Not Cleared for Takeoff

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

Zuhl’s ascension illustrates one bright spot for controllers: companies do promote from within. In fact, the Korn Ferry study found that controllers made up 33 percent of those promoted to the CFO spot (outdoing treasurers, general managers, and divisional CFOs) at the 310 companies that promoted from within. A more recent study by Russell Reynolds Associates concurred, finding that last year some 35 percent of controllers were promoted internally. “Your company knows you and what you are capable of,” reasons Zuhl. “If you come in from another company they have to figure all of that out.”

Controlling Expectations

Still, controllers must figure out how to broaden their skills if they want to move up — whether at their own companies or elsewhere. Zuhl recommends trying different finance titles or pursuing roles in other parts of a company to “get in front of the issues.” By sampling other positions, says Scott Simmons, vice president at executive recruiting firm Crist Associates, controllers are likely to attract more résumé views since that demonstrates that they’re more than just number crunchers.

Targeting jobs tailored to your skills is another tactic. Controllers need to pay attention to where they apply, says Bria, and make sure that they fit the bill before sending a résumé. “If the company requires a CPA, an MBA, and a risk-management role, you need to make sure that you fit all three,” he says.

Finally, there is always the delicate task of managing expectations. Rob Corbin, controller of CP Films Inc., in Martinsville, Virginia, says that trying for a CFO job at a smaller firm is a lot easier than jumping to a Fortune 500 spot. That may require a willingness to move to a much smaller company. Says Corbin: “All of those top CFOs had to start somewhere.”

Laura DeMars is a reporter at CFO.

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