Career Center

The Road From Controller to CFO Is Becoming Less Traveled

By | December 1, 2017

When my daughters, ages 10 and 8, are asked what they want to be when they grow up, my oldest says a professional basketball player, and my youngest wants to be a chef. Both good choices. No kid in their right mind would say accountant, journalist, or chief financial officer.

As children, Bill Brundage had visions of being a professional athlete or musician, and John Wall wanted to be a time traveler (an idea he hasn’t completely abandoned, by the way). Who would’ve known they’d end up being CFOs of successful companies? But here they both are, leading the finance functions at Ferguson Enterprises and Cadence Design Systems, respectively.

Here’s another similarity the two men share: They both had stints as corporate controller of their organizations before being given the CFO seat—a position they said helped prepare them for their current roles.

“I volunteered for everything strategic—all the grunt work on M&A, assessing capital allocation strategies, helping any of the executive management team with their challenges, helping the investor relations team, and going on the road to all sorts of out-of-the-way places to meet investors,” said Wall, who was appointed senior vice president and CFO of San Jose, Calif.-based Cadence in September 2017.

“Picking up these tasks regularly afforded me the opportunity to spend time with the CEO and CFO to understand the top things that kept them awake at night—and try to help them find a solution.”

Being a controller clearly offers a path to senior management; so why then are companies slamming the brakes on controllers moving up the ranks to CFO?

Taking an alternate route

According to a 2007 analysis by executive search and recruiting firm Korn Ferry, 33% of Fortune 500 CFOs who were promoted in 2006 came from the post of controller. But controllers were slighted at companies that sought a new CFO from outside:

Only 4 percent of external hires were controllers, while 58 percent were already corporate or divisional CFOs elsewhere.

More recent data from Korn Ferry isn’t too promising either. As of the second quarter of 2017, only 17% of CFOs from the 500 largest U.S. companies came from the controller or chief accounting officer role, up from 14% in 2016.

So, what gives? “The CFO role has become increasingly complex,” said Bryan Proctor, global leader of Korn Ferry’s Financial Officer Center of Expertise. “The ability to manage the reporting and control of the organization has long become table stakes. CFOs are now adding value in more ways—commercially, strategically, and operationally. Because of this evolution, the profile and source for CFO succession purposes have expanded. This has given more competition to controllers in how they drive value compared to their functional peers.”

As controllers, Wall and Brundage wanted to be a part of strategy discussions and understand the ins and outs of business operations, which made them worthy candidates to fill vacant CFO seats within their organizations.

“The holistic understanding of the accounting and financial reporting processes was a very valuable skill set I gained as corporate controller,” said Brundage, a former PwC’er who joined Newport News, Va.-based Ferguson in 2003 and was appointed CFO in March 2017.

“But I believe it’s important to have a wide variety of skills and experiences to apply to the [CFO] role. You need to be well-versed in financial analysis, with the ability to simplify complex data into actionable information to drive the business and results. Even more so, it’s critical to have strong business acumen and to spend time in operations to ensure you really understand what makes the business tick.”

And good news, controllers: Since becoming CFO, Brundage said he’s surprised by how little time he now spends on true accounting and financial reporting activities.

“Fortunately, I have a fantastic team in place,” he said. “Most of my time is spent working with our CEO, COO, and business unit leaders, helping to set and execute strategy and focusing on M&A opportunities.”

What does it take?

It took Wall 20 years of working in the accounting and finance trenches at Cadence before he became the company’s CFO. His message to controllers: Don’t give up.

“The road to a CFO role can often require a large degree of passion, perseverance, and luck,” he said. “Treat every day like it’s an extra day of rehearsal.”

Here are a handful of other tips from Wall and Brundage that controllers should consider while cruising along the highway to CFO:

1. Ask for advice. “People are generally kindhearted, so they will be happy to give you advice,” Wall said. “You just need to ask for it.”

And after you ask for advice, be prepared to listen, he added. “I know friends who followed my guidance to ask others for advice but subsequently got upset by receiving criticism,” Wall said. “Criticism is a gift, and a way to learn and progress in your career development.”

2. Gain exposure to areas outside of the controllership function. “Learn your industry and business inside and out,” Brundage said. “Take on challenging assignments that will push you outside of your comfort zone.”

3. Be a dependable leader. “Aim to solve problems, and always follow through and do what you said you would do,” Wall said. CFOs also must have the ability “to influence and connect with associates at all levels and across functions,” Brundage added.

4. Don’t stay stagnant. “I didn’t specifically set my sights on CFO, but throughout my career, I’ve always looked for opportunities to grow and challenge myself,” Brundage said.

5. Treat each mistake as a learning opportunity. “I encourage my team to take controlled risks and then quickly learn from mistakes,” Wall said. “In any field, the person with the most experience is often the person who has made the most mistakes. If you don’t make any mistakes, maybe you are not trying hard enough. I’ve certainly made my fair share, but I learned from every one.”

6. Communicate clearly. “I’m a firm believer in the principle that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” Wall said. “Good communication will help you develop future leaders throughout the organization and will help you delegate more effectively. No one can do it all on their own.”

  • keepin_it_real

    John Wall is a CFO and plays PG for the Wizards. Impressive…

    • T Gunn

      Haha! That’s hilarious…I had the same thought, especially since “professional basketball player” is mentioned in the first sentence.

  • Big4Veteran

    Controller here. I don’t really want to be a CFO. I mean, they make good money and get their asses kissed by most people. But they are still not at the top of the food chain, and therefore still need to kiss ass. Also, the responsibilities, pressure and RISK don’t seem quite worth it to me.

    It seems possible to have a pretty decent work/life balance at the controller level at most companies, but moving up to CFO crosses that line.

    I do have respect for all the CFOs out there though. I appreciate them willing to possibly go to prison when people like me fuck up.

    • boatz_n_hoez

      What’s a ballpark salary for a controller?

      • Big4Veteran

        Depends on location, size of company, complexity, responsibilities, and many other factors. But regardless, its more than what most people make.

    • Adam Hill

      I bet I leave for work later and get home earlier than you. Risk is subjective. I hire people that don’t fuck up.

  • JavierPR

    Ok. So where ARE CFO’s coming from?

    • Pam Halpert

      I have the same question. I wish it was addressed – it felt like a really long article to miss that point.