To an outsider, the worlds of accounting and finance can seem like a mystery. Sure, you know financial careers deal with numbers and money, but what’s the difference between an accountant and a bookkeeper? Who’s more senior in the hierarchy: the controller or the vice president of finance?
If you’re thinking of diving into a career in finance, understanding the various accounting job titles will help you decide what roles you’re qualified for and what kind of continuing education, if any, you might want to pursue. Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of the most common finance job titles and where they fall in a company’s overall hierarchy.
A Basic Accounting Job Title Hierarchy
All organizations are different when it comes to how they structure their financial departments.
Some companies have a chief financial officer while others have a vice president of accounting. Some companies have both. Some employ a team of staff accountants while others rely on outside help to tackle the majority of their financial needs. Still, there are some basic assumptions we can make about where a person falls in the pecking order based on their job title.
Here’s a standard example of how a large company’s finance job titles might be structured, in order of greatest to least seniority:
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
- Vice President of Finance
- Accounting Manager
- Senior Accountant
- Accounting Clerk
There might be several people in each of the mid- to lower-tier roles. For example, a company might have a tax accountant, a cost accountant and a general accountant working under an accounting manager, with their duties varying based on their area of specialty.
In a smaller company, the list might only include two or three of these job titles, with other duties outsourced as needed to save on costs.
The Most Popular Finance Job Titles
Chief Financial Officer
The chief financial officer is a c-level role that’s typically the third-highest position in a company, directly underneath the CEO and COO. In smaller companies, the CEO may also assume the responsibilities of CFO. This person is responsible for guiding the overall financial activities and positioning of the organization.
A CFO’s duties are broad and varied and include financial planning, analysis, records maintenance, and forecasting. They monitor data to analyze the company’s financial status and make recommendations to the CEO or board of directors to guide the financial direction of the company.
They’re responsible for making sure the company stays on the right side of the law financially, so accuracy and attention to detail are key. They’re the key representative in major financial moves, like mergers, acquisitions and IPOs. The CFO works closely with other departments on important financial decisions, like marketing campaigns and new product verticals.
To become a CFO, you’ll need to have a background that gives you a firm grasp on various areas of finance, from budgeting to compliance. Most CFOs have held a number of the other roles we’ll discuss in this article, oftentimes jumping from company to company as they climb the ladder. CPAs and MBAs are common credentials on a CFO’s resume.
Vice President of Finance
Another top finance job title in an organization is the vice president of finance. Some companies establish this position first, waiting until they’ve surpassed a certain point of growth before introducing the CFO role. Other, more established companies have both a VP of finance and a CFO.
Like a CFO, the VP of finance has a heavy hand in the company’s financial activities. So how are they different? Generally speaking, a CFO takes a broader, deeply strategic approach to steering the financial ship while a VP of finance deals more closely with the company’s day-to-day financial operations.
The VP of finance is typically responsible for establishing financial systems, maintaining the company’s balance sheet, overseeing the organization’s accounting staff and maintaining relationships with outside parties like lenders and investors.
A controller is a senior-level financial position that oversees all of the organization’s accounting activities. The accounting job title of controller is found almost exclusively in for-profit businesses, while in governmental and non-profit organizations (where there is no CFO) the equivalent position is comptroller.
The controller manages the full scope of the company’s accounting records, dictating how they’re kept and where they’re stored. They assemble the organization’s budget, making sure line items are in line with the year’s revenue projections.
One of the controller’s main duties is preparing financial statements and reports, which are of particular importance for publicly traded companies. The controller ensures that these statements and reports are issued on time and that they adhere to all pertinent legal requirements.
Becoming a controller or comptroller requires a deep knowledge of accounting, so the person in this role usually has a lengthy job history of prior accounting roles. A bachelor’s degree in an area like accounting, economics or finance is a good starting point, with many also possessing a master’s degree or CPA certification.
A financial analyst takes an analytical approach to an organization’s monetary decisions, assessing business opportunities and projects to decide if they’re worth the company’s investment. They look at cash flow trends, analyze market factors and weigh risks against rewards to make informed recommendations to the company’s leadership.
More often than not, a financial analyst is an outside consultant hired by a business to come in and take a magnifying glass to the company’s financials. They work with many different organizations, including private- and public-sector firms, bringing specialized expertise and a long resume or prior experience they rely on when making their analysis. Many financial analysts work for banks and other financial institutions, helping decide whether to lend companies money.
If you’re a person who loves data and crunching numbers, a job as a financial analyst might be for you. This career path typically requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a subject like math, economics, finance, or statistics. Candidates with an MBA are usually given preference for the best jobs in the field.
One of the most ubiquitous finance job titles is that of an accountant. While an accountant’s primary job functions lie in preparing and maintaining a company’s financial records, they may handle any number of other duties including payroll, taxes, preparing profit and loss statements, managing accounts payable and receivable, and more. They go beyond the numbers, providing insights that help company stakeholders understand the company’s position so they can make the appropriate financial decisions.
An accountant may work internally for a company, focusing only on that organization’s financials. This is known as a staff accountant or private accountant. Or, they might work for an accounting firm that handles the books for many different organizations. This type of accountant is called a public accountant. Finally, an accountant may be self-employed, running their own practice and taking on as many clients as they can comfortably manage.
A bachelor’s degree is a sufficient level of education to break into the field of accounting, while CPA certification will help you further advance your career.
A bookkeeper is tasked with recording the company’s financial transactions in a clean and consistent way. They maintain a company or department’s general ledger, tracking money in versus money out.
While many of a bookkeeper’s duties mirror those of an accountant, bookkeeping is more of an administrative role concerned primarily with recording transactions. An accountant, on the other hand, takes those recordings one step further and provides subjective insights drawn from them. An accountant may oversee a team of one of more bookkeepers.
There are no formal education requirements to become a bookkeeper; many entry-level bookkeeping jobs require only an associate’s degree or some level of coursework in bookkeeping or accounting.
Like an accountant, an auditor maintains and analyzes the financial records of a company. Whereas many accountants work in-house, however, auditors are typically external parties that come in to check the work of the company’s financial staff.
An auditor may work for a third-party organization like the government, checking for legal compliance, or a potential investor verifying the company’s assets and liabilities. They may also be hired by the company itself to identify opportunities to improve the organization’s financial processes.
Auditors generally need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a field like accounting. A master’s degree in accounting or an MBA may be helpful when climbing to more senior auditing positions.