12 Essential financial controller Interview Questions *

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Technical: Teach me something about a feature in Excel that I might not know much about.

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The answer can be anything, so long as it’s not a very standard function (i.e., =SUM) of the software. Look more for how they can explain technicalities without visual aid and their elaboration on how learning such features helps them save time and/or work more efficiently.

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Technical: How do you measure the accuracy of your work?

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The candidate should be able to explain cogently a process for ensuring that errors are minimized. This will come down to a combination of technical skills for navigating spreadsheets and an understanding of the interconnectivity between accounting statements. Exceptional candidates do not eschew responsibility, nor pass blame onto others.

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Technical: Explain two differences between IFRS and US GAAP accounting principles.

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Among other potential examples:
1. GAAP is rules-based, and IFRS is principles-based.
2. IFRS prohibits the use of last-in, first-out (LIFO) inventory accounting methods, GAAP rules do not.
3. GAAP requires financial statements to include a statement of comprehensive income. This element is optional under IFRS.

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Technical: What are the three core attributes that you would look for in hiring junior members for this team?

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Assess for a broad mix that has a correct blend of both behavioral and technical qualities. One specific red flag would be for answers that would indicate a preference for hiring staff that - from either a technical or behavioral perspective - would be seen as “unthreatening” to the candidate’s position.

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Technical: What is your process for auditing reports that you have delegated to other team members? How do you ensure their accuracy?

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An enlightening answer is one that stresses the need to delegate and empower other team members but where there are suitable checks and balances that are in place. From a technical perspective, the use of control sheets in spreadsheets to organize assumptions together and precedent/dependent formula auditing are direct examples of actionable processes.

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Technical: How do you see your profession evolving in the future? How are you preparing yourself to stay on top of these changes?

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This is entirely subjective and can provide clues to the candidate’s vision and ambition. It is also a less obvious way of assessing how they stay up to speed with developments of their profession (and accreditations).

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Behavioral: Describe a time when you dealt with a difficult/evasive member of staff and how you worked around the obstacles.

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Controllers can meet resistance from commercial team members that are looking to meet targets and book deals that may just solely suit their agenda. An effective controller is both inquisitive, persistent, and brave enough to get to the bottom of issues. Their answer should emphasize more the parts of how they worked to resolve the conflict in a professional manner, with a clear path toward a more amicable relationship going forward.

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Behavioral: Have you ever been involved in ethical situations where your role was conflicted by different goals placed on you?

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Controllers may find themselves in difficult situations where they are trying to appease the needs of commercial units and their responsibility to file objective accounts. Assess for a convincing progression through the STAR framework - situation, task, action, and result. Pay specific attention to action and result aspects, more so over any salacious details of the situation.

An insightful answer will shed light on how the applicant views ethics in their profession and how they reconcile situations in accordance with their responsibility.

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Behavioral: How do you keep up to speed with the commercial developments of the business that you currently work for?

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A controller’s role will be constantly evolving due to new accounting standards and the general evolution of the business area that they work in. A proactive candidate that keeps abreast of changes to policies and industry macro trends demonstrates that they are more of a proactive worker than a reactive follower.

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Behavioral: Describe a time when you needed to learn a new product from scratch for controlling purposes.

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This inquiry sheds light on the cognitive abilities of the candidate to understand the commercial output of their business, and also on their objectivity. For example, if their answer includes elements of self-conducted research, alongside sitting with internal product teams, it highlights that they challenge - and verify - the base assumptions that they are provided.

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Behavioral: Explain a time where your work led you to uncover a potential inefficiency or opportunity in the business. How did you work to communicate and implement this into commercial functions?

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Another example of probing into the commercial mindset of the applicant and how naturally it comes to them to try and improve efficiency and strive for commercial excellence, despite their role traditionally being seen as a process-led, back-office function.

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Behavioral: Elaborate on your process for prioritizing work.

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Pay attention to the criteria used to prioritize work. Good points are when it is assessed based on timing, commercial importance, and spillover benefits to other priorities. Negative points would be when an arbitrary/subjective hierarchy is followed, such as the seniority of who the request is for.

* There is more to interviewing than tricky technical questions, so these are intended merely as a guide. Not every “A” candidate worth hiring will be able to answer them all, nor does answering them all guarantee an “A” candidate. At the end of the day, hiring remains an art, a science — and a lot of work.
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Looking for financial controller experts? Check out Toptal’s interim financial controllers.
Ted Bartlett
United States
Ted has led the finance and operational functions of companies with sales ranging from $2 million to $20 billion, including Xerox and the Gowan Company. He has recently specialized in modeling, negotiation, and deal architecture for mid-market M&A transactions and joined Toptal to help a broad array of clients to create value through acquisitions. Ted is also a licensed CPA and holds an MBA.
Timothy A. Martin
United States
Tim is an experienced CFO and finance professional in all aspects of financial planning, financial analysis, M&A, corporate accounting, and business case development with companies like IBM and Emerson Electric. He has extensive expertise in building dynamic, executable business/financial plans and enjoys freelancing as it allows him to help multiple clients at various stages of development across a wide range of industries.
Didzis Silis
Netherlands
Didzis has worked at Nokia and controlled the financials of fast-paced projects in Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe (including a $125 million mobile network roll-out in Ukraine). He enjoys freelancing as it allows him to help clients solve non-routine financial challenges, to meet new people, and to continuously grow. He's worked mainly at large, global companies, but he has also built several financial models for startups.