What is the Difference Between a Controller and a CFO?

controller vs cfo

What are the key considerations when comparing the roles of controller vs CFO? This is a common question that is posed by prospective students who would like to work towards becoming a finance or accounting executive. You need to take aside time to learn about the roles of controllers and the roles of Chief Finance Officers before you commit to pursuing either title. Once you find out the key differences and also learn about some of the similarities, you can decide which type of leadership role is ideal based on your background, professional strengths, and personal preferences.

Controllers and CFOs work with the same types of companies and generally work their way up from being an accountant. While some companies will combine the titles and responsibilities, any organization with size has a need for both because their roles and their purposes are so different. Read on, and learn what a controller does and how those duties differ from the roles of the CFO.

What Does the Controller Do?

To become a controller, you need to have professional experience as an accountant. You also need to advance your education so that you are an expert in accounting and reporting. Professionals who hold the title controller are responsible for maintaining the books and looking back at the data to see evaluate past performance of the business.

While the term is not often used, a controller is more of a Chief Accountant who manages the accounts and who is in charge of the entire accounting department. They assign duties to the department, but are ultimately responsible for generating reports, ensuring accuracy in the reports, analyzing data, and giving these reports and models to the CFO for decision making. Some of the essential duties of a controller include: accounting, reporting, accuracy checks, consistency of reporting, budgeting, compliance and tactics.

What Does the CFO Do?

A CFO may also start his career as an accountant, but needs to develop a broader skill set to advance to the role of CFO. A CFO needs to be skilled in accounting, financial reporting, and business operations as a whole in order to work with all departments to discuss how operations and financial systems go hand-in-hand. The CFO gives financial oversight after reviewing reports generated by the controller and has the primary responsibility of making forward-looking decisions that will help the business manage risk and grow. Some of the essential duties of the CFO include: financial analysis, solutions, forecasting, financing, planning, implementing, strategies, and coaching other finance managers. While the actual duties depend on the size of the organization, the CFO creates value to the organization through the decisions made.


CFOs are strategic thinkers who picture what could be and controllers are data-driven, straight thinkers who report what is. You need to determine if you are a critical thinker or if you are best suited to maintain reporting procedures. If you are pushing to become a CFO who oversees the entire financial operations of the organizations, you will need to prove that you are the strategist the organization needs. With knowledge of the roles of the controller vs CFO, you can start to plan for the future.

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