If you’re reading this, you may be thinking about a skill gap in your company, and possibly moving your Controller into a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) role. Typically, that happens in one of two situations.
- Maybe your business is ready for a CFO and, since your controller is acting as your finance lead, the promotion seemingly makes sense.
- Maybe you already have a CFO, but want to groom a controller for succession planning.
Whatever the situation you find yourself in, prepping someone for the transition from controller to CFO is a potentially challenging one. Some of the skills that make someone an incredible controller are detrimental to a CFO.
So how do you prep someone to successfully transition from controller to CFO?
Understand the Differing Skill Sets
As mentioned, some of the skills and characteristics that make someone a successful controller can be counterproductive when a person moves into the CFO role. Understanding the differing skill sets and how you can increase your new CFO’s chances of success is critical to a smooth transition.
Controllers jump right in and fix things when they’re broken; they can sense what is coming down the road, because they know their organization’s processes more intimately than anyone else. Their job is to reflect accurately in the financial reports what is happening in the company, to make sure that assets are protected, and that processes are controlled. The key is in the title: they CONTROL. And in this role, the skill set that leads to that intimate knowledge is invaluable.
But when it comes time to transition to the CFO role, their formerly successful, “I need to be in the thick of it” approach isn’t the key to success. As CFOs, they don’t need to be the person that knows every detail. In fact, they can’t be.
Their new role is to create the structure for that control to exist in the organization but to add to their plates the additional components of other financial skills, strategic alignment, value generation, and organizational leadership. In the new role, it’s time for them to build, develop and trust their teams to manage the details.
For me, this was the hardest transition on the financial career ladder to make. It called for the largest jump from “doing” to “leading”. It called for switching gears, and developing muscles I’d only lightly tested before. It was time to train my own replacement, let go of control, and learn that there are people who can now fill that former role better than I can. And, more importantly, that it was my JOB to make sure that was the case.
Get Them Comfortable With Letting Go of Control
So when your turn comes to move your Controller into a broader role, it’s time to be sure that he or she is going to be able to let go of direct control. To see if your Controller is someone who can develop assign some activities and tasks that are so broad, or advanced, or time-bound that it is impossible to complete it alone. (You will, of course, need to make sure that success is possible by using resources beyond his or her own time and skill).
For example, you could task your Controller with creating a board presentation on something he or she knows nothing about, like the process for specimen management in a pharmaceutical company. The stretch from accounting to specimen management is broad enough that the task will require reliance on others. Assigning tasks that require letting go of control and relying on a team will give you a sense of whether or not your Controller is up to the challenges of broader and higher responsibility.
The truth is, as in any career progression, there are Controllers who can make this leap, and those who can’t. Be aware of what you are going to expect of the CFO role, and make sure you lay the groundwork for your Controller to succeed in it.
Another good muscle test for your current Controller is to slowly increase his or her workload and responsibilities to the point where it’s impossible for to get everything done on their own successfully. Be sure that the team is in place to support this effort first, but then turn on the fire hose. Coach your candidate exactly how to delegate (responsibility and authority) to the team, and then step back and support, but hold the deadlines firm. A CFO-ready candidate will recognize that the only lever to pull is the one that develops and utilizes the skills of the whole team.
If You’re Considering Promoting Your Controller to CFO…
Career development for your Controller is a high priority; some of the skills they will need to be a CFO are developed with practice, and some need to come naturally. Hopefully, these two developmental ideas will help you determine whether your Controller is CFO-ready.
If you sense potential, I highly recommend they read, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Get More Successful, by Marshall Goldsmith. It’s an incredible book that digs deeply into bad habits that can stifle already-successful careers.
Moving someone on your team from Controller to CFO is a big decision. But as long as you promote the right person (and support them in the process), it can have game-changing results for your business.