Not Cleared for Takeoff

Controllers who want to become CFOs need to put down their pencils and master soft skills.

Doug Duskin understands the importance of thinking outside the container. When he took over as vice president and controller of $1.2 billion pallet and container services company CHEP in 2004, Duskin tacked on some risk-management and treasury tasks to his duties in order to lay the groundwork for a future CFO post. Unlike Duskin, however, most controllers don’t have the luxury of tailoring their roles, and many are being overlooked for advancement in the finance department.

Indeed, in the mad rush to find the perfect CFO — one who combines financial know-how with strategic thinking, presentation skills, and leadership — controllers are often bypassed. According to a recent study by Korn Ferry International, controllers accounted for a mere 4 percent of the 190 Fortune 500 CFOs (2006 list) hired externally. And while controllers may be perfectly qualified for a CFO position, says Chuck Eldridge, managing director of Korn Ferry’s financial-officers practice, “corporations still think of them as back-office systems, [Sarbox] gurus.” So much so, he adds, that simply having the title “controller” can take someone out of the CFO running.

Overcoming that stigma is no easy task. The introduction of Sarbanes-Oxley has certainly heightened the perception that controllers are heavily focused on accounting and compliance issues, with little time left to develop leadership and communication skills. Moreover, good controllers have become so invaluable that CFOs may be reluctant to push them up the ladder. Making the transition, says Duskin, takes some creative thinking. “You really have to break the mold.”

Gray Matters vs. Gray Areas

Ironically, the very skills that make controllers so desirable can prove to be liabilities when they try to move up to the CFO ranks. “Controllers are more execution focused,” Eldridge explains, adding that such skills obviously aid them in compliance work but are only one part of a CFO’s toolbox. More troubling, he adds, is that in the Korn Ferry study — which also measured how finance executives are viewed within the company — controllers ranked lowest in skills such as approachability, customer focus, motivating others, and conflict management. On the other hand, says Eldridge, CFOs were seen as “collaborative and patient” and ranked higher in listening and dealing with ambiguity.

If image weren’t enough of a problem, the title itself can be a constraint. For example, Jim Bria, controller of Trane, a heating and cooling systems subsidiary of American Standard, is known as the “local CFO” in Trane’s north and central Florida offices, even though his title doesn’t reflect it. He says many controllers have jobs that incorporate more than just accounting oversight and regulatory work. But without the title, controllers have a difficult time landing a CFO position. “In today’s high-tech environment, you really have to consider what you put on your résumé because some employers will do a search only for ‘CFO,’” says Bria.

There are success stories, of course. Colleen Zuhl recently made the jump to CFO at $564 million Coachmen Industries Inc. after two and a half years as controller. Although she claims the promotion was due mostly to good timing (the previous CFO, Richard Lavers, was promoted to CEO), Zuhl had proved herself worthy by handling large projects, including centralizing the finance and accounting departments, taking on Sarbox preparations, and dealing with general managers and division controllers on a regular basis. “They helped me gain a better understanding of the big picture,” she says.

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