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What is a Controller and How to Become One

By Oluwadamilola Osisanya

Published:

Are you intrigued by the pivotal role of a controller in shaping the financial health of organizations but unsure of how to embark on this career path?

In this article, we delve into the essential functions of a controller, highlighting the challenges faced by aspiring professionals and providing actionable steps to achieve success in this dynamic field. 

Career Summary

Controller Salary

Controller Salary

The controller salary can vary significantly depending on factors such as industry, company size, geographic location, and experience level.

However, here are the average controller salary figures according to Glassdoor:

  • Entry-Level: US$ 119,000
  • Median: US$ 152,000
  • Senior: US$ 196,000

When compared to the national average, which is $59,428 according to Forbes, all controllers receive a high salary.

What is a Controller?

So, what is a controller? A controller serves as a financial steward within an organization, overseeing its accounting functions and ensuring the integrity of its financial reporting. Beyond managing day-to-day financial operations, controllers play a strategic role in guiding the organization’s financial decision-making, analyzing trends, and identifying opportunities for growth and efficiency. 

What Does a Controller Do?

Now, to answer the burning question – What does a controller do? The controller job description encompasses various responsibilities, from managing the accounting team to overseeing financial reporting and analysis. The controller job description also involves developing and implementing accounting policies and procedures, ensuring compliance with relevant regulations and standards. They supervise the preparation of financial statements, budgets, and forecasts, providing senior management with insights into the company’s financial performance and trends. Controllers also play a pivotal role in managing cash flow, optimizing financial processes, and liaising with external auditors and stakeholders. 

Beyond the technical aspects, controllers must possess strong leadership and communication skills to effectively collaborate with cross-functional teams and drive financial strategy within the organization. The controller job description highlights the multifaceted nature of the role, combining technical expertise with the strategic vision to uphold financial integrity and support organizational goals.

Controller Career Progression

  • Staff Accountant: In this entry-level position, you will assist with day-to-day accounting tasks, such as journal entries, reconciliations, and financial reporting.
  • Senior Accountant: This is a mid-level position with increased responsibility for financial analysis, budgeting, and supervising junior staff members.
  • Assistant Controller: In this role, you will support the controller in managing accounting operations, financial reporting, and internal controls, often overseeing specific areas or projects within the finance department.
  • Controller: Here, you hold primary responsibility for overseeing all accounting functions, financial reporting, budgeting, and internal controls within an organization, reporting directly to the CFO.
  • Director of Finance: In this senior leadership role, you will oversee the entire finance department, including controllership, financial planning and analysis, treasury, and risk management.
  • Chief Financial Officer (CFO): You will be responsible for the overall financial strategy and performance of the organization, including financial planning, investment decisions, and management of financial risks. You will report directly to the CEO and often serve as a key executive team member.
Controller Career Progression

Best Aspects of Working as a Controller

  • Opportunity to work closely with executive leadership.
  • In-depth understanding of the organization’s financial health.
  • Chance to lead and mentor finance team members.
  • Exposure to diverse industries and business operations.
  • Central role in shaping financial strategy and direction.

Worst Aspects of Working as a Controller

  • High level of stress due to tight deadlines and financial responsibilities.
  • Balancing multiple priorities and tasks simultaneously.
  • Managing and motivating accounting staff while maintaining high standards of performance.
  • Long hours, including evenings and weekends during peak periods.
  • Navigating internal politics and conflicting priorities within the organization.

Useful Skills to Have as a Controller

  • Strong Financial Acumen
  • Attention to Detail
  • Analytical Skills
  • Leadership Abilities
  • Communication Skills

Popular Controller Specialties

  • Financial Reporting
  • Cost Accounting
  • Budgeting and Forecasting
  • Tax Accounting
  • Audit and Compliance

How to Become a Controller

Controller 5 Steps to Career

A solid educational foundation, coupled with hands-on experience in accounting, financial analysis, and managerial roles, not only cultivates the necessary technical skills but also instills the strategic acumen essential for navigating the complexities of modern business environments as a controller.

Education

Education plays a pivotal role in preparing for this career, emphasizing the need to understand deeply what does a controller do and the knowledge base required.

Do I Need a Degree to Become a Controller?

Yes, to become a controller, a degree is typically essential. Given the essential nature of a degree, it’s worth asking, what does a controller do that necessitates such a strong educational background?

The role requires a deep understanding of accounting principles, financial reporting, and regulatory compliance, and skills usually acquired through completing a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, or a related field

Additionally, many employers prefer candidates with advanced qualifications, such as a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) or Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification, which further necessitates formal education.

Why is it Important to Get a Degree in Accounting or a Related Field?

Obtaining a degree in accounting is crucial for aspiring controllers because it equips them with the fundamental knowledge and skills essential for managing a company’s financial records and producing accurate financial reports. 

This education lays the groundwork for understanding complex financial regulations, auditing processes, and tax laws, which are integral to the controller’s role. 

Additionally, an accounting degree is often a prerequisite for obtaining certifications like the Certified Public Accountant (CPA), enhancing professional credibility and opportunities for advancement in this career path.

How Long does it Take to Get a Degree in Accounting?

Obtaining a degree in accounting typically requires four years of full-time study to complete the curriculum, which includes both general education and specialized accounting courses. 

This timeframe is standard for earning a Bachelor’s degree, providing students with the essential accounting skills, knowledge of financial laws, and practices needed for roles such as controller. 

Some students may pursue further education, like a Master’s degree or certifications like CPA, which would extend their education timeline.

How Much does it Cost to Study Accounting at University?

The cost of studying Accounting at the university level varies significantly based on residency status. For state residents, undergraduate tuition and fees average around $10,080, while out-of-state undergraduates face costs closer to $29,023. 

Graduate students see slightly different rates, with in-state students paying an average of $11,365 and out-of-state students paying around $21,890 in tuition and fees. 

These figures highlight the financial considerations students must keep in mind when pursuing accounting degrees, impacting their budgeting and financial planning for higher education.

Can I Become a Controller through Online Education?

Yes, you can become a controller through online education. Many accredited universities offer online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in accounting, finance, or business administration, which are essential for a career as a controller. 

These online programs provide the necessary accounting principles, financial reporting, and management knowledge. 

Additionally, obtaining certifications like CPA, often required for controller positions, can also be pursued alongside or after online degrees, further enhancing qualifications for the role.

What are Some Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Controller?

Here are some resources for learning skills relevant to becoming a controller:

Practical Experience

In the journey to becoming a controller, practical experience serves as the cornerstone of expertise, providing invaluable insights into the complexities of financial management.

What are Internship Opportunities for Aspiring Controllers?

Internship opportunities for a controller can vary depending on the industry, company size, and the organization’s specific needs.

Here are some common internship opportunities for individuals interested in pursuing a career as a controller:

  • Accounting Internship: Many controllers start their careers in accounting roles before advancing to controller positions. An internship in accounting can provide valuable experience in financial analysis, reconciliations, journal entries, and financial reporting.
  • Financial Analysis Internship: Interning in financial analysis can help individuals develop skills in analyzing financial data, creating financial models, conducting variance analysis, and providing insights to support decision-making.
  • Internal Audit Internship: Internal audit internships provide exposure to internal control processes, risk assessment, compliance testing, and audit procedures. This experience can be valuable for future controllers in ensuring financial integrity and compliance within organizations.
  • Budgeting and Forecasting Internship: Interning in budgeting and forecasting can provide experience in developing budgets, forecasting financial performance, monitoring actual vs. budgeted results, and identifying areas for cost savings or revenue enhancement.
  • Management Reporting Internship: Interning in management reporting can involve preparing and analyzing management reports, dashboards, and key performance indicators (KPIs). This experience can help interns understand how financial information drives strategic decision-making within organizations.
  • ERP System Implementation Internship: Interning on ERP system implementation projects can provide exposure to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems such as SAP, Oracle, or Microsoft Dynamics. This experience can be valuable for future controllers in understanding how financial data is captured, processed, and reported within integrated systems.
  • Taxation Internship: Interning in taxation can provide exposure to tax compliance, tax planning, and tax reporting. Understanding tax implications is essential for controllers in managing tax risks and optimizing tax strategies for organizations.
  • Cost Accounting Internship: Interning in cost accounting can involve analyzing product costs, calculating cost of goods sold (COGS), conducting cost variance analysis, and supporting decision-making related to pricing and product profitability.
  • Financial Systems Internship: Interning in financial systems can involve supporting the implementation, maintenance, and enhancement of financial systems such as accounting software, reporting tools, and business intelligence platforms.
  • Regulatory Compliance Internship: Interning in regulatory compliance can provide exposure to financial regulations, industry standards, and compliance requirements relevant to the organization’s operations. This experience can be valuable for controllers to ensure adherence to regulatory requirements and mitigate compliance risks.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Controller?

As a controller, you will develop diverse skills essential for effectively managing and overseeing an organization’s financial operations.

Here are some key skills you can expect to learn and develop:

  • Financial Management: Controllers are responsible for managing the overall financial health of an organization. This includes budgeting, forecasting, financial planning, and cash flow management.
  • Accounting Skills: Strong accounting skills are essential for controllers. You will learn how to prepare financial statements, manage general ledger accounts, reconcile accounts, and ensure compliance with accounting standards and regulations.
  • Financial Analysis: Controllers analyze financial data to provide insights and support decision-making. You will learn how to conduct financial analysis, interpret financial metrics, and identify trends and areas for improvement.
  • Risk Management: Controllers identify and mitigate financial risks. You will learn to assess risk factors, develop risk management strategies, and implement internal controls to safeguard assets and ensure compliance.
  • Taxation: Controllers oversee tax compliance and planning activities. You will learn about tax laws and regulations, prepare tax filings, and develop tax strategies to optimize the organization’s tax position.
  • Financial Reporting: Controllers prepare accurate and timely financial reports for internal and external stakeholders. You will learn how to create financial statements, disclosures, and other financial reports in accordance with accounting standards and regulatory requirements.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Controllers ensure compliance with financial regulations and reporting requirements. You will learn about relevant regulations and standards such as GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) and IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards).
  • Communication Skills: Effective communication is crucial for controllers to convey financial information to stakeholders, facilitate decision-making, and collaborate with other departments. You will develop strong written and verbal communication skills.
  • Leadership and Management: Controllers often oversee a team of accounting and finance professionals. You will learn how to lead and motivate your team, delegate tasks effectively, and foster a collaborative work environment.
  • Technology Proficiency: Controllers utilize various financial software and technology tools to streamline processes, analyze data, and generate reports. You will develop proficiency in accounting software, ERP systems, and other financial management tools.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Controller?

The work-life balance of a controller can significantly vary depending on several factors, such as the size of the company, the industry, and the specific time of the financial cycle. Typically, controllers face periods of high demand during financial closings, budget preparations, and audit periods, where longer hours are common. 

However, the workload may become more manageable outside these peak times, allowing for a better work-life balance. Achieving a satisfactory work-life balance also depends on the company’s culture, the level of support and resources available, and the individual’s efficiency and time management skills. 

In organizations that prioritize work-life balance, offer flexible working arrangements, and leverage technology for efficiency, controllers may experience a more favorable work-life balance. 

Nonetheless, the role’s inherent responsibilities and pressures to ensure accurate financial reporting and compliance can make it challenging to maintain a consistent work-life balance without effective strategies and support in place.

What’s the Career Outlook for Controllers in the US?

The career outlook for controllers in the USA appears to be very positive. According to data from Zippia, the projected controller job growth rate is 17% from 2018 to 2028. This growth rate is notably higher than the average for all occupations, indicating a strong demand for professionals in this field. 

The projection suggests that approximately 123,100 new jobs for controllers will be created over the next decade. This demand is likely driven by the need for expert financial management and reporting as businesses and organizations continue to navigate the complexities of the global economy and regulatory environments. 

Such a robust growth rate underscores the importance of controllers in ensuring businesses’ financial health and compliance, making it a promising career path for individuals with expertise in finance and accounting.

Controller Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities for a Controller?

A controller typically holds a crucial financial management position within an organization and oversees its accounting and financial operations. As such, the job opportunities for controllers are diverse and can be found across various industries and sectors.

Some common job opportunities for controllers include:

  • Corporate Controller: This role is typically found in large corporations. The corporate controller oversees all accounting functions, financial reporting, budgeting, and internal controls within the organization. They often report directly to the chief financial officer (CFO) and play a key role in strategic financial decision-making.
  • Financial Controller: Similar to the corporate controller, the financial controller oversees financial activities within an organization. However, this role is more common in smaller companies or subsidiaries of larger corporations. Financial controllers manage financial reporting, budgeting, cash management, and compliance with regulatory requirements.
  • Assistant Controller: Assistant controllers work under the direction of the controller or CFO, assisting with various financial tasks such as financial reporting, budgeting, and internal controls. This role often serves as a stepping stone to becoming a controller.
  • Divisional Controller: In larger organizations with multiple divisions or business units, divisional controllers oversee the financial activities of a specific division or business unit. They ensure financial performance aligns with corporate objectives and provide financial guidance to divisional management.
  • Government Controller: Controllers manage financial activities in government agencies or public sector organizations, ensuring compliance with government regulations and budgetary constraints.
  • Consulting Controller: Some controllers work as consultants, either independently or for consulting firms, providing financial expertise and guidance to businesses on a contract basis.
  • Start-up Controller: In start-up companies, controllers may play a pivotal role in establishing financial systems, processes, and controls from the ground up. They help manage financial risks and support the company’s growth strategy.

As businesses continue to evolve, the role of controllers may expand to encompass new responsibilities related to financial technology, data analysis, and strategic planning.

What Type of Companies hire a Controller?

Companies across various industries and sectors typically hire controllers. The need for financial oversight and management is universal, making controllers essential in organizations of all sizes, from small startups to large corporations.

Here are the types of companies that commonly hire controllers:

  • Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs): Even smaller companies require financial management expertise. SMEs in industries such as services, hospitality, construction, and consumer goods may hire controllers to manage their accounting functions and financial reporting.
  • Government Agencies: Government entities at the local, state, and federal levels require financial management professionals to oversee budgeting, financial reporting, and compliance with governmental regulations. Controllers may work in various government departments, such as finance, treasury, or auditing agencies.
  • Consulting Firms: Consulting firms may employ controllers to provide financial advisory services to clients across different industries. These controllers may work on short-term projects or provide ongoing financial support to client organizations.
  • Startups and Entrepreneurial Ventures: Startups and entrepreneurial ventures often hire controllers to establish financial systems, implement internal controls, and manage financial risks as they grow and scale their businesses.
  • Financial Services Firms: Banks, investment firms, insurance companies, and other financial services providers require controllers to manage their financial operations, ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, and oversee financial reporting.
  • Manufacturing and Distribution Companies: Companies involved in manufacturing, distribution, and logistics may hire controllers to manage their supply chain finances, inventory management, and cost accounting processes.
  • Technology Companies: Technology firms, including software development companies, IT services providers, and telecommunications companies, often hire controllers to oversee their financial operations and support their growth strategies.
  • Retail and Consumer Goods Companies: Retailers, e-commerce businesses, and consumer goods manufacturers often employ controllers to manage their financial activities, including inventory management, sales reporting, and cost analysis.

Should I Become a Controller?

Deciding to become a controller is not merely about understanding the role’s technical aspects but also requires a holistic consideration of your interests, skills, and long-term goals. Your decision to pursue a career as a controller should stem from a genuine interest in financial management, a penchant for meticulous analysis, and a drive to contribute meaningfully to organizational growth. It’s crucial to assess whether the responsibilities of a controller resonate with your skill set and career aspirations. 

Are you drawn to the intricacies of financial reporting and analysis? Do you thrive in environments where strategic decision-making is paramount? These are questions to ponder as you contemplate your career path. Furthermore, consider the long-term implications of pursuing a career as a controller. Reflect on your professional goals and how this role aligns with your aspirations for advancement and personal fulfillment. 

Controllership offers growth opportunities, from advancing to executive roles like CFO to branching out into consulting or entrepreneurial ventures. By envisioning your career trajectory and how it aligns with your ambitions, you can chart a path that fosters both professional success and personal satisfaction.

Careers Related to Controller


Oluwadamilola Osisanya

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