How to Make the Transition from Controller to CFO

About the Author: Katie Thomas, CPA, is a content creator, 2021 40 under 40 CPA Practice Advisor recipient, and the owner of Leaders Online, where they help accounting professionals increase their impact, influence, and income through thought leadership and digital marketing. Feel free to visit Leaders Online or connect with her on LinkedIn to get in touch with Katie. 

Demands on controllers have been increasing for some time, and these professionals must begin to focus on more than just being good with numbers. Organizational leaders understand that the best management accountants, those that go outside of the box, have a better chance of becoming a CFO.


These controllers take advantage of opportunities within an organization, become more hands-on, and apply technical innovations and optimized processes to help a company run more efficiently.

Controllers should begin to make the transition to CFO today for numerous reasons. 

Why Transition from Controller to CFO?

Your ambitions to become CFO should start with a transitional process that occurs over months or years. For years, industry experts have been stating that CFOs need to take on a bigger role in business transformations.

As a controller, it’s crucial to know that businesses:

  • Want more from their accounting departments
  • Look to controllers to step up automation
  • Promote forward-thinkers to CFO positions

As a controller, it can be easy to get stuck in the rhythm of reporting (read: looking at the past) and being a number cruncher far too focused on spreadsheets. Times are changing, and businesses need controllers who become operational leaders and performance drivers with an eye on the future. Controllers need to shift from being considered back office to middle office value-add contributors to financial performance and sucess.

Controllers are also helping companies to step up automation, like using FloQast to operationalize their department and streamline processes. However, function specific automation is just one component that can help controllers transition to CFOs and businesses improve outcomes.

How Controllers Can Start Providing More Value

If you look at past and current controllers, it’s evident that there’s been a cosmic shift in the demands of this role. There was a time when controllers were involved more with reporting on what happened in the past, but now we’re seeing controllers as operational leaders that focus on improving performance and helping create a better future for the company.

One way to make the transition to CFO is to start providing the increased value that makes you become an integral part of the business’s success.

A few of the many ways that you can begin delivering more value include:

  • If you have not yet done so, operationalize your team and department by leveraging automation and workflow automation tools
  • Use what you learned from operationalizing your function to finding ways to improve processes and drive automation throughout the business (read: operations, sales, etc.)
  • Shift your paradigm from creating reports to providing insights into resource allocation and decision-making
  • Be the champion of data integrity in the enterprise by leveraging review and verification processes so integral to the accounting process
  • Work and track to enhance the organization’s productivity and efficiency
  • Assist with attracting and retaining top talent for the accounting department 

Maximizing your value to the organization requires you to be a forward-thinker who is willing to go the extra mile to help improve business operations. If you continue to focus just on the numbers and not finding ways to improve the business’s finance operations, you’ll likely hold yourself back from pivoting to a CFO.

Work on adding value first before attempting to make the transition to CFO. Remember to always start with your own role, team, and function being reaching out to the broader organization. Leading by example is a powerful tool to break cross-function barriers.

Once you’ve started adding the value that makes you stand out as a controller, it’s time to pivot to a CFO. The transition won’t happen overnight, but you’ll position yourself as the right candidate for CFO with the right approach.

Making the Pivot from Controller to CFO

The goal of any CFO is to improve a business’s performance. They represent more than reporting and budgeting. They play an integral role in the organization’s leadership, helping shape the company’s strategy and direction. 

To make the pivot from controller to CFO, it’s important to hone the right skills. 

Develop and Refine the Right Skills

You need to develop and refine the right skills to transition to CFO. These skills go beyond finances and include critical leadership skills that help CFOs excel in their new role.

Which skills do CFOs need?

  • Executive-level communication and presentation
  • Management and leadership
  • Conflict management and negotiations
  • Risk management and intelligence
  • The ability to understand, forecast, and measure performance
  • A forward-looking mindset (it is a skill, we promise)

Financial expertise is just one piece of the puzzle when transitioning from controller to CFO. As a CFO, you must also act as a leader and strategist. Many of the skills you’ll need to be a leader, strategist and data analyst aren’t traditional ones that you’ll learn on the job as a controller, nor are they skills you developed in your education. 

The Role of Technology in Your Transition

Adopting the right technology can help controllers transition to the role of CFO. As finance leaders and strategists, being able to collect and analyze data is crucial to the role of a CFO. Equally important is demonstrating your ability to elevate your team. With increased workloads often the only way to meet new challenges is to share the burden.The right tech stack can help you achieve these goals while improving efficiency and helping you make smarter decisions.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that 48% of CFOs plan to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives in the next 12 months.

The right tech solutions can do a few things to make the transition to CFO a little easier, such as:

  • Reducing the workload, and saving time in the process
  • Reducing the risk of costly errors
  • Allowing you to gain insight into sales performance and operation
  • Providing valuable data to help you develop new strategies and initiatives

For example, if the accounting team finds the close process to be time-consuming (as most accounting teams do), the FloQast Close Management solution can automate this process. Using cloud-based technology in your tech stack, such as what’s offered with FloQast Close Management, allows team members across offices to save, on average, three days a month thanks to the:

  • Ability to automate critical close tasks
  • Seamless integration with your ERP
  • Placing the entire close process in one location

Integrating the right tech stack into your operations frees up time, reduces errors and provides insights that help you make better decisions as a finance leader. You know have a team with more capacity to also be value-add contributors to the organization.

The Takeaway

Controllers that want to take the next step and move into the position of CFO must focus on ways to operationalize their team and improve business operations. Work to improve service delivery, focus on high-level strategic work and find ways to automate processes and workflow when you can.

If you focus on the critical skills above and on improving your own skillset, you’ll find that the transition to CFO is more natural.

Once you receive the promotion, it’s time to focus on strategic-level challenges and find functional areas to improve business operations. You’ll need to focus on being performance-driven and use the data you have available to help teams within the organization continue to improve and be productive.

Katie Thomas, CPA

Katie Thomas, CPA is a content creator, 2021 40 under 40 CPA Practice Advisor recipient, and the owner of Leaders Online, where they help accounting professionals increase their impact, influence, and income through thought leadership and digital marketing. To get in touch with Katie, feel free to visit Leaders Online or connect with her on LinkedIn.