In recent years, corporate finance has undergone many dramatic changes due to proliferation of a number of high tech tools. In particular, the different roles in finance departments have seen a change in their responsibilities (i.e. CFOs, Financial Controllers, Managers, Analysts, etc.) occur alongside this high tech phenomenon. The responsibilities and competencies of the Financial Controller position (FC) in particular have changed in recent years. Given this context, FP&A departments, in order to maximize their performance, must be aware of how the FC position is changing as they know it, and how they must adjust to these changes.
Financial controllers (also called comptrollers) play an important role in modern business. Traditionally situated as the leader and primary accountant of their organizations’ finance department, FCs have historically held the following responsibilities:
Monitoring the organization’s overall financial health
Managing the finance team
Collecting and compiling financial information
Establishing corporate bank accounts and credit cards
Liaising with certified public accountants (CPAs) outside the organization
Developing, implementing, and maintaining internal financial controls
Monitoring financial transactions and transaction processing
Maintaining the general ledger and providing oversight for company balance sheets
Preparing and filing tax returns
Preparing forecasts and budgets
Overseeing the preparation of monthly, quarterly, and year-end financial statements
Overseeing financial reporting
Changes in Controller’s Responsibilities
The modern FC must be ready to move beyond crunching numbers, accounting oversight, and providing clarification to senior management. They need to be ready to enhance their interpersonal communication skills, brush up on their leadership skills, and enrich their own knowledge of, and skills related to, emerging technologies essential to competing, innovating, and growing in today’s global economy.
Additionally, financial controllers are now moving toward executive-level responsibilities. In a role that already requires substantial education and both financial and technical acumen, the modern FC will come to be regarded as an essential part of the senior management team.
While the controller’s duties will continue to include accounting oversight, forecasting, and streamlining accounting operations, it will also include business administration, financial planning, and leveraging technical innovations to manage risk and generate value.
Some of the most important skills FCs must possess in modern FP&A are as follows:
Collaboration and Critical Thinking: Given their detailed view of financial activity in accounts receivable as well as accounts payable (and its partner, procurement), financial controllers already have immediate access to information useful to the CFO. However, today’s FC is more likely to leverage their position to analyze and generate their own strategic insights in collaboration with the CFO, rather than simply serving up information. In this way, the FC can provide high-detail, granulated financial analysis that can be used by the CFO for broader financial planning. A collaborative approach can also vastly improve risk management. With their detailed view of internal processes (and related internal controls), FCs are well positioned to identify and communicate risk to the C-Suite before a potential problem becomes an actual crisis. Financial controllers can also proactively develop risk mitigation strategies based on their own analyses.
Communication and Interpersonal Skills: In addition to interpreting financial data and generating and executing strategic planning, financial controllers will need strong communication skills. The so-called soft skills are critical to communicating their needs and securing resources (talent, tech, and tools) from senior management. They also help FCs manage their teams more effectively, and engage in cross-functional relationship building.
Blending Tradition with Strategy: The FC of tomorrow isn’t replacing their skill set so much as expanding it. They’re committed to the roles of steward and operator, but invested in being both a strategist and a catalyst, too. Depending on their organization’s goals, this will likely include:
A deeper understanding of critical business functions and value drivers: This may involve investment in further education and training (advanced degrees, financial, operational, and technological certifications, etc.) as well as taking on projects in other areas of the business to gain knowledge and insight. Using analytics and performance metrics to identify opportunities for not just cost savings, but value creation through cost avoidance and proactive accounts payable risk management.
Engagement with senior management to expand the responsibilities of the FC as reasonable to drive greater value.
Reorientation of the finance function toward value in tandem with savings.
Elimination of skill gaps in the accounting department, both through training for existing staff and by recruiting team members well-versed in strategic planning, collaboration and communication, digital transformation technologies, etc.
Best FC Practices in a Modern Context
Having considered the aforementioned changes in the FC position, here are 6 of the best practices for modern FCs:
Reduce risk by cutting spreadsheets from close: The most effective controllers know that spreadsheets are the wrong choice for managing consolidation and close related processes. These controllers are building workflows; automating reconciliations, allocations, intra-company eliminations; and importing data from multiple ERP systems. They’re minimizing errors due to manual entry, creating standard, repeatable processes, and reducing risk. With the time they save by automating, they have more cycles for the strategic analysis they’re now expected to provide.
Automate to close faster: Despite the general expectation that companies should be able to close their books within a week, many organizations don’t achieve that goal for their quarterly or annual close. Most companies have a long way to go before they achieve a “virtual close,” in which fully integrated financial applications and ERP systems enable real-time financial statements, on demand. The top controllers in today’s best run companies overcome these challenges by transforming processes altogether, and making use of technology and people to maximize their efficiency. They streamline and automate key close tasks like consolidation and reporting with cloud-based applications. Because these applications reside in the cloud, they’re easier to deploy, use, and manage. By automating processes and eliminating manual tasks, controllers can allocate their personnel to more value-added activities.
Lead with data and analysis to elevate their function beyond closing the books: Increasingly, controllers are being asked to provide not only financial data but budget and operational information as well. They do more than simply compile packages of reports—they interpret the data and contribute to decision-making. Best-in-class controllers automate their reporting processes with self-service tools so they can analyze data without needing a programming degree. They use visual analytics and scorecards to identify patterns in prior-period trends. Reports provide relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) and interactive dashboards that can be consumed across the entire organization.
Pursue a culture of self-service: Even more efficient reporting doesn’t eliminate the fact that controllers are becoming de facto information sources for both financial and nonfinancial managers. According to the IMA, more than 90% of controllers are being called upon to provide operational data, and many are being used to source business performance and customer data. The best understand that pulling reports for others takes them away from more value-added, strategic activities. So, to deal with the onslaught of requests, these people are enabling key stakeholders and business users with self-service reporting and dashboards.
Ensure seamless handoffs of consolidated financials to FP&A: Top controllers deploy business systems that integrate budgeting, planning, consolidation, reporting, and analytics into a single application that can be used by both accounting and FP&A. In the Adaptive Insights CFO Indicator Q3 2015 report, 38% of the global CFOs survey respondents said their organizations had achieved a single source of truth, while 45% said they were working toward a central repository for financial performance data. A single system makes it much easier to move from close to planning and analysis, because everyone is aligned around the same data.
Enable collaboration among a decentralized team: Finance departments are more decentralized now than ever before, but accountants still need to collaborate around the close process. Centralized, hard-to-access systems stand in the way of collaboration, as do poorly defined schedules and weak commitments to deadlines. The best controllers manage their distributed teams by carefully balancing leadership and project management. They create a consistent close schedule that reduces bottlenecks, minimizes surprises, and promotes a culture of unity. A consistent schedule also allows the team to deliver information more quickly.
The cultivation of these practices is the most critical aspect of understanding recent developments of controller responsibilities. FCs must gravitate towards integration of high tech resources, and executive level responsibilities the correct way.