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3 Controllers Reveal Tactics, and, Yes, How They Make Time, to Keep Learning

In about four months, the accounting and finance conference circuit will start to heat up, as professionals from companies of all shapes and sizes will descend upon hotels and convention centers in cities across the United States to peruse vendor exhibits, hobnob with their friends and peers at networking events, and attend workshops and seminars.

As an accounting journalist with zero accounting background, I would go to as many conference sessions as time would allow in order to educate myself about the latest accounting standards, tax law changes, and technology trends. And lo and behold, corporate controllers, who have extensive accounting and finance backgrounds, also attend these talks as a way to keep current on topics that directly relate to their position.

“I choose the seminars most applicable or valuable to me—usually a topic I am unfamiliar with, need additional experience, or when there are some changes coming, such as tax regulations,” said Karen Bacon, controller at Arcimoto, a Eugene, Ore.-based electric vehicle company.

And it’s not just accounting and finance matters that draw her attention. Bacon has attended conferences and sessions over the past few years that have focused on legal and credit law, human resources, IT, leadership, and technology.

“I always come away from conferences with new concepts and knowledge that I will be able to immediately communicate to my team or implement,” she said.

Bryan Woodhouse, vice president/corporate controller at New Castle Hotels & Resorts, a hotel/owner management company based in Shelton, Conn., said conferences and hospitality industry events help inform him of issues that may impact his group and his organization.

“The hospitality industry tends to be very collaborative, and as a result, my peers at other companies are a tremendous resource for information,” he said. “For example, discussions about current labor management applications and the platforms that integrate the various systems that other disciplines are using are key to managing the crucial data. Sharing what has worked, or not worked, for others is very helpful to me and my colleagues.”

Other learning strategies that work

Attending conferences is only one way for controllers to stay current or educated about accounting- and finance-related trends. Here are some others:

1. Social media. No, not Facebook. According to the three controllers I spoke to for this article, LinkedIn was the medium of choice.

“Combing through the posts on my LinkedIn network allows me to learn what is on people’s minds from varying industries, job functions, and regions,” said Timothy Sangiovanni, CPA, vice president/corporate controller at KemPharm Inc., a Coralville, Iowa-based specialty pharmaceutical company. “In addition, LinkedIn provides the opportunity to reach out to an individual for a one-on-one discussion to bounce ideas off of or dig deeper into a specific matter.”

2. Networking events. Bacon often attends local networking events and uses social media to connect with other professionals in her area.

“The networking events range between HR- and IT-related issues to accounting and finance,” she said. “While I also network with other professionals who are not in my area, there is additional value in networking with other local professionals because they will better understand the dynamic of our local demographic.”

3. Webcasts and in-person trainings. Sangiovanni said he participates in one to two webcasts a month on average and one to two in-person trainings a year put on by professional organizations, professional services firms, and vendors.

“Webcasts allow me to stay up-to-date on current accounting and finance topics from my desk. However, the delivery method can lend itself to distraction by other activities in the office,” he said. “The in-person trainings offer the opportunity to learn about accounting and finance topics while networking with other accounting and finance professionals. They are more substantive, even while inconvenient from a travel and time perspective, as they allow for undivided attention to the information being presented.”

4. Reading online/print publications and books. As a member of the AICPA, Sangiovanni said he often reads the organization’s monthly magazine, Journal of Accountancy.

“Print magazines not only provide a vast amount of information in one place, but also the ability to save the magazine for later reference,” he said.

But when Sangiovanni wants to “take a step back from the granular accounting and finance perspective,” he’ll read books or other publications on management techniques, economics, and other business topics.

“Reading allows me to view our business and industry from a unique, high-level perspective,” he said. “Further, these books and other publications assist with identifying how my team and I fit into the overall organization and help mold my management style, as well as assist me in becoming a better leader.”

Woodhouse said he makes it a point to “take advantage of the resources that are at my fingertips, especially trade journals and professional sites like Going Concern.” If he needs more detail on a particular subject, Woodhouse said he’ll read a white paper on that topic or attend a webinar.

5. Teaching. Bacon is an adjunct instructor at a local university and teaches business and accounting courses. She also has taught several technology/software courses at the last two organizations where she worked.

“I find teaching valuable in many ways,” Bacon said. “For one, I am using textbooks in my courses with current information, material, and case studies. I also find teaching to be valuable in my development as a leader. I am helping develop and grow the minds of my students. This will directly impact my ability as a department manager.”

“Learning is an ongoing process”

The world of the corporate controller can be dizzying, as he or she oversees the monthly and year-end closes, produces financial reports, sets strategy, executes budgets and forecasts—and that’s just scratching the surface. So, where do controllers find the time to stay current and educated?

“I probably spend an average of 10 to 15 hours a week on my own development and education. There will be some weeks where I spend more time—especially when I am attending a conference—and other weeks where the time is much less,” Bacon said. “When I am teaching, I spend 15 to 20 hours a week on the course. Not all this time would count toward my own development, but I believe I learn as much from teaching as the students should be learning from the course.”

She added that the local networking events she attends are usually scheduled at lunchtime or after work, and the courses she teaches are either held in the evening or online.

Woodhouse said he doesn’t set aside a particular time of his day for enrichment; it just happens organically.

“Learning is an ongoing process for me,” he said. “Whether I’m catching up with colleagues, reading a trade journal, checking email, or reading the Wall Street Journal, it’s an engrained part of every day.”

Image: iStock/eternalcreative