Business Administration

How to Become a Financial Controller: You’ll Do More Than Crunch Numbers

How to Become a Financial Controller: You’ll Do More Than Crunch Numbers
Financial controllers oversee financing, debt planning, and budget management. They also ensure that their companies comply with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry January 14, 2020

There was a time when becoming a financial controller was all about keeping the accounting department accountable, but FCs these days do a lot more. That means that landing this executive position now takes more than just a bachelor's degree in accounting and a CPA.

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From picking up the chief financial officer‘s slack to making major business development calls, financial controllers—sometimes called FCs or comptrollers—do more than just crunch numbers. Once upon a time, becoming a financial controller was simply a matter of getting a bachelor’s degree in accounting, sitting for the CPA exam, and slowly climbing the accountancy ladder. You’ll still need to do all that if your goal is to become a financial controller, but you’ll also likely need to earn an MBA and learn technical skills that traditionally haven’t been part of the FC toolkit. You’ll also need to amass years of work experience.

In other words, the path from accountant to financial controller isn’t a smooth or simple one. On your way to the FC’s office, you might spend time as a business analyst or revenue management analyst. You may need to study business intelligence or software implementation in your spare time. And you might discover that your career in accounting and finance involves a lot more partnership development, strategic planning, and business development than end-of-year reporting.

If the prospect of these challenges excites and motivates you, then you might just have what it takes to succeed in the FC’s chair. In this article, we’ll answer the following questions:

  • What is a financial controller?
  • What makes financial controllers different from accountants, directors, and CFOs?
  • What skills do you need to become a financial controller?
  • What degree do you need to become a financial controller?
  • What experience and qualifications do you need to become a financial controller?
  • What can you do before and after college to maximize your chances of becoming a financial controller?
  • Are there certifications for financial controllers?
  • What is the typical advancement path for financial controllers?
  • How long does it take to become a financial controller?
  • What is the average salary of a financial controller?
  • Should you become a financial controller?

What is a financial controller?

In an article identifying the most competitive jobs in finance, Forbes sums up the work of controllers (the number one most-competitive job, by the way) this way: “Controllers keep the company’s financial planning, debt financing, and budget management organized. They set financial rules, including choosing accounting methods and making sure that generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) are followed.”

This description of the FC’s role is accurate but perhaps too simple, given the diverse roles and responsibilities FCs take on. A more thorough accounting of their potential to-do lists might include:

  • Manage transaction processing and reporting
  • Maintain a system of internal controls
  • Oversee the completion of internal control audits
  • Maintain the company’s general ledger
  • Manage payables and receivables
  • Organize and archive financial statements
  • Monitor the company bank balance
  • Approve and track invoices
  • Prepare financial projections
  • Prepare monthly sales and use tax returns
  • Manage the accounting staff and/or finance teams
  • Create optional strategies for the finance department
  • Oversee the creation of monthly, quarterly, and end-of-year financial statements

When you become a financial controller, you may also play a role in:

  • Business budgeting
  • Business forecasting
  • Business development
  • Treasury management
  • Tax planning
  • Managing cash flow
  • Producing public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission
  • Rolling out ERP, reporting, payroll, and other software
  • Risk evaluation
  • Managing equity plans
  • Price setting
  • Due diligence during mergers and acquisitions
  • Business analysis
  • Growing commercial business partnerships
  • Following up with customers

Chances are that when you land an FC position, you’ll be expected not only to handle reporting and regulatory compliance but also to contribute value to your organization by driving productivity and profitability improvements.


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What makes financial controllers different from accountants, directors, and CFOs?

Some people will tell you that these roles are so different that it’s laughable to compare them, but the fact is that there can be a lot of overlap. That’s because a financial controller at a small company may also:

  • Do a lot of basic accounting (like an accountant)
  • Collaborate with the CEO (like some financial directors)
  • Communicate with banks (like financial managers)
  • Handle investor relationship management (like a CFO)

You’ll see the most significant differences among these roles at larger companies with more employees. That’s where the FC will spend the majority of their time supervising bookkeepers, credit managers, and accountants, and dealing with compliance.

At some companies, a financial controller’s responsibilities will be identical to those of the financial director at another. In fact, it’s not unusual for firms to use the terms “finance director” or “finance manager” when “financial controller” would probably be the more appropriate title.

What skills do you need to become a financial controller?

Financial controllers are still number crunchers and managers, but they’re increasingly acting as financial operating officers, tackling tasks like:

  • Data analysis
  • Business intelligence
  • Automation of financial systems
  • Business development
  • Relationship management

They’re often the CFO’s right hand or go-to when things need to happen to ensure that goals are met by end-of-quarter or end-of-year. That means that in addition to solid math and accounting skills, aspiring finance controllers need an arsenal of soft skills usually found in c-suite executives. For instance:

  • Financial controllers always need to be forward-thinking. They may be responsible for coming up with fresh ways to reduce costs, improve productivity, streamline processes related to finance, or automate data collection and reporting. They will also be part of scaling processes during periods of growth.
  • FCs need to be tech-savvy. Being an Excel wizard is no longer enough. Today’s controllers are moving away from spreadsheets for managing an organization’s finances. They are building workflows and automating processes in multiple ERP systems, saving companies time and money in the process.
  • Financial controllers need to think strategically. They’re not only responsible for collecting and reporting financial data but also for understanding how the data impacts budgets and operations. They may be called upon to make decisions about resource allocation, pricing, and more.
  • FCs need to be strong, inspiring leaders. In an Ernst & Young report into the changing role of the financial controller, one FTSE 100 controller interviewed observes: “Effective financial controllers have got to be able to lead teams and be technically proficient. You have to be able to step out of the detail, develop, and coach people.”

What degree do you need to become a financial controller?

To become a financial controller, you’ll need—at a minimum—a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university in a discipline like accounting (probably your best bet), finance, economics, or business. No matter what major you choose, make sure your coursework includes:

  • Accounting
  • Budget analysis
  • Communications
  • Financial management
  • Forecasting auditing
  • Tax law

You could pursue an undergraduate degree, taking the extra classes you’ll need to be eligible for controller certifications, and stop there, since most job listings for financial controllers don’t actually require applicants to have master’s degrees. Certifications and experience can take you pretty far in the world of accounting.

That said, it’s also not unusual to see “MBA preferred” in those listings, and chances are good that you’ll be competing with job seekers who’ve invested in advanced degrees. If MBA programs with accounting or finance concentrations seem like they cover too much ground when it comes to business and not enough when it comes to finance, look into Master of Science in Finance (MSF) or Master of Accounting (MAcc) programs.

You can earn an online MSF from:

You can earn an online MAcc from:

What experience and qualifications do you need to become a financial controller?

The actual answer to this question will vary by company, but a list of required qualifications for controller applicants might include:

  • A bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, or economics
  • An MBA (in finance or accounting preferred)
  • A minimum of seven years of combined accounting and finance experience, with at least two years as team manager or assistant controller
  • CPA, CMA, or public accounting experience preferred
  • Proficiency with Quickbooks accounting and administration
  • Advanced proficiency with spreadsheets
  • Experience with enterprise-level financial management software systems
  • Relevant understanding and experience with technical US GAAP
  • Decision-making, problem resolution, and creative-thinking skills

It’s not unusual for FCs to spend years as accountants or auditors at the Big Four firms or to have managed teams in finance or accounting, but don’t assume this means you can’t step into this role without these or other qualifications. There are tens of thousands of financial controller jobs open in the US at any given time, not only at for-profit corporations but also at nonprofits and in government. You may be able to find an open position that matches your qualifications—especially if you’re willing to work at a smaller firm, startup, or nonprofit.

What can you do before and after college to maximize your chances of becoming a financial controller?

If you’re still in high school, take as many math classes as possible. If available, take basic accounting as well. An accounting class will give you some insight into what your life will look like for the next decade or so as you work toward becoming a financial controller. You should also look for opportunities to shadow an accounting professional for a week—or even take an internship in an accounting firm if you can find one willing to give you a spot. Your state’s society of CPAs may have career or networking events for high schoolers interested in careers in accounting. Finally, check out the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants’ Start Here, Go Places website. It’s designed for young people who want to work in accounting.

Once you’re enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program, start networking early by joining any accounting or finance clubs. You can also join the AICPA as a Student Affiliate Member for free (also a good idea because there are scholarships and conference ticket discounts available for students). And of course, take advantage of any internship opportunities you can get in as many different settings as you can, so you can see how different companies in different industries operate.

After graduation, don’t be averse to working at a startup. It will be tough work, and you probably won’t make as much as you would at a big accounting and auditing firm, but you’ll learn a lot because you’ll be wearing so many hats. You may be an accountant, but you’ll handle some responsibilities usually shouldered by controllers, directors, and CFOs. Similarly, don’t resist diversifying outside of accounting. Gaining experience in IT, systems engineering, marketing, investor relations, or operations can help you be a better financial controller in the future.

Finally, map out your career trajectory strategically. If you are serious about becoming a financial controller, you need to have a professional development plan made up of actionable items, like “get a master’s degree” or “find a mentor.”

Are there certifications for financial controllers?

Yes, there are many, and one of the toughest things you’ll have to do on your road to becoming a financial controller may be deciding which ones are right for you. The most common credential employers seek is the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential.

Before you can earn the CPA designation, you’ll need to accrue a minimum of 150 semester hours of post-secondary education (30 more than you’ll get in the average bachelor’s degree program, which is why so many CPAs have master’s degrees). You’ll also need at least one year of professional experience in accounting under your belt before taking the examination.

It’s possible to become a financial controller without earning the CPA designation, but it might mean you have to work a lot harder to land a job. That’s because the value of other certifications, such as the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation, aren’t always recognized by hiring managers. Job listings for financial controllers frequently ask for CPAs with public accounting experience. Getting around this requirement if you opt for the CMA designation (or the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation, the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) designation, or Certified Financial Controller (CFC) designation) may take some doing. You’ll have to convince whoever reviews your application that the certifications you possess are as valuable as the better-known CPA.

What is the typical advancement path for financial controllers?

There are all kinds of ways to advance into an FC position. However, the most common path involves working in accounting or auditing, then progressing to an accounting manager or area controller role before landing an assistant controller position. That said, some financial controllers start their careers as business analysts, and it is possible to make the leap from accountant at an accounting firm to financial controller at a small company.

Some people treat the financial controller role as a stepping stone on the path to CFO, but probably not as many as you might think. The Ernst & Young report linked above found that 50 percent of controllers did not have their eyes on the CFO’s office. That may be for the best, given that controllers who aspire to become chief financial officer only have an advantage when companies hire from within.

If you don’t want to become a CFO, you should still be aware that the financial controller position can be a springboard that launches you into other, more lucrative or prestigious positions, such as group finance director or roles in operational finance.

How long does it take to become a financial controller?

It’s almost impossible to become a financial controller right out of college—or even right out of graduate school—so prepare for a multi-year, multi-step journey of advancement. The standard trajectory, as outlined above, usually involves earning a four-year undergraduate degree, and then possibly working in an entry-level finance role for a few years before returning to school to earn an MBA or a master’s degree in accounting.

From there, you’ll need to find mid- and then senior-level accounting or auditing work (best case, at a Big Four firm) just to become an assistant controller—a role you may occupy for many years before becoming a financial controller. If you’re just starting out, you can reasonably expect that the path from a bachelor’s program to a controllership to take 12 to 20 years.

What is the average salary of a financial controller?

A career as an FC can be very lucrative, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be a top earner when you become a financial controller. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track pay or the job outlook for financial controllers specifically, but reports that financial managers (a category that includes controllers) make about $128,000 annually. PayScale, on the other hand, lists the average salary for financial controllers at just $82,407.

What we know for sure is that experience, credentials, and geography all play a role in how much a financial controller can make. The size of your employer is also a major factor, according to a Monster article, which reports that a “controller at a company with $500 million or more in sales typically earned $135,750 to $183,250, while a controller working for a $50 million firm earned $69,000 to $95,000.” That’s a huge difference. You should probably spend some time researching how much companies in your area pay financial controllers with your qualifications before deciding to pursue this career. The easiest way to do that is to look at a lot of job listings.

Should you become a financial controller?

The quick answer is absolutely, provided you have a logical mind, solid accounting skills, and the ability to handle a lot of responsibility (and a lot of financial transactions). You’ll be managing people, crunching numbers, developing strategies, analyzing business intelligence, and potentially working with vast amounts of data.

To succeed in this role, you need to be pretty comfortable with Big Data and the related tech, and you need to be a confident decision-maker. According to the BLS, “Financial managers’ main responsibility used to be monitoring a company’s finances, but they now do more data analysis and advise senior managers on ways to maximize profits.”

If that sounds like way too much responsibility, you will probably be happier staying in accounting or gunning for an accounting manager position. But if you love the way the role of finance controller has grown and is continuing to evolve, you may just thrive in this executive role—provided you’re prepared to learn enough analytics, computing, and relationship management to keep up with your changing responsibilities.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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