15 Leadership Skills Every Controller Must Have

June 29, 2017 Chris Doxey

A controller is always an accounting and financial leader within their companies. Many controllers take the role of “chief accounting officer.” But controllers should have a blend of skills from two key areas: 1) accounting and business knowledge and 2) leadership and influence.

controller's desktop

Accounting and business knowledge

  1. Controlling Cost — As an example for a major project, a cost control process is implemented to monitor cost performance, ensure changes are recorded accurately, prohibit unauthorized changes, inform stakeholders of cost changes, maintain expected costs with acceptable limits, and monitor and document reasons for favorable or unfavorable cost variances. As a controller, you’re responsible for controlling cost. This involves developing policies and procedures, systems, processes, and metrics to make sure that costs are under control.

  2. Knowledge of Internal Controls and Compliance — A controller usually has the overall responsibility for the internal controls program and process for their organization. This means that the design, development and testing of the operational effectiveness of each control is the responsibility of you and your team. If you work for a publicly traded company, you’ll also need to prepare all the quarterly and annual requirements for Sarbanes Oxley.

  3. Improving Financial Reporting and Adding Value to the Business — Controllers and their staffs typically drive the fiscal closing process and are always looking for ways to streamline the process by providing the results sooner through automation and a quick closing process.

  4. Strong Understanding of Corporate Transaction Processes — Controllers have ownership of corporate transaction processes that include accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll, T&E, general accounting, among others. There are large opportunities to streamline these processes per automation and transformation initiatives in procure to pay (P2P) and order to cash (O2C).

  5. Excellent Corporate Knowledge — A controller should have an excellent knowledge of what their company does and how it is organized. What is the company’s culture? How is the company organized? How quickly are decisions made?

  6. Looks for Ways to Improve Efficiency — Along with having a solid knowledge of the corporate transaction processes that are the backbone of your company, you should always be looking for ways to improve them through process efficiencies and automation. Are there ways to combine similar processes into a shared services organization? Can you alleviate manual invoices through implementing an eInvoicing solution? Can you streamline your payment process by implementing ePayment solutions or even outsourcing your payment process?

  7. Driven by Analytics — A savvy controller is driven by analytics and metrics. The results of a well-developed metrics program indicates how well your company’s business processes are working and where improvements were successfully implemented. Metrics also reflect problem areas and should have the analytics to drill down to find the solution.

These are included in the top 15 leadership skills for success!

Leadership and influence

  1. Ability to Develop and Maintain Business Partnerships — Since a controller oversees the accounting processes for a company, maintaining good business partnerships is a key success factor. You should identify your areas of influence and ensure you have a good relationship or partnership with the leaderships in these departments. Key business partnerships usually include: Information Technology (IT), Legal, Human Resources (HR), Business Ethics, Supply Chain, and Procurement.

  2. Precise and Clear Communication — Communication is a personal process that should be appropriate for both the audience and situation. Choosing the wrong communication channel could send the wrong message. For example, a decision that dramatically impacts a person’s career should not be delivered in an impersonal form letter. It’s always good to consider how it would feel to be on the receiving end. Think about it: If you were being recognized for outstanding work for many years of service, which type of communication would be more meaningful to you: a personal thank you note or an email?

  3. Active Listening — The concept of active listening is to encourage the speaker to state what they really mean and stems from the work of counselors and therapists. The goal of active listening is to help associates express themselves, offer suggestions, and get to the root cause of the matter.

  4. A Defined and Consistent Leadership Style — Based on an analysis of all the leadership styles, it makes sense that a controller should be flexible, understand his or her own core leadership style, value team members, and be cognizant of all factors impacting the situation. Although situational leadership is touted as the “best” leadership style, the situation should not change one’s core values or ethics. Great leaders have an in-depth understanding of which leadership style works best for them.

  5. Ability to Motivate and Inspire Others — Motivation involves using words and examples that give your team the will to accomplish an objective or take action. Motivation occurs when one has confidence, feels a sense of belonging, and has good leadership. Motivation is nurtured by constant reinforcement, a level of trust, and loyalty to either the organizational leader or the company. True team motivation occurs when team members motivate each other.

  6. Able to Manage Change — One of the major challenges within change management is assessing the readiness for change. Unfortunately, this does not always happen and the risks associated with the change are not properly addressed. The goal of assessing change readiness is to identify specific issues and plan for those so that the risks are minimized. If that does not take place, performance improvement may either be delayed or not achieved, and associated costs can be higher than expected.

  7. Emotional Intelligence — Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman is co-chair of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, based at Rutgers University. He first brought the term emotional intelligence to a wide audience with his 1995 book of the same name. According to Goleman, the chief components of emotional intelligence are: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

  8. The Ability to Build a Strong Team — Choosing the right team members is critical to being a good controller. Unless your staff is communicative and committed, you will not be able to fulfill your controllership responsibilities.

About the Author

Chris Doxey

Chris Doxey, CAPP, CCSA, CICA is an independent management consultant providing Internal Controls and Business Process Best Practice Solutions. She has extensive experience in procurement, accounts payable, internal auditing, internal controls, Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, payroll, logistics, financial systems strategy, and financial integration at Digital, Compaq, Hewlett Packard, MCI, APEX Analytix, and Business Strategy, Inc. She was recruited to assist MCI (formally WorldCom) recover from their internal control challenges. She has a bachelor's degree in English, a bachelor's in accounting, a master's in business administration, and a graduate certificate in project management. Chris has written numerous articles and published two handbooks: AP Leadership Skills and Implementing a Controls Self Assessment Program for Your Accounts Payable Department.

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