Ben Paramore wrote a post he titled: Difference Between CFO & Controller. He does a great job explaining some critical differences between these two vital roles, and his chart at the bottom should be the basis of expectations whereby each are judged. Here are some additional thoughts to add to his:
There are really a limited number of CFOs worthy of that title. The reason is because it take a special breed who can master the technical elements of the accounting and finance trade, but also be visionary about how everything will work together and how the organization can best maximize its value in both the short and long term. Many long-time CPAs get a rude awakening when, after 20 plus years in public accounting, they take their first CFO role in private industry. Many have commented to me how it is a profession unto itself that has certain elements that can only be learned through experience.
Here is an experience I had that may help to clarify just one of the differences. The Controller of an organization was overwhelmed by a particulalry difficult month to close. The trial balance was all out of whack and several major balance sheet accounts were not reconciling very easily to the detail statements. After much work on her part, she successfully balanced and closed the month. She was so excited she rushed to the CEO's office and exclaimed: "The month is closed. I am finally done."
After thanking her for all of her diligent efforts, the CEO asked: "So, how does the month look? How did we do?" The Controller's response, "I don't know, but it finally balances."
This gap in communication was not intentional, but it highlights the difference in both perspective and priority of between the CEO and the Controller. I have found that CEOs, founders, business owners, and entrepreneurs can sometimes become very frustrated with this gap between the Controller and their perspective.
A CFO fills this gap in a very unique way. You see, a CFO knows how to speak in the language of accounting, and a CFO also knows how to speak the language of business ownership and CEO. We sometimes call this the language of entrepreneurship, too. This is the reason I made the statement earlier that there are really a limited number of folks who can successfully and productively fill this role. It is rare when someone can understand and even perform all of the technical aspects of a CFO, let alone the strategic vision and leadership to help the executive team guide the organization to success, too. The combination of these two skills makes anyone ideal for a CFO career.
We often hear that CFOs become CEOs. I know that this is probably not as frequent as some would hope, but hopefully you can start to see why a great CFO is often a great candidate for a CEO role, and sometimes the best for that role.