What’s Missing in Controller Education?

Often, it's the teacher, as online learning takes over. We report on one of the last bastions of classroom training in this area, and examine its advantages.

Trainers, including classroom specialist Rector, agree that certain types of information can indeed be delivered well — and to many more people — through those online programs.

“Some of ours are ‘lunch and learn’ programs, if you will,” says Jack Fingerhut, whose Smart Pros organization produces programs for FEI. “Over the last seven or eight years, the whole online, e-learning delivery phenomenon, combined with other drivers like Sarbanes-Oxley and global competitiveness, have caused companies to become aware of the need to educate the finance department.” That that has caused the rush to “alternative delivery methods” like those programs offered by FEI and Smart Pros.

But Fingerhut and Cunningham both lament the decline of classroom education for certain types of specialized finance training for controllers and others. “I think live classes can be incredibly valuable from a couple of perspectives,” says Cunningham. “You have a network of people you can reach out to, after the fact. And, of course, you can deal more with current issues.” Conferences — still popular, even if they’re less targeted than classroom programs — offer some of those benefits, she notes.

Outward and Upward

While the AMA will continue to offer classes for controllers, it too is reacting to the decline in interest in narrower in-person programs by aiming more of its live training to functions rather than job descriptions. “Driving Organic Growth” is one new program, says AMA’s John Canniffe, and another is “Financial Modeling.” Says Canniffe, “We’ve seen a big jump in registrations. People see that it’s not just a spreadsheet model. It has a strategic side.” He expects about 350 people to attend live AMA programs in that area this year.

But Rector still likes delivering programs specifically for controllers, whom he considers a special breed that thrives on education. “As a controller you’re concerned with the internal activities of the company, and whatever has to be filed externally. You generate the reporting, and you work with IT,” he says. A strong CFO “will get a good inside person — a good controller — to make sure everything’s in place.”

Will that controller then be in the best place to move up to CFO one day?

Not so fast, Rector cautions. To the ancient question of whether treasury or controllership is the best route to finance chief, he answers: “I’m afraid I don’t think either one of them is best.” Being a CFO requires “a sensitivity to what’s going on in your market, and as a controller, typically you don’t have that.”

Of course, some controllers are good CFO candidates, but they often display personal qualities that are not hallmarks of the typical controller. “You can instantly tell by their conversation whether somebody is honestly a CFO,” he says. Most controllers, because of the nature of the job, “look inward and downward.” By contrast, “CFOs, when they talk, are looking outward and upward.”

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