Finding the Right Person for the Hard-to-Staff Controller Role

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Since the implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the compliance-focused business environment it ushered in, staffing the controller role has become increasingly critical to companies – and, often, more difficult. Why?

In a nutshell, it's become an increasingly demanding role. Everything relating to financial matters, compliance and business strategy seems to pass through the controller's office. As a result, these professionals need a strategic mind-set and a broad range of technical and soft skills.

Controller roles often require at least seven years of experience, and a public accounting background is preferred. Another common requirement is a professional credential, such as the certified public accounting (CPA) or certified management accounting (CMA) designation. Candidates with these sought-after qualifications are also in strong demand for other accounting and finance positions, which adds to the difficulty of staffing controller roles.

Staffing is also challenging because the role is considered to be an ideal proving ground for those wanting to further advance their careers. The best controllers usually aspire to move on, often to the chief financial officer post. As a result, the controller position can experience a great deal of turnover.

Although staffing the controller role isn't always easy, the following suggestions can help you develop a pool of potential talent:

Make succession planning a priority. Identify and plan for staffing continuity in key roles, such as controller, not just top executive positions. Consider whether you have a pipeline of capable in-house successors. If not, identify talent gaps and focus your recruiting efforts on filling those needs.

Develop internal talent. Your staffing efforts should include identifying high-potential employees and helping them close knowledge and skill gaps. They may need additional career development in the form of mentoring, more hands-on experience, job rotation experiences or continuing professional education programs. Refining interpersonal skills should also be an area of focus for future controllers, who need the ability to listen well, negotiate solutions, exercise diplomacy and maintain a professional demeanor in stressful situations.

Keep recruiting. Always be looking for top talent, rather than scrambling to staff an unexpected opening. Maintain an active presence among professional associations and other organizations that are potential sources of skilled candidates. Build a database of names and resumes of strong prospects you come across or those who express an interest in your firm.

Work with a staffing partner. A firm that specializes in recruiting accounting and finance professionals can find experienced candidates more quickly than you can on your own because they already have deep talent pools and extensive networks. Moreover, they often have access to passive candidates – individuals who are not actively looking for a position but who might be receptive to an attractive opportunity. By maintaining a relationship with a specialized staffing firm, you'll have a resource that's already familiar with your business and able to respond quickly when the need for staffing new talent arises.

Especially when it comes to identifying candidates for hard-to-staff roles, such as that of controller, it's essential that you maintain a recruiting mind-set, both internally and externally. You never know when you're going to need your next controller or where that person might come from. The best hedge against this uncertainty is to be prepared to act.