Why Controllers Arenít CFO Material

And what you can do to change that.

October 4, 2007
by Sukanya Mitra

Who do you think is the best candidate likely to get the job of a CEO? The real answer may surprise you. Most companies seem to lean toward the sitting CFO. And whether they are a Fortune 500 organization or a small private equity firm, when asked: “Why not the controller?” The answer has always been a firm, “No, thanks!”

It all comes down to behavior and habit, said Ken Brousseau, Ph.D., chief executive and co-founder of Decision Dynamics, LLC, at a recent CFO Magazine Webcast about the suitability of corporate controllers for the CFO office. Joining Brousseau was Chuck Eldridge, CPA, co-managing director of Financial Officer’s Practice at Korn/Ferry International.

Numbers speak loudly to finance executives, so let’s get down to some. According to Eldridge in 2006 more than 2,300 CFOs left their jobs. Based on data collected by Korn/Ferry International, Eldridge believes that this number will be surpassed in 2007. A recent study of Fortune 500 companies conducted by Korn/Ferry found 310 CFOs were hired and 190 were promoted. Of those who had been promoted to CFO, a third (33%) were former controllers. But, and there is always a but … of the hired CFOs, nearly three in five (58%) were corporate CFOs or divisional CFOs. Only four percent were controllers. “This suggests tremendous opportunities for those with the right skills, the right experiences and those [who] have cracked the leadership code,” quipped Eldridge.

Korn/Ferry Study of C-Suite Execs

Korn/Ferry conducted a new study of more than 500,000 executives of whom more than 1,500 were CFOs. Data were mined to develop successfully validated “Success Profiles” for CFO and C-Suite level positions and were then compared to the average CFO and average controller profiles. Profiles were mainly made up of financial executives. The object of the study was to find out “what controllers have to do behaviorally, at least, to be viewed as good candidates for that CFO position,” said Brousseau.

Behaviors Assessed: Decision-Making Styles

The study looked at four fundamentally different patterns of decision-making. While two of these patterns were action-oriented, the other two were analytical. “People put their thoughts into making things happen,” said Brousseau. “They put their efforts into getting things done and moving on,” he added. With the analytic method, people think things through first, before putting them into action.

Uni-focus vs. Multi-focus

When making decisions, there are some people who zero in on one type of decision that they feel is best or most workable for the situation at hand, and when they arrive at that decision, they’ll stay the course. “Multi-focus thinkers, on the other hand, tend to look at a lot of options and when they come up with a decision, the decision may have different parts to it and the parts can shift and change over time,” noted Brousseau.

Best-of-Class and Average CFOs vs. Controllers

“Leadership styles reflect how people behave when they are very aware of the kind of image that they’re presenting to others,” said Brousseau. To be a good CFO, you have to be always on your toes and be adaptable and ready for anything that is dropped on your plate at any given time.

Controllers differ from CFOs in terms of leadership. According to the study, the average CFO was found to be multi-focused and social, participative, always soliciting ideas from others and wanted everyone to participate in gathering ideas and brainstorming ideas. “They can be very analytical, zeroing in on one particular type of idea or another, but they want input from other people,” said Brousseau. Controllers, on the other hand, were found to be task-oriented. Their leadership style is focused on the task at hand. Their nature focused on the NOW, not next week or next year. They focus on who is going to do what. They like to keep things clear.

In general, controllers are more likely to present ideas to other people or demand or expect other people to provide logical information. This makes them uni-focused. Everything “has to logically make sense,” reiterated Brousseau.

Leadership Styles: Controllers vs. CFOs

Controllers score a lot higher than CFOs – particularly compared to best-in-class CFOs.

Controllers score a lot lower than CFOs on social style particularly compared to best-in-class CFOs.

Controllers and CFOs score moderately on intellect.

Controllers score much lower than CFOs where participation is concerned.





  • Focused on immediate issues
  • Clarifies expectations
  • Clear and concise communication
  • Informal & approachable
  • Solicits others’ input
  • Listens actively & responds positively
  • Provides ideas and detail
  • Values logic
  • Strong views and opinions
  • Shares decision-making
  • Encourages consensus
  • Builds network
  • BOTTOM LINE: Controllers show a more “command and control” leadership behavior profile: they are markedly less interactive and open to input from others.

    Source: Korn/Ferry International

    The Korn/Ferry study also compared the different styles in which controllers and CFOs operate. Styles are not in-grained because of the type of job they’re in, although that might add to it, but for the most part, both experts agreed that these operating styles are more a habit and like any other habit, they can be changed, some easier than others. People develop styles. They are not genetically-engineered or “hard-wired” even though they may appear to be so.

    If you want to be a successful CFO, you must have an engaging style. “You don’t bark at people and you don’t cut them off,” said Brousseau. “You solicit people because you rely on others to get the information you need to ultimately make the right decision,” he added.

    CFOs need to handle various different people and thus need to have the following emotional competencies:

    • Ambiguity Tolerance. CFOs need to be comfortable in dealing with uncertainty, diversity, variety and unanticipated change involving people.
    • Composure. They need to remain collected and unflustered in the face of uncertainties, difficulties and frustrations.
    • Empathy. They must make the effort to understand people objectively and accurately. This would include understanding others’ strong and weak points along with their motives and preferences.
    • Energy. They must have the capacity to invest mental energy in dealing with complexity without losing motivation.
    • Humility. CFOs must willingly modify their own behavior methods to accommodate the styles and preferences of others.
    • Confidence. CFOs should be willing to take on assignments that are highly challenging and involve high amounts of risk, especially those that may be riddled with conflict.

    Six Tips to Get You to the Top Rung

    For those of you who want to step up to the plate and join the C-Suite class and become a CFO, you will need to be more patient and develop a collaborative leadership style. For controllers who dream of becoming the next CFO whether in their own firms or that of others, Brousseau and Eldridge had the following tips:

    • Take a hard look at yourself and identify your strengths and weaknesses and then work toward modifying your style.
    • Ask a trusted colleague to provide feedback and use that to make changes.
    • Identify a mentor or strong role model who exemplifies the qualities needing development.
    • Seek out an executive search coach to address and work on your weaknesses.
    • Seek out learning opportunities such as seminars that focus on skill sets.
    • Investigate job rotation or move into different departments that would provide opportunities to acquire or hone your desired behavioral skills.


    It’s like flying a kite. You need to know when to loosen the lead and when to tighten your grip. Step away from the action and stop relying too much on your own technical expertise to get the work done. Learn to lean on your staff to help you draw on their strengths. Start thinking outside the box and before you know it your kite will not only take flight, it will be the one everyone will be pointing at as the best and highest.

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    Sukanya Mitra is Managing Editor of the AICPA's Insider™ electronic newsletter group.