8 Must-Have Traits for the Ultimate Small Business Controller – and Warning Signs to Watch Out For!

A buddy of mine who runs a $10mm company asked for my advice on hiring a controller. “I can’t find anybody good, and this person is going to cost me at least $150,000.” 

Welcome to the party, my friend, the unemployment rate for the accounting industry is less than 2%, so what he is seeing is what everyone is experiencing.

But fear not! Good accountants are still out there! I’ve compiled a list of the 8 traits you should seek in a controller, along with the red flags to avoid, to help you hire the right controller for your small business. We’ve got you covered with short-term and long-term action steps, too. So, buckle up, and let’s dive in!

P.S. If the $150,000 price tag is out of your budget or you don’t care to have an in-house employee, check out this article instead where we discuss the options for an outsourced solution. 

1. Experience: Quality over Quantity 

Ten years ago, it was all about the grind. We wanted people with 10+ years of experience, someone who’s done the grind, but that is no longer the case. Today, I would opt for someone with 2 to 5 years of experience (you still need the basic accounting chops) who has the drive to learn and excel in tech. I don’t need the person who has done 999,999 entries in Quickbooks. Instead, I need someone who knows the basic framework and is open to tech like ChatGPT to facilitate it.

Short-term action step: Review résumés and cover letters to identify candidates with relevant experiences and a demonstrated willingness to learn new tech.

Long-term action step: Evaluate a candidate’s growth trajectory over their career and their potential to grow with your business. Ask them what new tools they have applied in their job that wasn’t taught in school.

2. Critical Thinkers Wanted!

Controllers should possess not only attention to detail but also critical thinking skills. A prime candidate will strive to understand your business and overlay their accounting knowledge to illustrate that business on paper. They should possess the ability to help you see your business through the numbers.

Short-term action step: During interviews, ask candidates how the financial reports are representative of the different areas in your business. Ask a burning question that you have then ask them what’s required of the financial system to answer that question.

Long-term action step: Provide ongoing opportunities for your controller to learn about and contribute to your company’s operational success. Remember what we say at MEASURE x HACK™, “if you can quantify it, you can optimize it.”

3. The Timely Bookkeeper

Your ideal controller should be able to close the books on time (by the 10th of each month) and be well-versed in the processes, steps, and technologies involved. They shouldn’t be the ones doing it, but they should know how to get the rest of your accounting/bookkeeping team to the finish line.

Short-term action step: Ask candidates about their experience with various book-closing processes and software. Ask them what are the challenges of not being able to close a set of books and how they have overcome them in the past. 

Long-term action step: Establish clear expectations and deadlines for your controller to ensure timely book closings. There are always going to be issues and problems; making sure they know that good enough, fast enough, and actionable data should be the goal. If you are only reviewing your financials on the 20th, it’s too late. 

4. Financial Statement Whiz

A top-notch controller should be able to articulate the meaning of financial statements in relation to the business and know where to find answers to the leadership team’s questions. As the CEO and the rest of your leadership team, you shouldn’t be charged with that responsibility – it’s the controller’s job to know and communicate the answers. 

Short-term action step: In interviews, test candidates’ ability to explain financial statements and their understanding of key business metrics. Better yet, tell them your goals for the quarter, then ask them to help you identify the key metrics and vital numbers. 

Long-term action step: Encourage regular communication between your controller and leadership team to foster shared understanding and collaboration. The financial department has all the answers to what’s happening in the business, but it is up to the rest of the company – operations, production, marketing, and sales – to pull the levers for improvement. Let the communications flow. 

5. Cash vs. Profit: Know the Difference

Controllers should understand the difference between cash and profit and articulate it from a business perspective, including the levers available to affect them. If your controller cannot articulate the difference in a way you understand, don’t hire them. Most accountants don’t understand the difference between cash and profit, which can lead to big trouble down the road. 

Short-term action step: Ask candidates to explain the difference between cash and profit and how they would advise a CEO on managing them. Heck, ask them if a loan can solve my profit problem. The answer is not directly. Then ask them if profits can solve a cash problem. The answer is yes… eventually… depending on how much time you’ve got. 

Long-term action step: Schedule regular financial reviews with your controller to ensure they stay informed and proactive about cash and profit management. During tough times, a CEO should have their pulse on cash daily and profitability at least monthly. We sometimes run profitability meetings as frequently as every other week when we are focusing on a specific area of our business. 

6. SaaS Savvy

Your controller should be aware of the latest accounting SaaS and how it can integrate with other SaaS tools your company uses. While shiny new SaaS can sometimes be a distraction from “real work,” there are consistently new technologies being developed to make our accounting processes faster, cheaper, and better. The key is to not overthink it but to optimize your already strong processes. If you don’t have a robust accounting process, work on that first. 

Short-term action step: Inquire about candidates’ experience with various accounting SaaS platforms and their integration capabilities. See how they’ve stayed up to date with the latest tech and their opinions on it. Are they still on Quickbooks desktop? That’s a huge red flag. 

Long-term action step: Encourage your controller to keep up with the latest SaaS developments and explore new software that may benefit your business. Better yet, give them a budget of time and money to learn and explore technologies. Create “test kitchens” where they can experiment with new tech and see how it may benefit you. 

7. The Ever-Evolving Learner

A strong candidate should demonstrate a desire to learn and update not just their accounting knowledge but also skills in communication, business, entrepreneurship, economics, and other areas impacting your financials. I always say what makes a good controller or CFO isn’t another accounting class – it’s the application of what they’ve learned in school with the real world of business and entrepreneurship. 

Short-term action step: Ask candidates about their professional development plans and interests. Have they taken any online courses beyond the field of accounting or past their college degree? Have they explored and completed coursework or workshops that may enhance their capabilities as a small business controller?

Long-term action step: Support your controller’s ongoing learning through conferences, online courses, and/or workshops. While continuing professional education in the accounting world has sucked big time historically, we are seeing more and more innovative companies creating good content distilled from the real world of entrepreneurship. If your controllers are not learning, they are falling behind. #alwaysbelearning

BONUS: Cultural Fit

As a bonus, ensure the candidate’s core values and personality align with your company culture. You can educate for skill sets, but you can rarely change someone’s values and culture. To have a high-functioning team, ensure your controller and accounting team fit your culture. Create a list of candidates, then write down your company’s core values – rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 and only hire the 8s and above. 

Short-term action step: During interviews, ask about candidates’ values and what type of work environment they thrive in. Ask them what their non-negotiables are and have them give you examples. Get past the bs answers like “integrity” and “teamwork” – dig deep.

Long-term action step: your controllers and accounting team are part of your company! They are not some weird folks living on their own island. Make sure you are checking in on core values as part of your quarterly one-on-ones, be sure to tie your pay structure to encourage core value-aligned behaviors, and definitely fire people fast who’ve demonstrated the opposite.

Now that you’ve learned the top 8 traits of an ultimate small business controller and red flags to watch out for, it’s time to take action. As the CEO of your 8-figure business, your priority is to select a controller who meets these criteria, aligns with your company’s culture, and possesses the skills to manage cash flow effectively, close books on time, and communicate financial information to your leadership team. Focus on the tasks and responsibilities you need, rather than just a generic job title, and seek candidates who are adaptable, critical thinkers, tech-savvy, and committed to ongoing learning. By following the short-term and long-term action steps we’ve provided, you’ll be better equipped to identify and hire a top-notch controller who can truly make a difference in your business.

If you can’t immediately find the perfect in-house candidate or if your budget is less than the $150,000 required, remember that outsourcing is always a viable option to ensure your financial needs are met. Best of luck with your search!

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