Careers in Money Management: Controller vs. CFO

Making prudent financial decisions is about more than just knowing the present financial situation. It’s about understanding the past and all the possibilities the future holds. These decisions require a big-picture approach, and the experts who make them must keep an eye on all types of revenue and expense streams to paint the most comprehensive financial picture possible. Such professionals need a specific mix of technical abilities and analytical skills to perform their work.

Two types of professionals who help businesses stay on top of their finances are financial controllers and chief financial officers (CFOs). Both controllers and CFOs play an integral role in businesses of all kinds, helping keep them afloat by developing smart financial strategies and implementing key policies that ensure businesses operate within government regulations and remain profitable in the long term. Continue reading to learn more about these two positions and discover what defines them, what sets them apart, and educational paths that can help get you into one of these lucrative careers.

A CFO leads a team meeting.

Controller Overview

Controllers oversee a company’s financial picture. They are in charge of the accounting and bookkeeping. Controllers ensure the work done by accountants is accurate and that their analysis is solid to allow upper management and executives to effectively plan for the future. They must be detail-oriented, accounting for every dollar and cent, even in companies that spend millions or billions each quarter. Controllers often oversee multiple financial departments and activities, such as budgeting, accounting, auditing, and investing.

Controller Salaries and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) places financial controllers in the category of financial managers, which also includes treasurers, finance officers, and insurance managers. The BLS reported there were 653,600 financial managers working in the United States as of May 2018. They earned a median annual salary of $128,000; factors that may affect a financial manager’s salary include the individual’s education, experience, and geographic location. The bottom 10% earned around $68,000, while the top 10% earned as much as $208,000 each year.

In May 2018, 30% of financial managers (193,000 employees) worked in finance and insurance, while professional, scientific, and technical services employed 90,700 financial managers, 14% of the workforce. Management of companies and enterprises employed 69,900 (11%), the government employed 44,800 (7%), and manufacturing employed 42,100 (6%). The BLS expects the job market for financial managers to increase by 16% between 2018 and 2028, adding around 104,700 jobs during that span.

CFO Overview

CFOs are the highest-level financial professionals in a large organization. They’re big-picture thinkers who use the data brought to them by accounting and financial departments to help them strategize for the long term. CFOs work with other C-suite executives and high-level managers to develop new business strategies, ensure funding of new projects, and understand the nuances of a company’s financial picture. They know the numbers and are able to explain why they are how they are, even if they don’t perform the analysis themselves.

CFO Salaries and Job Outlook

The BLS reports there were about 2.64 million top executives — CFOs, CEOs, chief operations officers, mayors, governors, school superintendents, and college and university presidents — working in the United States as of May 2018. Of that group, 263,200 were classified as “chief executives,” which includes CFOs and other C-suite executives. The median annual salary for chief executives was $189,600 as of May 2018. The bottom 10% in the profession earned around $68,360, and the top 10% more than $208,000 annually. CFOs’ salaries may be affected by their experience and education level, as well as their geographic location and the industry in which they work. Manufacturing and professional, scientific, and technical services paid their chief executives a median annual salary of more than $208,000. Healthcare and social assistance paid $174,000, and government paid $110,000.

In May 2018, the BLS reported that 21% of chief executives (55,600) were self-employed workers or entrepreneurs. Another 11% (28,500) worked in professional, scientific, and technical services; 10% (26,400) in government; 7% in manufacturing (18,600); and another 7% in healthcare and social assistance (17,100). The BLS expects the job market for top executives to grow 6% between 2018 and 2028 but predicts the market for chief executives to fall 5% due to business consolidation.

Similarities Between Controller and CFO

Controllers and CFOs are very involved in a business’s financial picture and planning. They both help keep businesses on the positive side of the ledger, or at least manage their debt if they’re operating in the red in the short term. These professionals need to understand the bigger picture in their business environments and how current finances will change in the future. Each benefits from an educational background in accounting, such as Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Accounting, which includes courses in managerial accounting, auditing, and financial reporting.

Differences Between Controllers and CFOs

Though controllers and CFOs have several things in common, they are very different positions. Their decision-making abilities, attention to detail, and typical previous work experiences set them apart.


Financial controllers are overseers, not decision-makers. Their skills are in management, making sure the accountants and bookkeepers who work under them are doing their jobs properly in a high-stakes environment. They then provide reports to executives who make the corresponding decisions.

CFOs make vital decisions. They use the reports the controllers and accountants generate to inform their plans, which might influence actions such as investing in a new project or determine their company’s future.

Focus on the Details

Controllers focus on details, as something as simple as a decimal point out of place could cause a major problem down the line. If decision-makers rely on incorrect information or projections, there could be major consequences, so controllers must make sure their reports are correct.

As big-picture thinkers, CFOs can’t be cavalier with details but also don’t need to concern themselves so much with all the ins and outs. They instead focus more on the company’s overall financial state, not each individual revenue stream or expenditure.

Controller vs. CFO: Which Is Right for You?

Accountants and other financial professionals who aspire to fill a managerial role and become a controller or CFO can benefit from a graduate degree that takes their skills and business sense to another level. Whether you’re interested in diving into the details of a business’s financial state or focusing on high-level decisions, the right education can help propel your career forward. Explore how Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Accounting could be perfect for you.

Recommended Readings
How Technology Is Shaping the Future of Accounting

The Future of Finance and Tax for Accountants and Business Managers

Top C-Suite Career Opportunities

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

Forbes, “A Seat at the Table: Why the CFO’s Role Is More Crucial Than Ever”

Inc., “Why Your Controller Isn’t a CFO”

Investopedia, “What Is a Controller?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Financial Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives

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