Your CFO is one of the busiest people at your company, managing cost pressures, financial planning, and other critical responsibilities within the limited hours available in a day — all amid the economic uncertainty caused by inflation, rising interest rates, and a tight labor market. In Deloitte’s most recent CFO Signals Survey, more than half of CFO respondents cited inadequate systems, capabilities, and processes for analyzing financial data as a leading risk inhibiting their ability to make decisions in this environment.
As arbiters of finance reporting and analytics data, corporate controllers are a critical resource for CFOs to make informed decisions. Here are five proactive steps every corporate controller should take to position themselves as the CFO’s most valuable ally during these turbulent times.
1. Make the Close Faster
Every second counts and the month-end close is one of the most time-consuming processes for CFOs and their finance teams. Accelerating this process and making data more accessible for the CFO will prevent significant headaches that distract from other priorities.
Build your proactivity muscle by booking known entries like debt or lease schedules or specific estimates well before the close if they aren’t managed by a module in your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. On the latter point, if you can perform an estimate that will be immaterially different in advance of close, such as warrant revaluation, you can save substantial time. Completing this legwork can remove analytical steps in the heat of the close process, saving individuals hours (even days) and building the trust that the CFO has in your leadership.
2. Become an Automation Thought Partner
Even if specific capabilities aren’t made better by technology today, it’s a losing position to assume there won’t eventually be paradigm shifts. It’s better to engage with new technology and test use cases and stay up-to-date on new offerings. Your CFO does not have enough time to invest in learning about new automation capabilities or how AI could improve the forecasting process.
As a controller, take ownership over innovation and become a trusted source for the CFO; bring new use cases to their attention during regular one-on-ones and put them into practice.
Think about your biggest pain points and what you can address today, and step back to look nine months ahead and anticipate the business and financial operations needs.
For example, by automating and prescheduling any reports you run regularly can avoid micro delays. Better yet, set up your ERP to import an entry, template, or amortization schedule, boosting reconciliation speed.
Think about your biggest pain points and what you can address today, and step back to look nine months ahead and anticipate the business and financial operations needs. Having a perspective on automation and some tangible examples of how you have implemented it into the finance function will help your CFO and give you a leg up if you aspire to become a finance chief.
3. Strengthen Cross-Functional Relationships
Critical to your success as a corporate controller — and as a partner to the CFO — is the ability to efficiently collect information from other departments and control any updates that could impact the finance function and close process. There are a few steps you can take to avoid delays.
First, ensure you have given your stakeholders the templates to populate and have agreed on deliverables they must provide well before the close. Clear expectations can save a few hours and prevent significant delays.
For major deliverables, set an automated reminder to check in with the contact on progress and confirm they’re on track, or build it into your close checklist. Having one-on-ones with other department heads keeps you privy to changes in the business. It strengthens the relationship for the times when you inevitably need to lean on them for better or faster data.
During the close, limit your distractions and triage the requests of your team accordingly; make sure your cross-team partners are aware of the close to set expectations. Close delays create unnecessary headaches for the CFO, and producing the numbers is usually your priority.
4. Look for Smoke
The best crisis is an avoided one. One of your primary responsibilities is to monitor for any “smoke signals” that may indicate potential irregularities that impact finance processes — and to have a scalable system for doing so. Do you have a process to ensure your sales or partnerships teams have a framework to work within? How do you know when new agreements are executed and their impact? Are there significant transactions for which you must collect data or documents before the close to get the accounting treatment right?
The same awareness should be applied to business performance. The specific metrics the CFO values will vary depending on the nature of the industry, business, and circumstances. For example, the CFO of a cash-tight business will want complete, easy visibility into large outflows and have controls in place to prevent unexpected spending.
Reviewing unusual transaction flows, such as when sales orders differ from invoices or sales exceed credit limits, should be done weeks before the close to minimize reconciliation issues.
Or they may want information on outstanding customer balances and the progress of collections at their fingertips. Regardless, it’s essential to establish a reporting system that gives them readily available access to information critical to decision-making and to actively monitor for changes. For example, a significant policy change or a major transaction may involve a technical review of accounting practices and modifications to existing schedules.
Controllers should also look for non-close-related crises to prevent potential headaches for the CFO. Reviewing unusual transaction flows, such as when sales orders differ from invoices or sales exceed credit limits, should be done weeks before the close to minimize reconciliation issues. Additionally, consider automating alerts based on specific criteria to ensure you can proactively address any concerns before they escalate. Controls limiting these micro fires are always best-practice.
5. Master the Clock
You must develop a keen sense of the intricate inputs and deadlines required for the team to close the books on time. Familiarity with the moving pieces is a prerequisite for the team’s success. A clean checklist paired with accountability and daily updates is the simplest way to stay on top of progress.
The checklist should be granular enough to show which steps are behind or at risk, so team members with dependencies can plan accordingly. As the complexity across entities grows, close software can help provide this visibility and replace Google Sheets.
Finally, keep everyone aligned by running a pre-close meeting with crucial finance stakeholders. Everyone should walk away from the meeting with a clear understanding of timelines, deadlines, changes that could impact your close or reporting, and any notable changes to account for in the month.
Taking these steps is a practical forcing function to get finance's house in order and avoid unnecessary delays down the road, not to mention keeping all relevant persons informed of and brought into the process.
These five tips are not exhaustive, but they are impactful, friction-reducing wins that will position a controller as an indispensable asset to the CFO and elevate them as a successful leader in the organization.
Bryce Armbruster is a controller at the automated finance platform Rho.