Assistant Controller isn’t a fancy job title, for a simple reason: The entry barrier. Unless you have an MBA or at least a degree in Accounting or Finance, and five or more years of experience in accounting or FP&A, you won’t get chance to interview for this position. Which means two things for you. First one, there won’t be many candidates for the job–which makes your situation easier. Second one, everyone shortlisted for the interviews will have the qualification, and you will compete only with experienced job candidates. It makes it more difficult. So, what will happen, and how can you win the job?
Prepare to talk about your working experience at length. Twenty or even thirty minutes, which is not typical in the vast majority of job interviews in any field. They will ask you about every relevant position you had, challenges you faced, financial documents you prepared, audits you conducted, and so on, and so forth. The want to heart about the value you can bring to their organization, and make sure you are mature enough, as an accountant, to handle the job of an assistant controller.
They will also ask you some behavioral questions, related to your cooperation with your colleagues, as well as to some tricky situations you may face in the workplace (inability to explain a complex issue to someone from other department, conflict with a colleague, meeting a tight deadline, etc). In some cases (not often though) you may face also some technical case studies, such as that they give you some data and let you prepare a financial statement, or show you some statements or legal documents and ask you to identify mistakes on them. Let’s have a look at some of the questions.
Why do you want to work as an assistant controller?
Some people say that they deserve the job, after years of working in the accounting or FP&A. Though they may be right, it isn’t a good interview answer. As far as the employer is concerned, you do not deserve anything… Hence you should focus more on your skills, experience, and value you can bring to their organization as their new assistant controller.
With everything you’ve done and achieved in your former jobs, you believe you will be a great partner to their financial controller, supporting most aspects of financial management, assisting in the preparation of financial statements in compliance with official guidelines and legal requirements. What’s more, you understand the impact controller has on the business, and enjoy this type of work, seeing a meaningful purpose in it. Summarized and underlined, in this stage of your professional career, with the experience you’ve gained so far, assistant controller seems like an ideal job for you.
Can you tell us more about your former experience?
In most interviews you should just briefly narrate what you did and when, but it is not a case this time around. On the contrary, you should explain in detail what you did, how you contributed in your former jobs, accounting challenges you faced, accounting software you’ve worked with, teams you led, and so on, and so forth. Focus on achievements, for example when you identified some important inaccuracy or imbalance in company’s accounting and helped to resolve it.
Try to talk with some enthusiasm when narrating these things, they should get an impression that you enjoy your job, and do not do it only because it pays well, and you have a lot of independence in the job. In most cases, a discussion will follow. Someone from the interviewing panel (the most experienced person in terms of FP&A) will ask you additional questions about your former roles, duties, and achievements. Try to speak openly about your jobs, but do not reveal any confidential information. The last thing an organization wants is employing a controller who will reveal sensitive information as soon as they have a beer or two on Friday evening…
Tell us about a time when you struggled to communicate something to someone without adequate knowledge of accounting. How did you get your message over?
You should not sound snobby in this interview. Sure enough, you know your stuff, and you can amaze anyone in the company with your terminology and depth of knowledge when it comes to financial statements, auditing, etc. In order to do your job effectively, however, and have a meaningful cooperation with other people in the company (or public organization), people have to understand you.
Demonstrate, on a situation from the past, that you always adjust your language to the knowledge of your audience, to their skills and specialization. And if it isn’t possible (due to the complexity of the issue discussed), you will use practical examples, demonstration, and other means of getting your message over. You can also add that you always ask follow-up questions, to ensure that the manager really understood your words, and aren’t nodding their head just because they want the conversation to be over quickly.
Look at this financial statement for the last year. Can you see any mistakes on it?
They may show you a yearly balance, cash flow statement, or even some legal contract related to accounting. It can be any document you may have to prepare or control in your new job. How should you approach it?
First of all, do not rush. You will have some deadlines in your job of an assistant controller, but this is one of those jobs where precision matters more than speed. Go over the document, line after line, systematically. Remember that they observe also the way you work, not only whether you identify some mistakes or not…
In most cases, they will include one or two relatively obvious mistakes on the document. Maybe a date will be missing, or some numbers won’t click. In some cases though, they will show you a bullet-proof document on purpose. You cannot really tell… Hence I suggest you to simply get through it–it can take you five minutes for a page, and then report your findings. You may also end up saying you haven’t spotted any mistakes, and as I’ve already said, it can be the right answer…
What do you expect from your cooperation with accountants, internal auditors, assistants, and other people you will work with?
You should definitely expect openness. We are humans and we make mistakes, and people should not try to hide something, just to save their face. On the contrary, you want to have an open and honest communication with everyone in the accounting department. Feedback should flow freely in all directions, and people shouldn’t be afraid of either giving, or receiving a critical feedback.
Having said that, a good controller focuses primarily on their role in building such relationships. Say that you will try to foster friendly yet professional relationship with your colleagues, making sure they understand you aren’t there to ridicule them, or show them how incompetent they are. You simply have more experience, and that’s why you can spot things they won’t spot. Giving them an important feedback, you help them to progress in their career, and become better in what they do. Communicating this clearly at the beginning can help a lot with your relationships in the workplace…
Other questions you may face in your assistant controller job interview
- Tell us about a time when you didn’t agree with your superior.
- What is the toughest accounting problem you solved in your professional career?
- Where do you see yourself in five years time? Would you like to become a head financial controller one day?
- In your opinion, what role does assistant controller play in an annual audit?
- What motivates you the most in this job?
- Tell us about a time when you had to make a decision without all the information you needed.
- What does integrity mean to you?
- Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new.
- What are your salary expectations?
- Why shouldn’t we hire you?
Assistant controller is an amazing job that often pays close to $100,000 annually. And while you won’t typically compete with many people in the interview–simply because of the job requirements, you can be sure that everyone shortlisted will have the skills, and try their best on the big day.
That’s why it is important to spend enough time preparing for this interview. Learn as much as you can about your future employer, and think about the questions you may face, as well as about your former experience, and things you achieved in your former jobs. I hope you will succeed, and wish you best of luck!