Have you all been good this year, then?

Knecht Ruprecht, Financial Controllers and an Image Problem

Ho, ho, ho, Saint Nicholas is coming – but he’s bringing with him his right-hand man, Knecht Ruprecht! While the sinister companion, according to German folklore, of the benevolent bringer of gifts has always been trapped in the role of the cruel servant, the financial controller’s job description as the CEO’s right-hand man has changed a lot in recent years. The so-called number cruncher has long since transformed from the proverbial bean counter to the sounding board for the management.

Though indispensable in this capacity, financial controllers are considered in many companies to be rather unpopular. This is perhaps due not so much to the penny-pinching reputation that precedes them but more to the fact that they are traditionally entrusted with doing the dirty work for their bosses: like Knecht Ruprecht, it is they who are generally left to deal with the unpleasant tasks. Saint Nicholas dishes out praise; Knecht Ruprecht likes to rebuke. It’s a similar situation with the executive management and financial controllers. While the CEO proudly presents benefits, bonuses and corporate success, it’s up to the financial controllers to identify and report on weaknesses and undesirable trends – as well as to announce the necessary countermeasures. Who is responsible for what losses? What cost-cutting measures will be required? As the bearers of this sort of bad news, it’s not unusual for them to be held responsible – at least subconsciously – for the bad news they bring.

This is of course as irrational as it is unfair, yet it shows how essential it is for financial controllers to have excellent communication skills, alongside their business administration expertise, if they are to have enough opportunities for action. Jens Ropers, a partner and trainer at CA Controlling Akademie, knows how important this is: “In their discussions with their internal customers, financial controllers would be well advised to ask fewer ‘why?’ and more ‘what now?’ questions. However necessary it may be to analyse the causes of variances, it’s even more important to evaluate the courses of action for a positive future development. Putting this across in a way that is easily understood is one of the principal tasks of a financial controller.” Mr Ropers trains financial controllers in soft skills. He emphasises: “Financial controllers should be building their social competence in order to introduce and manage the necessary changes, in other words, to act as a kind of change agent. The processing logic itself will in future be dealt with by the system environment.”

Nevertheless, not even financial controllers can please everyone. If the figures are getting out of hand, they must be persistent in pointing out unfavourable trends and in pressing for appropriate countermeasures – even if this doesn’t go down well with some of their colleagues – for that’s exactly how they make sure the numbers add up. In these times of VUCA and digitisation, precise figures and reliable data are vital as they offer certainty and guidance.

If financial controllers can also communicate with the executive management and the departments with tact and sensitivity and on an equal footing, they will finally break out of their role as the unpopular bean counter who is not always taken seriously – and, unlike Knecht Ruprecht, they will always be able to count on a friendly welcome.

As a financial controller, would you like to improve your psychological skills in dealing with a variety of personalities? Are you keen to learn how to present increasingly complex issues in a way that can be easily understood by people who are not financial controllers? Hone your communication and conflict management skills at the seminars provided by the CA controller akademie. Click HERE for the training programme.