Chief Accounting Officer: Explore This Career

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It’s common to wonder how far to take education in a specialized field such as accounting. What possibilities open up with an advanced degree? Seeking a master’s degree in accounting is one way for professionals to prepare for the more leadership-intensive positions at the head of accounting departments, jobs that demand ironclad knowledge of accounting concepts and the intrapersonal skills to keep team members on the right track.

A chief accounting officer, sometimes called the controller, is the top of this pyramid, an executive-level position that holds final responsibility for organizational bookkeeping, regulatory compliance, and other absolute essentials. This individual works closely with the chief financial officer and has direct authority over the rest of the accounting workforce.

A CAO presents data to colleagues.

Responsibilities of and Prospects for CAOs

The latest data from Payscale lists the median chief accounting officer salary as $156,181. This figure is even higher than for the CFO, which comes in at $127,544. The specialized knowledge required to become a chief accounting officer comes from long experience in other accounting roles, or in specialized education.

Professionals who rise to the CAO role need to be ready to meticulously oversee important tasks every day. The following areas fall under the direct purview of the CAO:

  • Financial statements:Are the company’s statements correct, and are they complete and in compliance with all relevant laws? As the head of the accounting department, the final responsibility for these statements rests with the CAO.
  • Payroll management: Accurate, timely, and effective payroll management is one of the priorities of the CAO.
  • Budgeting:While the CAO may not have the last word on financial strategy, he or she has an important voice in dealing with budgetary matters, determining effective uses of funds.
  • Tax compliance: Both federal and state tax filing goes through the accounting department. The CAO must maintain the records that enable accurate taxes.

Essential Skills to Succeed as a CAO

Taking on the many responsibilities associated with leading the accounting department calls for a robust set of skills. These abilities combine a solid grasp of all the accounting functions they’ll be overseeing, from tax law to effective budgeting and financial statement preparation. Furthermore, since CAOs must delegate and make effective use of a department’s worth of personnel, they should also have the soft skills needed to keep others on task.

As Payscale added, some companies won’t select CAOs who don’t have Certified Public Accountant certification. In addition, years of service in other accounting roles are usually necessary. Since organizational leaders will be trusting their CAOs to take charge of the professional development of their accounting teams, they’ll likely focus on candidates who have proven track records of excellent day-to-day work in this capacity.

Companies won’t hand over the reins of accounting to individuals who don’t have a solid grounding in every element of the accounting world, from the latest regulations to familiarity with technology and industry-standard processes. Seeking a master’s degree in accounting is a way to focus on highly relevant and in-demand skills and competencies. Taking such courses through an online model allows students to build up credits while remaining employed in their present roles, building professional experience hiring managers may notice.

Classes Relating to CAO Careers

Higher education in accounting is the primary path to desirable roles such as CAO. Each of the courses associated with a master’s in accounting advances a specific ability, preparing students for the duties of high-ranking accounting roles. These classes directly help individuals seeking the knowledge they’ll need to complete the CPA exam, scale the career ladder, and become more confident and effective at day-to-day accounting tasks.

The following are a few of the most relevant courses in a Master of Accounting program that will help prepare students for the rigors of life as a CAO:

  • Corporate Governance:Learning about the rules and practices surrounding internal and external governance is a major part of preparing for a high-level position in a corporate accounting department. Since auditing falls under the direction of the CAO, such an official must have an airtight knowledge of governance.
  • Current Topics in Financial Accounting:Slip-ups regarding the legal picture could lead to costly regulatory action against companies. Specialized courses that focus on the latest statements from government agencies will ensure students graduate with knowledge that encompasses what’s happening in finance right now.
  • Accounting Information Systems:Financial departments today operate a mass of interlocking digital systems. Effective, efficient, and legally compliant use of technology may determine the difference between a leading accounting department and one that lags. Therefore, students should make time to study up on IT while seeking their degrees.

Studying for a Master’s in Accounting

What does it take to seek a Master of Accounting degree and aim for a high-ranking role in the financial department? Prospective students may be surprised to learn they don’t need to have a bachelor’s degree in accounting to apply. Programs such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham Accounting Bridge Program are designed to give students from other backgrounds ― perhaps something like corporate leadership in the case of CAO hopefuls ― the technical accounting grounding they need to enter a master’s program.

Today’s online master’s programs are designed to help working professionals study for a degree, moving quickly toward a credential with all the weight of an in-person degree because it comes from an experienced faculty at an accredited and respected institution. Enrolling in such a program is an exciting opportunity for professionals with CAO aspirations. Check out the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business to learn more about seeking this degree.

Recommended Readings:

Why UAB? The benefits for online students

How professionals stay up-to-date on current trends in accounting


Payscale – Chief Accounting Officer

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – Accountants and Auditors

KPMG – Chief Accounting Officer and Controller