Chief Accounting Officer vs. Controller: Which Career Is Right for You?

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Few aspects of an organization are as important as its strategic financial planning and day-to-day financial management. The former is the province of the chief accounting officer (CAO), while the ongoing accounting and compliance responsibilities are managed by the company’s controller. These two positions complement each other, and there are usually some commonalities in the roles’ skills, education requirements, and certification. However, finance managers looking to advance in their careers will find differences in the duties and areas of focus — not to mention different career paths, compensation, and scope of responsibilities.

While these two corporate roles are distinct, they are equally important. For finance professionals with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree who are considering chief accounting officer vs. controller jobs, the unique aspects of the two roles can help determine which position is best suited to their talents, abilities, and interests.

Chief Accounting Officer Duties

Chief accounting officers (CAOs) strive to keep companies financially healthy by ensuring their financial systems comply with all government regulations. This officer-level position plays a key role in devising the company’s long-range strategic financial planning. CAOs oversees the organization’s ledger and financial accounts, cost controls, and other financial reporting and auditing functions.

They work closely with the chief financial officer (CFO) to report on financial operations and analyze the impact that important business decisions will have on the company’s finances. For example, a shift to cloud computing may come with a financial impact. This may be due to increased facility costs should the company be stuck with long-term leases for buildings that house now-obsolete computer systems.

While strategic financial planning is their primary responsibility, other important chief accounting officer duties include:

  • Preparing quarterly financial reports and other SEC documents
  • Ensuring that general ledger accounting complies with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) best practices
  • Managing capital assets, including tax planning and compliance

Controller Job Description

Controllers also work to keep companies financially healthy, but they do so differently than their CAO counterparts. A controller’s job description includes closely monitoring the day-to-day financial operations of the company, recordkeeping, and hiring and training employees in finance departments.

They ensure that companies meet all tax, permit, and license requirements. Controllers are also responsible for assisting external auditors in confirming compliance with applicable financial standards and practices. For publicly traded firms, controllers may handle all public financial filings.

Controllers have their fingers on the pulse of the company’s financial health. Other typical duties of a controller include the following.

  • Applying a thorough knowledge of all company accounting procedures
  • Managing payrolls and weekly job reports
  • Assuming cash management and maintenance of bank account balances

How CAO and Controller Positions Differ from the Chief Financial Officer

When choosing between the positions of chief accounting officer vs. controller, it’s important to look at another possible career path: That of a chief financial officer (CFO). The CAO’s role is much narrower than a CFO’s. Chief financial officers are charged with managing the financial aspects of all company operations, including forecasting and strategy, budgets, credit management, tax planning, insurance, and beyond. In a nutshell, the CAO holds primary responsibility for ensuring the timeliness and accuracy of accounting functions while assisting the CFO’s financial planning and strategy.

Similarly, the skills and knowledge required of CFO’s are much broader than the requirements for the controller role. In particular, CFOs need a thorough understanding of business processes and how the company’s financial systems fit into its diverse operations. CFOs must understand business risk, funding, and capital structures to a much greater extent than controllers, whose focus is restricted for the most part to accounting, recordkeeping, and financial reporting.

Chief Accounting Officer Skills

To qualify for a CAO position, a candidate generally should have at least five years of experience serving in a senior financial management role, as well as practical experience with financial management and accounting in a business or organizational setting. CAOs should also be well versed in tax law and in business management software such as SAP and Salesforce. Most importantly, a CAO needs a solid business sense about the company’s goals and strategies, as well as an overall awareness of markets and innovations that will impact those areas.

In addition to these essential hard skills, successful CAOs must have strong leadership skills to help guide others toward established organizational goals. CAOs should also possess strong “people” skills, such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and an ability to adapt. These chief accounting officer skills are essential for successful interactions and planning sessions with an organization’s CFO and other C-suite executives.

Controller Skills

Controller skills generally revolve around the day-to-day financial management of the organization, including bookkeeping, regulatory compliance, licensing, cash accounting, and budget management (though budgeting itself may be the responsibility of individual business departments with the assistance of the controller). First-rate accounting and financial skills top the list of the requirements for the controller position. However, interpersonal skills are also important for the many controllers who are charged with recruiting, hiring, training, and managing personnel in accounting and finance departments.

Like CAOs, controllers must have a well-developed array of leadership and soft skills to thrive in the position. Controllers primarily apply these skills through interactions with an organization’s line staff.

Education Requirements

The education requirements for chief accounting officers and controllers are similar. CAOs and controllers typically hold at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, economics, or business management, as well as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certificate, which is a requirement for anyone filing corporate financial documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Many companies prefer CAO and controller candidates to have an MBA or other advanced degrees in accounting, finance, economics, or business administration with an emphasis on accounting.

In addition to a CPA license issued by a state Board of Accountancy, other certifications available to prospective CAOs and controllers include Certified Management Accountant (CMA) from the Institute of Management Accountants, Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) from the Institute of Internal Auditors, and Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) from ISACA (formerly the Information Systems Audit and Control Association).

Chief Accounting Officer Salary

CAOs fall under the category of top-level business executives, as listed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS reports the median annual salary for chief executives, including CAOs, at $185,950 as of 2020. Alternatively, the compensation source PayScale reports the median annual chief accounting officer salary is $177,384 as of 2021. This reported salary ranges from around $92,000 for the lowest-paid 10% to approximately $255,000 for the highest-paid 10%.

Job opportunities for top executives, such as CAOs, are forecast to grow by 8% between 2020 and 2030, according to the BLS. This approximately matches the average growth for the job market as a whole.

Controller Salary

The BLS reports the median annual salary for finance managers, which includes controllers, is $134,180 as of 2020. PayScale reports the median annual corporate controller salary is $101,431 as of 2021. This reported salary ranges between about $68,000 for the lowest-paid 10% and about $151,000 for the highest-paid 10%. PayScale also reports the median annual salary for financial controllers is $85,714 as of 2021.

Job prospects for controllers look robust for the next several years. The BLS projects the employment of finance managers, which includes controllers, to grow by 17% between 2020 and 2030. This is much faster than the 8% predicted job growth the BLS gives for all professions.

Two Unique Roles with Common Financial Interests

Whether you aspire to contribute to an organization’s strategic financial planning as a chief accounting officer, or prefer the hands-on, day-to-day financial management responsibilities of a controller, the best way to prepare for either role is to earn an advanced degree, such as Ohio University’s Online Master of Business Administration. This program can improve your potential value as a leader in financial management. It also helps you take full advantage of future business opportunities.

When it comes to choosing between a career as a chief accounting officer vs. a controller, it’s clear that both positions are important to a company’s success. The short-term financial health of an organization is in the hands of the controller, while the chief accounting officer plays a pivotal role in the longer view of a company’s financial operations. The two positions complement each other and serve as the key link between an organization’s executive suite and its accounting and financial functions.

Recommended Readings

A Tale of Two Advanced Degrees: Master’s in Finance vs. MBA

MBA Careers at a Glance: What Is Corporate Finance?

MSM vs. MBA: Which Degree Is Right For You?

Sources:

Accounting Now, Chief Accounting Officer

Accounting Solutions Partners, “The Differences Between a CFO, Controller, and Accountant”

Business Insider, “The Difference Between a CFO and a Controller”

Institute of Internal Auditors, Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) Certification

Institute of Management Accountants, CMA Certification

Investopedia, Controller

Investopedia, Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)

Investopedia, How to Become a Controller

ISACA, Certified Information Systems Auditor

KPMG, CAO Rising

PayScale, Average Chief Accounting Officer (CAO) Salary

PayScale, Average Corporate Controller Salary

PayScale, Average Financial Controller Salary

The Strategic CFO, Controller vs. CFO

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accountants and Auditors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Financial Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives