How to Become a Controller

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A corporate controller is seated at a desk preparing financial statements on a laptop in an office.

Every organization needs oversight of its financial operations to ensure sufficient funds are available to cover expenses, pay salaries and taxes, and more. Controllers are leaders with the financial credentials, skills, knowledge and experience to implement, manage and oversee financial policies, processes and strategies. They help organizations achieve financial health and stability, all while maintaining a competitive edge, meeting regulatory compliance and strengthening the bottom line.

Today’s controllers rely on technology and data to optimize financial and accounting operations in their organizations. For example, according to a survey by the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), 46% of organizations are using predictive analytics for their accounts receivables (AR) and invoicing/collections processes.

By helping their organizations strengthen their finances through the application of sound accounting principles and driving the adoption of technologies and analytical tools for deeper, faster and more accurate insights into financial performance, controllers can fortify their organization’s financial integrity and prepare it for future success. For individuals with an understanding of accounting principles and procedures, investigating how to become a controller could be the first step toward a career focused on helping an organization achieve financial health.

What Is a Controller?

Experienced accounting and financial professionals researching how to become a controller should understand the primary function of the role: to strengthen an organization’s bottom line, meet its financial obligations and comply with tax laws.

Controllers also help to inform future financial decisions and investments by presenting a clear picture of the organization’s financial condition and developing strategies to keep or set it on a path to profitability.

Controllers work in various settings. In large organizations, the controller typically oversees accounting staff and reports to an executive such as the chief financial officer (CFO) or the executive director of finance. Controllers in smaller organizations may be the senior financial officer and report directly to the CEO.

What Does a Controller Do?

Controllers apply their knowledge of accounting principles to help lead organizations. They are responsible for making decisions to ensure that spending and investment align with revenue goals. Typically, controllers oversee these accounting functions:

  • Financial statements: Formal records of the business activities and financial performance of an organization presented in a spreadsheet or form
  • General ledger: An important accounting document that contains a complete record of an organization’s financial transactions, including accounts payable, accounts receivable, cash management, purchasing and more
  • Cost accounting: A managerial activity that involves recording, analyzing and reporting variable and fixed costs
  • Payroll: The process of paying an organization’s employees by distributing money and keeping records of those payments
  • Accounts payable: The managing of and reporting on money an organization owes to its suppliers
  • Accounts receivable: The managing of and reporting on money owed to an organization by customers for invoiced products or services

Controller Responsibilities

In researching information on how to become a controller, note that responsibilities for the role may vary by industry. Generally, however, controllers ensure organizations operate on sound financial footing by performing a wide range of activities, including:

Tracking Cash Flow

Businesses generate revenue primarily through sales activity and proceeds from interest on various financial instruments, from savings to investments, while nonprofit organizations may generate revenue from donations. Both also incur expenses that may include real estate costs, investments in equipment and technology, wages, insurance and general office expenses.

A controller monitors and manages the inflow of revenue and outflow of expenses to ensure an organization’s finances are in order.

Managing Expenses

A controller tracks an organization’s expenses, to ensure timely and accurate payment to vendors and essential service suppliers, such as utility companies. Some costs are more predictable than others. For example, a fixed expense is the same amount every time, whether charged monthly, quarterly or annually.

Examples include mortgage payments and insurance premiums.

Variable expenses are costs that change. Examples of variable expenses include raw materials costs, which fluctuate based on market conditions, and gas and mileage expenses, which vary based on the transport needs of an organization and the price of gas. Controllers are responsible for evaluating, managing and controlling these expenses to help maximize the organization’s net profit.

Performing Financial Analysis

The primary goal of financial analysis is to assess performance and predict future revenues. A controller’s role in financial analysis involves analyzing financial and accounting statements, including income statements, balance sheets and cash flow statements, to identify the historical financial activity, evaluate economic trends and forecast future performance. Additionally, financial analysis involves formulating policies and plans to ensure the financial strength of an organization and improve its decision-making.

Ensuring Compliance

Amid globalization, changing consumer demands and expectations, and increased digitization, controllers are tasked with building the financial foundation for their organizations to facilitate growth. They must do so while ensuring compliance with evolving regulatory controls, compliance rules, audit standards and reporting regulations.

Controllers also must look out for fraud, which not only impacts an organization’s ability to comply with laws and regulations, but may impact its bottom line. According to Experian, organizations are set to lose an excess of $206 billion by 2025 due to online payment fraud activity.

Controller Competencies and Skills

Controllers need excellent math and computational skills because their job involves working with numbers. Moreover, they must also possess skills in organization, leadership and management, communication, and analysis. Critical controller competencies and skills include:

Math and Computational Skills

Controllers are accountants, so crunching numbers is one of their critical responsibilities. For example, calculating Assets = Liabilities + Shareholder’s Equity is fundamental to a balance sheet, which reflects the net worth or financial standing of an organization.

In another example, math and computation are used for general ledgers, which record and represent an organization’s financial data. Common tools used for performing calculations include QuickBooks and Microsoft Excel.


This competency is essential for controllers because they work with numerous documents from various sources and departments. They work with lots of data related to income, expenses and investments at any given time. Since controllers are typically in charge of accounting teams, they need to be able to manage schedules and projects.


Controller is a senior-level role that requires the ability to manage and motivate individuals to drive performance. Depending on the organization, controllers may oversee staff across different departments, including accounting, finance, accounts payable and receivable, and record-keeping operations.

Tasked with the crucial responsibility of monitoring the financial condition of an organization, controllers also serve as advisors to top executives. Corporate controllers also hire and train accounting and finance staff.


Controllers interact with personnel from different departments, not just accounting and finance staff, but people working in sales, business development, technology and the executive suite. Strong communication and presentation skills are needed to convey critical information to executives, including CFOs and CEOs, about an organization’s bottom line, financial performance and opportunities for improvement.

Analytical and Critical Thinking

Controllers devise financial strategies to maximize opportunities for their organizations. They are also the go-to decision-makers when problems arise. If, for example, data indicates their organization’s financial standing is subpar, it is up to the controller to lead the effort to analyze the problem and use their critical thinking skills to come up with a solution.

Controller Education Requirements

While there is no standard career path to becoming a controller, the path is long, taking over a decade for many accounting, financial and auditing professionals.

Typically, the journey starts with earning an undergraduate degree. By assuming increasing responsibility throughout their careers and earning an advanced degree, individuals can accelerate their promotion to controller.

For example, many job postings for controllers list a master’s degree, such as a Master of Accountancy (MAcc) or a Master of Business Administration (MBA), as a requirement. Coursework in these areas of study provides key knowledge and skills that graduates can further develop through work experience.

However, there are differences between these two degrees, primarily:

  • A MAcc degree program is focused on accounting principles to prepare students to take the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, which is a common designation among controllers.
  • An MBA degree program emphasizes a more broad understanding of many areas of business.

Students seeking to become a controller can distinguish themselves from other accounting and financial professionals by pursuing an advanced degree, whether in a MAcc or an MBA degree program.

Controller Certification

While the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation is not generally required for individuals looking to become controllers, CPA certification is the most useful credential because it demonstrates proof of essential skills and knowledge needed to perform the role. Here’s how to become a CPA:

  • Certain education and experience prerequisites must be satisfied before applying for a CPA license. A MAcc degree program can help individuals build their skills and knowledge to prepare for the CPA exam.
  • Once educational and experience requirements are met, an individual can register with the individual’s state board of accountancy to take the CPA exam.
  • Upon passing the exam, a CPA certificate is issued by one of the 55 State Boards of Accountancy throughout the United States that administer the Uniform CPA Examination, according to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy.
  • With their CPA certificate in hand, individuals can present their credentials and apply for jobs in the state in which they are certified.

Controller Salary and Job Growth

As of May 2020, the median annual salary for those in financial manager roles, which includes controllers, was $134,180, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Salaries for controllers can differ based on factors that include industry, level of experience and job location. Controllers in New York City, for example, earn about 30% more than the national average, according to PayScale. PayScale also reports that entry-level controllers working in professional, scientific and technical services industries have a median annual salary of around $154,800, while those working in government have a median salary of $117,940, according to BLS data.

Looking ahead, the BLS projects 17% job growth for financial managers from 2020 to 2030, a significantly faster growth rate than the average projected for all occupations.

Controller positions in the United States exist in the private sector, in government and at nonprofits, sometimes going by different job titles. Various job titles aspiring controllers may encounter include:

Corporate Controller

In corporate settings, controllers typically assume responsibilities such as overseeing accounting and compliance. However, according to research from Deloitte, corporate controller responsibilities can extend to more strategic activities like advising executives on setting business priorities, managing business risk and determining the future direction of the company.

Operational Controller

In global enterprises, operational controllers perform many typical controller tasks, such as reporting and budgeting. But rather than overseeing the financial operations of the entire enterprise, in global companies, operational controllers focus on ensuring the financial health of a particular operational unit.


Unlike corporate and operational controllers, comptrollers typically work for nonprofits and government agencies. At the highest levels of government, the U.S. comptroller general is appointed by the president to help ensure the fiscal accountability of the federal government. In cities like New York, comptroller is an elected position. In nonprofits and, in some cases, businesses, the comptroller role is typically a more senior level role than that of controller.

Get On the Path to Becoming a Controller

While it takes years to become a controller, advancement in the field begins with an education to prepare students for the CPA exam. Earning your CPA can accelerate your journey to controller, which typically involves gaining several years of work experience in financial management roles, such as accountant manager or assistant controller.

For individuals aspiring to pursue a career as a controller, the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Accountancy can accelerate the pursuit of professional and leadership goals. The program, which includes courses covering subjects from business law to accounting systems and business intelligence, is designed with a dual mission: to prepare students both to pass the CPA exam and to launch their careers as accounting leaders.

Learn more about the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Accountancy program.

Recommended Reading:

What Is an Online Master’s in Accounting for Non-Accounting Majors?

How Much Does a CPA Make with a Master’s Degree?

What Does a Financial Manager Do?


AICPA, CPA Licensure

American Productivity & Quality Center, “5 Macro Trends Shaping the Finance Function”

Chron, “Operational Controller vs. Financial Controller”

Deloitte, “A Higher Bottom Line”

Deloitte, “Evolving from a Controller to a Strategic Business Partner”

Experian, “7 Global Fraud Predictions for 2022”

Government Accountability Office, U.S. Comptroller General

Indeed, Controller Job Description: Necessary Skills and Salary

Investopedia, Comptroller

Investopedia, “How to Become a Controller”

National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, About Us

Office of the New York City Comptroller, Duties of the Comptroller

PayScale, Average Corporate Controller Salary

PayScale, Average Financial Controller Salary

Robert Half, Controller

Robert Half, “What You Need to Know About Controller Salaries and Jobs”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Financial Managers