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Controller Career Guide

What is a controller?

A controller is a senior executive who oversees the quality of an organization’s financial operations. They ensure accuracy and compliance with regulations and develop strategies for future financial growth. Not only do they play an essential part in daily business operations, but their work also significantly impacts financial direction and strategy.

These professionals bring value by providing data-based insights, managing financial risk, and making sure that the company’s operations adhere to financial laws and standards. Their primary goal is to safeguard financial integrity and stability, affecting the organization’s reputation and market performance.

Duties and responsibilities

The controller’s duties start with managing all aspects of an organization’s finances. They are responsible for providing comprehensive financial updates to upper management and establishing financial policies while adhering to all financial regulations and standards. This includes the comprehensive supervision of budgeting processes and cash management and the efficient execution of payroll and related employee benefit systems.

These executives are also typically responsible for preparing and presenting annual financial statements and other necessary reports, including profit and loss statements, balance sheets, and analyses of future earnings or expenses. They also coordinate and plan the annual audit process with external auditors, ensuring all financial transactions are accurately represented. Essentially, they are responsible for financial risk management, including making decisions regarding insurance coverage and other risk-reducing strategies.

Work environment

Most controllers work in an office environment. As part of the executive team, they typically have office space to work privately. However, their work isn’t confined to their desks. Frequent meetings with other department heads, executives, and sometimes external stakeholders like auditors or tax consultants are integral to the workday. As decision-makers, they also participate in strategic discussions, planning meetings, budget reviews, and more.

It’s worth noting that their work environment is generally collaborative despite being a high-level role. They must work closely with various departments, such as the accounting team, operations, logistics, and sales.

Typical work hours

The typical work hours for a controller align with standard office hours, meaning that they usually work from 9 AM to 5 PM. However, like many executive roles, their work isn’t limited to these hours. Depending on the organization’s needs, there may be times when longer hours or weekend work is required.

During certain times of the year, like annual auditing, tax season, or budget planning, the work hours may increase significantly. This job requires high dedication and commitment, so the willingness to work beyond traditional hours can be a significant part of successfully handling the role’s demands.

How to become a controller

This career guide section outlines the steps to becoming a controller. The role involves several steps, from obtaining a bachelor’s degree to gaining extensive experience in accounting or finance.

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree

Begin your journey by earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, or a related field. This degree will provide you with a firm foundation in financial principles, budgeting, auditing, taxation, and business law, which are crucial to the job.

Step 2: Gain entry-level experience

Upon completing your degree, seek entry-level positions in an organization’s finance or accounting departments. Such positions could include accounting clerk, junior accountant, or financial analyst. This stage will help you apply the theoretical concepts learned in school in a practical setting.

Step 3: Earn a CPA license

While not a strict requirement for all positions, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification is highly valued. To obtain this license, you must meet the education and experience requirements, pass a comprehensive exam, and commit to ongoing professional education.

Step 4: Obtain further experience and advancement

With CPA licensure, you can rise to higher roles such as senior accountant, budget analyst, or financial manager. A minimum of five to seven years of work experience will pave your way to the controller position. You’ll need to demonstrate proficiency in financial reporting, analysis, and forecasting in these roles.

Step 5: Pursue a master’s degree (optional)

Some professionals pursue a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) or finance to broaden their knowledge or speed up their career progression. Although this step is optional, it can give you an edge when competing for upper-management positions.

Step 6: Apply for jobs

With your extensive experience, education, and skills, it’s time to apply for a controller position. Make sure your resume reflects not only your academic and professional achievements but also your competencies in managing financial systems, supervising financial departments, and guiding the overall financial strategy of an organization.

How much do controllers make?

Compensation for controllers varies by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Factors such as the complexity of the employer’s financial operations, their specialties, and the industry’s regulatory requirements can significantly impact compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Securities and Brokerage – $201,730
  • Investment Funds and Private Equity – $198,970
  • Other Investment Pools and Funds – $198,680
  • Federal Executive Branch – $192,580
  • Software Publishers – $188,860

Highest paying states

  • New Hampshire – $146,780
  • New Jersey – $141,680
  • New York – $139,860
  • Connecticut – $137,500
  • Massachusetts – $136,780

Browse controller salary data by market

Types of controllers

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for controllers. These roles often are categorized based on industry or type of organization, size of the organization, and specific financial management functions performed.

Financial controller

A financial controller oversees an organization’s entire financial management function. They are usually responsible for preparing monthly financial reports, direct investment activities, and executing cash and risk management strategies. These professionals often work in large businesses and corporations.

Corporate controller

In a corporate environment, a controller could oversee all financial matters related to a company’s operations. This often includes careful analysis and reporting of financial data, managing regulatory compliance issues, and collaborating with managerial staff to set financial goals. Corporate controllers will often have a strategic role as well as a supervisory one within a company.

Cost controller

Primarily working in businesses with significant costs related to raw materials, production, or manufacturing, cost controllers focus on implementing cost-saving measures within an organization. They may monitor budgets, forecast costs, and recommend strategic changes to optimize profitability.

Operations controller

These specialists often work closely with the operations team in a company. Their focus is monitoring financial activities directly related to the company’s operations, which includes budget management, performance evaluation, cost management, and product line profitability analysis.

Division controller

Large organizations divided into multiple business units often hire division controllers. Their main role is to manage the financial affairs of a particular division, providing financial reports and directing budget operations at the divisional level.

Government controller

These types of controllers work within governmental bodies or agencies. Their responsibilities generally include managing public funds, monitoring appropriations, and ensuring financial operations adhere to governmental regulations and financial reporting requirements.

Top skills for controllers

When considering a career as a controller, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the key skills and traits that can lead to success in this role.

Financial knowledge

A controller must demonstrate a deep understanding of financial concepts, procedures, and operations. This includes knowledge of financial reporting, budgeting, auditing, tax planning, and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

Strategic thinking

They need to be forward-thinking and strategic, considering the larger picture of the company’s finances. Being able to plan for the future, prepare for potential financial issues, and institute systematic financial management plans are indicators of success in this profession.

Leadership and management

A significant part of the role involves leading a team. Strong leadership skills and the ability to manage and motivate staff are critically important. Successful controllers can effectively delegate tasks, communicate expectations clearly, and nurture a positive work atmosphere.

Analytical skills

Enhanced ability to analyze financial data, recognize patterns, and interpret complex financial reports is vital. These analytical skills help in making informed decisions, identifying financial risks and opportunities, and developing effective strategies.

Communication and decision-making skills

Solid communication skills are a must in this career. The job often involves explaining complex financial information to individuals with varying degrees of financial literacy. It requires well-honed decision-making skills, as these professionals often need to make significant financial decisions under pressure.

Attention to detail

When it comes to financial management, even the smallest detail could have significant implications. Thus, an eye for detail is an important trait for success, ensuring that every financial transaction and report is accurate and complies with all regulations.

Controller career path options

As a first step in their professional growth, many controllers choose to expand and hone their finance and accounting skills by obtaining various certifications. These may include the CPA, Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA), or Certified Financial Manager (CFM) status, all of which could boost credibility and job opportunities.

This career offers a variety of professional development paths. One common career progression is toward the role of chief financial officer (CFO). In this role, you would be responsible for managing all financial activities within the company, including budgeting, forecasting, investments, and risk management. It’s a highly strategic, often board-facing role requiring a deep understanding of not just finance but the business as a whole. It’s also worth noting that CFOs often have a seat at the table in setting the company’s overall strategic direction.

Other career options include working as a director of finance or as a vice president of finance. These roles come with increased duties and responsibilities, including broader strategy and decision-making tasks. Alternatively, those seeking new challenges may branch out into consultancy roles, advising other businesses on financial management, reporting, and control.

Finally, some professionals may seek opportunities in larger or more prestigious companies or across different industries for a fresh perspective. This enhanced experience often leads to expanded opportunities and career advancement.

The controller position has seen numerous changes in the financial industry. Previously, their role was primarily focused on managing a company’s financial records. However, the job has evolved dramatically with the rise of digital technology and advanced financial software. Today, these professionals are expected to be strategic partners in a company’s planning and growth activities.

This transformation has been fueled by the increasing importance of data in decision-making processes. The need for real-time information and data-driven insights has put controllers in a unique position to influence their organizations positively. As a result, many companies are searching for candidates with both a strong financial background and the ability to understand complex data analytics tools.

Employment projections for controllers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for financial managers, which includes controllers, is projected to grow 17 percent through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. This demand is expected to remain high due to regulation changes and the need for increased accountability regarding a firm’s financial matters.

Controller career tips

Understand the organization’s business model and operations

A controller is a key contributor in making strategic decisions within a company; therefore, a thorough understanding of the business model and operations is crucial. They also need to understand how the company makes money, its cost structure, revenue streams, and the risk factors associated with its industry. This knowledge will allow you to contribute valuable insights and help the company stay financially healthy.

Build a professional network

Establishing a solid professional network can greatly enhance your career. Networking can open up partnership opportunities, provide access to resources and valuable information, and enhance your understanding of the industry. Connecting with others in similar roles lets you learn from their experiences, share best practices, and find mentors or advisors.

  • American Association of Finance & Accounting
  • Institute of Management Accountants (IMA)
  • Financial Executives International (FEI)
  • Professional Association for Corporate Controllers (PACC)

Practice ethical responsibility

Ethics play a crucial role in the finance and accounting field. You must follow regulatory statutes, accepted accounting principles, and organizational policies. You’ll also need to handle sensitive information with discretion, uphold the organization’s ethical standards, and encourage ethical behavior within the team.

Develop cross-functional collaboration skills

A controller’s work is not limited to the finance department. You’ll often need to collaborate with other departments like operations, sales, and human resources. These collaborations can provide a better understanding of the organization’s financial health from all aspects. Cultivating good relationships with other departments will help drive your organization’s success.

Always invest in continuous learning

It’s important to stay up-to-date on current financial legislation, industry trends, and advancements in technology. This continuous learning will enable you to incorporate best practices in your workflow and keep your organization competitive. You could:

  • Gain advanced certifications like CMA or CPA
  • Attend relevant webinars, workshops, or seminars
  • Participate in professional development programs offered by the American Association of Finance & Accounting or the Institute of Management Accountants

Where the controller jobs are

Top employers

  • Ernst & Young
  • Deloitte
  • PWC
  • KPMG
  • Wells Fargo

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Illinois
  • Texas
  • Florida

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Monster
  • CareerBuilder


What is the role of a controller in a company?

A controller is typically in charge of all financial aspects of a company. Their roles and responsibilities include preparing financial reports, monitoring the budgets, overseeing the accounting team, ensuring the company adheres to the tax laws, implementing financial strategies to achieve sustainability, and participating in executive decision-making.

What skills should a good controller possess?

A successful controller must have excellent financial management and accounting skills. They should be analytical, detail-oriented, and an adept problem-solver. They should also possess good leadership and communication skills for managing a team and explaining financial information to non-finance personnel. Also, familiarity with the latest finance software and technologies is critical.

What kind of education does a controller need?

Most companies require their controllers to have a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, or a related field. However, given the complexity and responsibility of the role, many prefer their controllers to have an MBA or a master’s degree in finance or accounting. In addition, certification such as CPA or CMA is usually required or highly desirable.

What are the daily tasks of a controller?

Day-to-day tasks can vary based on the company’s size and the industry. However, they often oversee all company accounting practices, including accounting departments, preparing budgets, financial reports, and tax and audit functions. They also direct financial strategy while supporting the executive management team by offering insights and financial advice that will allow them to make the best business decisions for the company.

How much experience is required to become a controller?

Most companies require substantial work experience in finance or accounting for controller positions. Typically, 5 to 10 years of experience in various finance roles is required before stepping into this leadership position. Some companies may prefer prior experience in a controller or a similar role, showcasing one’s capabilities to oversee all financial aspects of a business.

What is the difference between a controller and a CFO?

While both have crucial roles in the financial management of a company, their functions are usually distinct. A controller is typically concerned with the past and present of a company’s finances; they handle regulatory compliance, manage accounting procedures, and generate financial reports. A CFO, on the other hand, is more future-oriented; they strategize long-term financial planning, negotiate with external parties, and make executive-level decisions. Often, a CFO will supervise the controller’s work.

Is being a controller stressful?

Yes, this career can involve high levels of stress. Since this role is responsible for all financial matters of an organization, it often comes with heavy responsibilities and long hours, especially during fiscal year-ends, tax seasons, or financial auditing periods. However, stress levels can be managed with proper organization, efficient team management, and sustainable work practices.

Is being a controller a good career?

Being a controller can be rewarding for those passionate about finance and numbers. It provides an opportunity to make strategic decisions, build a strong team, and contribute significantly to a company’s financial health and growth. Though the role comes with high responsibility, it also brings the satisfaction of playing a crucial role in shaping a company’s financial future. Additionally, they usually earn a high salary because of the demanding nature of their job.

What type of companies need a controller?

Almost every medium to large-sized company across different industries will have a controller to manage their financial processes. In smaller companies, the role could be taken on by an owner or general manager, but as a business grows, so does the need for a dedicated financial professional to keep accurate books, ensure legal compliance, and help with strategic planning. This position is commonly found in companies within industries like finance, manufacturing, retail, and healthcare.

Can a controller become a CFO?

Yes, it is common for controllers to progress to the position of CFO in their career. Given their extensive understanding of company finances and their experience in maintaining financial health, they are often seen as apt candidates for the more strategic role of a CFO. However, while they are typically more focused on numbers and compliance, CFOs need a broader skill set, including strategic planning, leadership, and negotiation skills.