In my thirty years of experience in recruiting controllers, there are a few factors I consider to be table stakes. Here are the three essential elements you should evaluate before hiring your next controller:
1. Core Accounting Knowledge
First and foremost, your controller needs to have a CPA designation and solid knowledge of all aspects of accounting. Not only should he or she have a good grounding in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), it helps if they’ve had experience in your particular industry. If your company has specialized accounting issues such as costing or revenue recognition, your Controller should be knowledgeable in those areas as well.
2. Management and Leadership Skills
Controllers in private companies need to be hands on managers and mentors. The accountants they supervise are often still learning their trade and rely on the Controller to mentor them and act as the authority on any accounting questions or issues that may arise.
Leadership also becomes a factor in periods of increased workloads like quarter end and year end. The Controller needs to keep their team engaged, motivated and on schedule. They also need to plan for contingencies such as staff turnover and unexpected absences and ensure that their department still functions efficiently when these events occur.
Your Controller should be proactively involved in succession planning and encouraging their staff to continually upgrade their skills. Probably the most important part of this process is identifying a potential successor for their own position and making sure that person is developing the skills for the job.
3. Information Technology Expertise
Since the accounting group is usually the biggest user of information technology, the Controller is often the logical person to oversee the IT function. In my experience, companies that are on the market for a new Controller are often also on the market for an upgrade of their financial systems so IT knowledge is usually a major criterion in the search.
Systems changes such as ERP implementations or conversions are complicated undertakings requiring input and cooperation across all areas of the business. Not only does this require a fluency in IT, it also requires project management skills and the ability to gain the trust and cooperation of affected line managers.
The controller function can and does vary as a function of company size, ownership structure and industry among other things. But whatever else you happen to evaluate when recruiting your new controller, ensure that these three elements top your list.