A controller or any senior-level finance person is a crucial member of a company’s senior management team. When hiring a controller, where do you start and where do you focus? My team and I have placed countless controllers in my more than 20-year recruiting career, and we have used that experience to create a list of what matters most when hiring a controller.
1. Technical Accounting
First and foremost, your controller needs a strong technical accounting background; after all, they will be managing the accounting function and an accounting team. A strong foundation in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) is a must, and if your company is publicly traded, the knowledge of SEC reporting and a CPA are crucial.
2. Industry Experience
Specific industry experience may be important for hiring managers in certain industries. Software companies, for example, both public and private, have unique revenue recognition rules and reporting regulations. Someone from outside the industry is not going to have the technical experience needed to understand these practices. Healthcare and non-profits also have distinct accounting rules, and industry-specific backgrounds are often highly preferred by hiring managers in those industries. And, while many companies require industry experience, I’ve seen the positive outcomes of hiring managers keeping an open mind with candidates coming from other related industries. If a controller has a strong background, is smart, a fast learner and a perfect cultural fit, he or she should be given a second look.
The accounting function at any company is a team effort. Managing, mentoring and directing a team takes talent and experience. The group collaborates and works hard, especially during month-end and quarter-end, and a controller with strong leadership is essential to keeping the team engaged, on track and feeling valued. A skilled controller is also needed to cross-train the accounting group to cover for vacations and unexpected absences and to look for opportunities to promote their best employees. Ultimately, a successful controller is always looking to train his or her successor.
4. Process Improvement Experience
The best controllers are adept at making positive process changes. They continually look for a better way to manage their teams’ responsibilities – streamlining, identifying and building inefficiencies, helping things to run smoother, faster and more cost-effectively. A candidate with creative problem-solving skills, initiative and follow-through will help your company continually assess their processes.
5. “Fire in the belly”
The controller needs a strong work ethic and commitment. CFOs who typically hire controllers look for high energy, motivated employees who are willing to take on as much as they can. Look for candidates who are bright, eager and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed – individually and in conjunction with their team. In my experience, the more passive candidate who doesn’t have any oomph is not typically a contender.
6. Soft skills
Intangible traits are also crucial to consider when you are hiring a controller. Does the controller candidate present him/herself in a polished, poised and professional way? When they walk into a room, they should garner attention. Controllers need to be skilled in how they deal internally with the board and externally with bankers, auditors and insurance companies. And, obviously, anytime you are dealing with financials, the employee needs to have high integrity and honesty. A strong controller also needs to be good at giving and receiving constructive feedback. They should be professional with the ability to manage up and down and to work well with their peer group. During the interview, be sure to assess these vital skills.
7. Systems aptitude
Most hiring managers are looking for controllers who are still very much hands-on with the day-to-day; they need a strong working knowledge of Excel and any related ERP systems. Oftentimes, a company is looking to change or upgrade their financial systems and the controller needs to be involved in the selection, testing and implementation process. A system change is a huge undertaking involving collaboration from different areas of the company, and a skilled controller will be able to manage the process and the people involved.
8. Great References
You’ve found your star candidate, and all that’s left is a thorough reference check. Be sure to take this crucial step. References can confirm or call into question technical, managerial or other important traits. When conducting a reference check for your controller candidate, include questions about technical ability, work ethic, meeting of deadlines and interpersonal soft skills. Everything you want and need most from this hire should be questioned in the reference check. Don’t forget to ask why the person is leaving or has left; this information can be very telling. Finally, ask the reference if you would re-hire the candidate; the answer may seal the deal or force you to pass. If working with an employment agency, your consultant can complete this process for you.
9. Desire to Continue Learning
If the candidate is a CPA, he or she should maintain their CPA certification through continuing professional education courses (CPE Credits.) To enhance people skills, leadership and management training are also helpful as is any training on new systems or system upgrades. Your organization should provide the opportunity and resources when possible to support continuing education, and more importantly, the candidate needs to have the desire to continue their learning.
10. Collaboration with the CFO
The controller supports the CFO and serves as their “right hand,” so the strength of the relationship is vital to the success of the department. Once on board, the CFO and the controller need to maintain a very close relationship. They need to strategize, brainstorm and align to work toward the common strategic corporate goals. This may include staffing changes, new business initiatives, system changes and enhancements, vendor selection and vendor relationships and company profitability. Make sure you are hiring someone with whom the CFO can have a strong, honest, collaborative and lasting relationship. The chemistry needs to be there.
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