: The Ruby Slipper Café StoryWebinar Thursday, December 16

As organizational environments become more complex, compliance-focused and technology-driven, CFOs and controllers have even greater pressure to not only ensure the integrity of the financial close, but also provide strategic insights to help lead the future of their organizations. Register for this webinar to hear our industry experts including, Jennifer Beougher, CFO of Ruby Slipper Café.