From Controller to CFO: Nurturing a Financial Leader


Learning how to mentor a controller to think more like a CFO is an important investment for any organization that wants to grow and succeed. As a fractional CFO, I have worked with many accounting managers and controllers over the years, in different industries and in different stages of their careers. One of the most common challenges I’ve found accounting managers and controllers to have is developing a strategic and forward-looking mindset that is more in line with that of a CFO. Many controllers are highly competent in financial reporting and compliance, but may struggle in applying that understanding to the bigger picture, and could benefit from improving their ability to make strategic decisions that impact the future of the company.

I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to mentor a controller toward more of a CFO mindset is to work closely with them on a regular basis, using the following strategies:

  • Educate them on the role of a CFO. Many controllers do not fully understand the breadth of responsibility and decision-making that comes with being a CFO. I typically start by explaining the differences between the roles, expanding their understanding of the context, and why a more strategic mindset is necessary.
  • Collaborate on strategic projects. Working together on a project that requires strategic thinking (such as an acquisition or expansion) and involving the controller in the due diligence process and financial modeling can be an effective way to expose them to the strategic thinking required of a CFO.
  • Provide feedback and coaching. As the controller works on strategic projects, it’s important to provide regular feedback and coaching. This can include constructive criticism of their thought process, suggestions on how to approach problems, and guidance on how to present their ideas to senior leadership.
  • Encourage continuous learning. It’s important for a controller to stay current with trends in finance and business. The skills that got them here won’t get them to the next level automatically. We need to encourage financial professionals to continually improve by attending webinars, conferences, and other professional development opportunities that can broaden their knowledge and exposure to different industries.

What if a controller isn’t interested in changing their mindset? Here are a few things to consider to encourage them to grow in this area.

  • Our fast-paced world is constantly moving forward. New technologies are automating work that used to require a completely human touch. To stay relevant and employable, all financial professionals should be willing to adapt and grow.
  • The role of a controller has historically been to “look at the rearview mirror” while a CFO tends to “look out the windshield.” There’s nothing wrong with a role that evaluates and processes the past – it is needed. But to refuse to also learn to look forward can reduce the opportunities a controller is given to contribute to leadership decisions.
  • A controller may discover that they enjoy the increased opportunity for responsibility in other roles. This can be a pleasant surprise, and help them consider other positions that will improve their career trajectory.

What do I do if I’m the controller?

If you are in a controller position and want to grow in this area, reach out to your CFO or a CFO you can trust and ask to shadow them. Offer to take them to lunch to learn more about their mindset and ask them to mentor you. If you don’t have a CFO to chat with, you can contact me and we can develop a plan for some professional development mentoring to help get you to the next level.