Finance business partnering separates strategic value- added financial advisors from the traditional accounting function. If you are striving to build a best in class finance organization, you need to ensure that developing partnering skills is at the forefront of your team’s development.
This guide will provide finance leaders and professionals a practical and unique approach to business partnering excellence. Combining many years of corporate finance experience with the 4D NASA leadership model, it will provide a framework for any corporate finance team. It was written by a finance professional for finance professionals and teams, filling in the leadership development gaps left by generic HR programs. Leaders will be able to identify an action plan in their pursuit of creating high performing finance teams with leadership shown at all levels of the organization.
Leadership Coaching for Finance Professionals and Teams
Inspiring your business partners will only occur if you’ve aligned your value proposition to their need for strategic decision- making support
Build the Foundation- Leading Edge Insights and Analysis It’s important to start building your business partnering foundation with a critical requirement for sitting at the leadership table, your table stakes. In finance, leading edge insights and analysis are your table stakes. If you aren’t excelling here, you’ll never be perceived as a strategic value-added business partner. Without this foundation there isn’t a need to go any further. You don’t have anything solid to build on while you are striving towards your status as strategic advisor. Providing leading edge insights and analysis to your business partners is the critical baseline of your value. Let’s break down this foundational value into two areas.
How solid is your financial acumen? I’m not asking how solid of an accountant you are, that question is answered well before you enter onto the development spectrum of business partnership. You have technical knowledge, you know how to go through accounting cycles and perform month end activities, all valid CPA requirements. A few items to consider with regards to financial acumen:
Show the ability to translate financial results for your business partners into digestible pieces of critical information. Saving your business partners time on translating what the results mean to the business provides value. I once inherited a report that went out to the business and believe it or not was called “the data dump”. Let’s just say the report was renamed and repurposed to a report that provided translation of financial performance into business performance including an advanced metrics review. Dumping a report with a lot of numbers into a business partners inbox does not provide value and can’t be viewed as acceptable analysis.
Provide a multi-lens view of the business that makes you look at every angle of the financial results. This will ensure you are focused on providing insights and not just information. For example, your business grew 10% last quarter. Are we cracking the champagne? Was that a successful quarter? What happened if the business grew 10% but a strategic product line had negative growth? Was it a successful quarter if only the east region grew, but the West and Central teams had negative growth? I think you get the point; ensure you’ve reviewed performance in multiple ways and use your financial acumen to translate the performance story to the business.
Be the expert they need on compliance requirements. All great finance careers include a clean record of fiduciary performance, your business partners are relying on it and ensuring you’re connected to them to discuss any grey area transactions is critical for you to show your value.
BI dashboards and metric reporting need to be designed with one purpose in mind; to enable the business to make forward looking strategic decisions
Strategic Awareness Your business acumen is a large component of your skill set. Understand what the numbers mean. Know what the numbers represent. Have curious discussion with your business partners about how their decisions impact results. Being just as strong in conversations about the business strategy as you are about the trailing results is a critical way for you as a finance professional to show tremendous value. Be inquisitive into their challenges and how you can help support them. Have a discussion on what is working in the business and what investments might be required to drive profitable growth. Ensure you’ve covered off the following:
• For large enterprise organizations know what is going on in other parts of the business. If you are in charge of services finance, ask questions on how the product side of the business is performing and how it cross pollinates into new services opportunities. If you drive the channel numbers, ask how the partner enablement investments help drive success in the new strategic products that can positively impact the direct sales force. Your strategic awareness will grow by being inquisitive, analytical and driving insights to your business partners.
• Understand and involve yourself in critical decisions will enable the business for profitable growth. Embrace investment requests as if they are done right, they will result in driving profitable growth. Ask the right questions and be thrilled to fund great strategies. Enable the business so you aren’t a gatekeeper blocking access to funding. You won’t be able to support every idea so your strategic awareness and business acumen will truly set you apart. Most great growth stories have occurred in organizations exhibiting a perfect balance of risk and reward. Be the enabler of the next great story.
• Analyze the drivers of the business. A low impact method of reporting is to send off historical financial information. The lazy way of building a financial plan is to add a percentage to the prior year and be done with it. The only accurate way of forecasting the future is to deep dive into the drivers of the business results. Document them, track them and challenge the plan assumptions in order to provide a deeper financial acumen for your business partners. One of the key differences between an accountant and a finance business partner is shown by the finance business partner’s ability to peel back the layers of the onion in both revenue and expense performance and present this back to the business in a clear and precise manner.
Proactive vs. Reactive support makes all the difference in showing your value. Think ahead and you can eliminate the dreaded ad-hoc request for good.
Efficient and Effective Leadership- Operational Excellence As we start to build the blocks in achieving Finance Business Partner Excellence, we need to think outside of traditional finance activities. Working hand in hand with operations and driving operational initiatives is a must for efficiently delivering analytics. Data and accounting system tools are part of this equation but what I’m leaning into here is your ability to align the systems, people and tools in a precise way to allow your team time to focus on value-added activities.
Proactive Business Intelligence (BI)
A large portion of finance organizations are still stuck in Excel. We will likely never see the end of Excel as a valuable tool and that’s acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is an army of finance people manually using this tool for all reporting and analysis. Manual refreshing of reports every month is inefficient and doesn’t give you time to build the bonds you need with your business partners. Having key reports and analysis at the fingertips of your business partners in a proactive way is what truly defines your value with this component. Proactive doesn’t mean quick, it means using your business knowledge and partnering capabilities to push out reports ahead of that demoralizing ad-hoc request. Multiple ad-hoc requests are a sign you are in reactive vs proactive mode. You are running continuously on the hamster wheel without time to think and plan which isn’t an enjoyable work environment to operate in. Figure out how to stop and assess what the business needs to make informed decisions. Lead the development of the systems, tools and processes to ensure critical financial information is sitting on your partner’s desktop on a daily basis. Some tips to ensure you are being proactive:
Set up monthly 1:1 with your stakeholders and ask them questions about their requirements to make informed decisions. Don’t wait for an invite, set these up yourself. Ask for feedback to show you care about the quality of your support and implement adjustments as required from this feedback.
Recommend improvements to the reporting package without being prompted to do so. Ensure the improvements tie to current company strategies and key success factors that the business stands behind.
Make sure you incorporate analysis that may be out of your line of business. Multiple views of the business will help build business acumen and respect from your partners.
The only finance teams that should be worried about AI taking their jobs are ones that haven’ t truly defined their value as technology enabled strategic business partners
Automated Analytics Data management and how information presents itself will differ based on your business and systems primarily. The key deliverable of value for the finance team in this regard is automation of reports and analysis that you’d otherwise be replicating in a manual form. Business leaders love information, they also hate waiting around for it to be put together manually. Stop being the gatekeeper and find a way to push this to their desktop. You can set security limitations on what the teams can view so that a sales rep doesn’t get to see the full financial statements. This is important at any time but especially during a quiet period for a public company. Tableau, SiSense, Power BI: doesn’t matter your tool of choice as long as it has excellent security features and the ability to refresh the data without significant human intervention. I hear a lot of finance leaders have reluctance to the tools because the eye-catching graphs and reports can be produced through Excel and PowerPoint. We can also assemble a car with a few hundred people standing around with tools and supplies but it would be insane in present day to call that inefficient process ideal. Automation is the greatest enabler of value for finance professionals and teams. It will free you up from grinding out reports and allow you to sit and have an informed conversation with your business partners on the business. Make sure you pick a tool that is interactive. By this I mean if you click on a region or product or channel the BI tool can isolate that information and refresh the report instantly. What a wonderful conversation you can have with your business partner if you isolated that 80% of your growth was in one region, with primarily three products that are viable to your long term strategy, and the cost to serve that growth was $x which gave the region a productivity measure of yes please. Applying the Maslow Hammer and Nail analogy to Excel is a unique way to show us the limitations of the tool. If all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. Finance tends to use the same known tool (Excel) to solve every reporting problem. Excel is a comfort zone for finance, one where change is difficult because it causes risk, but without this change many inefficiencies will continue to plague the organization.
Complete the Trifecta: Influence through Partnership
According to Daniel Goleman’s study looking at leadership impact using practical measurement criteria such as profitability: EQ was twice as important as technical skills and IQ at all levels of the organization
Ah, the good stuff. The things they didn’t teach you as you prepared for your CPA exams. The critical skills that separate you from your peers. The only set of skills that will earn you the next promotion and set you up for success once you get there. Top level executives are more successful if they have high EQ, backed up by common sense and a bevy of studies. How well you manage people with diverse backgrounds, beliefs, personalities and experiences will set you apart as a leader. Identifying the criticality of EQ development is step one, actively developing it is the next step that mustn’t be skipped if you are serious about leadership development.
High Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
Forgive the shock and awe as we talk about emotions in a role that is primarily focused on task execution. If you trust me for long enough, you’ll see there is a tactical approach to EQ and excludes any hand holding or group hugs. The four areas of EQ map brilliantly to the 4D NASA leadership model especially in a team context. Understanding how EQ can improve collaboration, relationships, strategy and execution is the end game for high performing teams.
Self-Awareness- how well do you know yourself? Do you innately make decisions using emotions or logic? Do you process information, using your senses or intuition? Knowing your innate personality preferences is an eye-opening experience but also allows you to build a plan for growth. I coach around 4D because the four dimensions pivot around the finance skills of collaboration, relationships, strategy, and execution. We can determine quickly the skills that you are you naturally good at and which ones are a focus area for your development. The idea of any self- awareness journey is to capitalize on your strengths while avoiding the blind spots and potholes that your personality is naturally aligned to. Ever shoot yourself in the foot and wondered why it happened? You’ve got questions, 4D gives answers. Meyers-Briggs provides self-awareness but doesn’t guide you how to grow in areas that will assist you in your finance career. Fostering strong relationships is often overlooked in finance as the most critical skill to develop on the leadership spectrum. Addressing shared interests is a NASA leadership behaviour that is a direct way to improve this skillset in the immediate term.
Self-Management- Congratulations, you’ve gained some awareness of yourself! Now what? Prepare for your annual review? That serves a purpose but misses out any real impact on developing the core leadership behaviours that help you excel in your career. Please review my articles on the 4D NASA leadership model behaviours that I’ve tailored for finance. Grab a coach, find a mentor, and never forget to solicit honest feedback. Take time to reflect on your accomplishments and how you’ve achieved them. Take accountability for your mistakes and use them for development in a positive way. Use any failures to fuel your ultimate success.
Emotional intelligence is one of the most in-demand skills in 2020. That means people with emotional intelligence, also known as EQ, are getting hired and promoted at a faster rate than others
Social Awareness- How do your social interactions impact others? Have you used shared interests to build bonds with your business partners or have you carried the reputation as a gatekeeper? Do you talk too much in meetings or too little? Have you created a sense that you will gladly serve others or a sense that you’ll only take care of yourself? Have you separated yourself as a critical strategic thinking partner in finance or is there development work to be done to enable your value and success? These are just some of the many questions you’ll need to reflect on to improve your social awareness.
Social Skills- Traditionally reserved for sales organizations and the C- suite, social skills are vital to your EQ development and growth as a finance business partner. I’m not talking about how often you socially interact with your team or if you have the courage to be the life of the party at a team building event. For finance professional focus on how well you can directly influence and inspire your business partners in a positive way. Are your business partners excited to hear from you because you’ll deliver something of value to them in the interaction? Make sure you are actively working on this skill. Reflect on it regularly and don’t be afraid to solicit honest feedback and professional assessments. If help is required, please request assistance on running NASA leadership assessments which were created specifically for leadership development purposes.
4D model customize for finance. Move from left to right using measurement tools and focus.
You need to be at the leadership table to provide strategic decision-making support., Be bold, be confident, show your value first and then grab your seat
Grab your seat at the leadership table
This last piece is more about mindset, attitude and brand building. The faster you can translate your value to the organization the quicker you’ll be able to grab your seat at the leadership table. This transformational ideal is about an equal partnership, a peer relationship, and a mutual respect that you’ve earned in every way.
Manage your mindset- Do you carry the mindset as a finance leader that your main focus is to drive profitable growth and act as a strategic financial business partner and leader? Excellent! Welcome to the show. It’s time for finance to stand behind the value that they bring to the organization. It’s time for finance leaders to eliminate the negative perception of their teams by pushing for the same development budget as other parts of the organization. Finance leaders should be enablers of profitable growth, driving healthy sales with sustainable margins. Focus on all the great things that define value in finance, with a proper mindset you and your teams will get there.
Attitude- Having a positive attitude in the challenging role of finance is tough but imperative. You also need to carry the attitude that you belong at the leadership table because you’ve proven your value. I’ve heard too many self-defeating comments that drag finance teams down over the years, it’s time to be fully accountable and take charge. You are an equal peer on the management team and therefore you fully expect to be included in strategy meetings and discussions. If you find out you weren’t appropriately included, then manage the expectations professionally that you need to be part of these discussion in order to provide full value to the organization. If you address any exclusions center the discussion on the positive impact to the business partners and the organization, not yourself. Tell them how much more you can do for the organization if involved in business decisions early. And whatever you do, after earning the invitation do what’s required and deliver with greatness.
Branding- Sit down tonight with a blank sheet of paper and write down your desired brand. Then follow it up with a VSE (Vision, Strategy, Execution) plan on how to execute on the brand statement. Be very specific with the execution piece, down to timelines, people, actions and behaviours. This exercise is really important if you think you are carrying a negative brand (Dr No, non-team player, gate keeper, deal blocker, ETC). A positive brand that has impact on the organization will help you in multiple ways as you advance in your career. Perceptions become reality very quickly, so they need to be actively managed today.
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