The one risk you should always take as a Finance professional

By Andy Burrows

Do we want risk takers in Finance? Does that conjure up positive or negative images in your mind?

I once asked my Supercharged Finance newsletter subscribers to tell me about problems and issues they had in Finance. One FP&A Director wrote back to me saying that one of his frustrations was that his team was reluctant to take risks.

And, before you get worried, I'm not supporting taking unnecessary risks with company funds! Business risk and risk management is another story. 

But in a very big sense, I believe we do need people in Finance who are willing to actually take risks personally.

But what risks do we want our Finance people to take? And what are the benefits of developing risk takers in Finance? And how do you develop that culture?

Being outside our comfort zone is often not a risk at all

What we’re really thinking about is being willing to be outside our comfort zone.

The downside risk is that we’ll make mistakes, we’ll be corrected, we’ll potentially look stupid. It’s a definite risk when we do things we’ve not done before.

But the rewards are learning new things, new skills; improving what we do, and making more of a difference. And that payoff is guaranteed.

I guess if you put it that way, the reward is worth the risk! Well that’s my opinion anyway.

The problem is that the payoff is in the long term. In the short term, the risk is that when we get out of our comfort zone, we’ll make mistakes and it will be embarrassing or costly.

I still think it’s worth it!

The benefit of getting out of our Finance comfort zone is in learning and developing, and so developing a team that will lead and support the business. Our understanding about the business, about Finance and about business performance will improve. And we’ll improve our skills in doing things that help the team and the business.

A YouTuber in the making?

Here’s an example of being outside your comfort zone and taking risks:

If you haven’t visited the Supercharged Finance YouTube channel yet, try and take a look. Feel free to send me some feedback too. You see, when I did my first video in 2017, I’d never really done anything in front of a camera at all before.

(When I talk to my teenage daughter about Supercharged Finance, and my social media stuff, she gets excited thinking I’m going to be like a famous YouTuber, like Joe Suggs or the other YouTube celebrities she follows (I haven’t quite understood why she follows them, but that’s because I’m getting old!). I let her down gently!)

I just woke up one day and thought, “I’m going to try doing selfie videos like I’ve seen others doing. If they can do it, why can’t I?” So, I spent five minutes writing a script outline, then took my phone to the park one lunchtime (feeling a bit of a twit as people walked past!), recorded a 4-minute video, and uploaded to YouTube.

I may get ripped to shreds with criticism. I know the production quality isn’t very good. I know that I’m recycling some previous material I’ve produced. I know the thumbnail photos are awful! I know some of them are too long.

BUT… at least I went out and did something.

I’m still learning. I haven’t quite got over the weirdness of performing for camera in a public place. But since I went on in 2018 and did another self-initiated challenge – my 30-day LinkedIn video challenge – I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it.

I also got a pleasant surprise – some really good feedback and engagement with my video posts on LinkedIn.

But if I hadn’t started, I’d have gotten NOWHERE!

And it’s funny. This Supercharged Finance journey for me has been almost totally outside my comfort zone, doing things I’ve never done before. As a Finance person, how would I know how to set up a website, do social media marketing, do copywriting, make videos, do webinars?? And yet I took the time to learn and turn that learning into action, and you’re seeing the fruit of that right here, right now.

And after a while, you know what? You get used to being outside your comfort zone. The failures, the mistakes… (I used to get so fed up about failure! It depressed me how many things I’d failed at in my career and my life – there’s more on that in another article). But when you’re almost always outside your comfort zone, failure is just more learning experience. And it becomes fun.

Coaching risk takers

One of the things you need in order to support that learning, risk-taking behaviour is a culture that doesn’t penalise mistakes or discourage people from questioning the status quo.

And that comes from the top down. And it comes from the management style of every manager in the organisation.

Coaching may sound like an airy-fairy soft skill, but I’ve found it makes a LOT of difference. The essence of coaching is that it encourages people to find their own solutions, rather than expecting to be given the answers. They learn more, develop quicker and they keep on developing through their own effort because they develop a growth mindset (I haven’t time to go into that here, but it’s what you have when you’re willing to get outside your comfort zone).

Whatever level of management you are at in Finance, I’d encourage you to develop and model coaching behaviour yourself, and make it a priority to send all your managers and team leaders to learn coaching skills.

The more that becomes the way of doing things, the more the team culture will shift towards the open, mistake-accepting, learning, knowledge-seeking, growth and improvement environment we want.

Balance for risk takers

But it’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds.

For one thing, what do you do when there are individuals who just keep making mistakes and don’t seem capable of learning from them and improving? Encouraging someone to “move on” (“perhaps this line of work doesn’t suit you?”) can seem harsh to people, no matter how much coaching time you’ve put into someone.

We all know that you have to draw a line somewhere.

For another thing, there is a balance to strike between using mistakes as learning opportunities, and keeping efficiency by enforcing a standard process.

Questioning the standard process is fine, but changing it must be done in a controlled way. Otherwise things break down and bad things can happen for the business.

Part of the way to address that tension is to apply the purpose-driven approach that I keep going on about. Make sure people know, and always want to know, the reason they are doing things and how it helps the business. Then their questioning of processes will hopefully always be set in that context and aiming towards that – “if this is what we’re trying to do, can we do it better a different way?”

Risk takers don’t need a chair

The comfort zone for us as Finance professionals is really on our chairs, behind our desks, in the office, in front of our computers.

To get your team out of their comfort zone you’ve got to encourage them to leave that safety, and go and visit other people in the business.

If they don’t have people around the business they naturally talk to, perhaps set up opportunities to shadow or swap with people in other departments. One place I worked had two weeks set aside every year to arrange for as many people as possible to do an exchange with someone in another department – people would spend a day learning about someone else’s job, and the next week they’d show someone from another department what they do.

The risk is that we show that we don’t know what we’re talking about, or that we don’t know things that people expect we should. But that is something that will happen more if we stay behind our desks!

You can’t sit behind a desk 40 hours a week and expect to learn the business.

Go and ask some dumb questions, be embarrassed, get over it, and then have a laugh about it with your colleagues!

As an aside, this is why I have a theory that young auditors will make good Finance business partners.

Why? Because I look back and cringe at the way I was as an audit junior, having to go and ask people in a business I’d never dealt with before questions I didn’t really understand yet!

And yet, how did I learn the most?

I also learnt all about developing rapport, and developed a curiosity in talking to just about anybody I met.

... All from being forced out of my shy, introspective, comfort zone!


Finance needs risk takers.

We need people that are always learning and developing, who improve their knowledge of the business, and are willing to use their knowledge to change the business for the better.

Developing a risk-taking culture is firstly about developing a team with coaching skills, and then about ensuring there is no undue penalisation of honest mistakes. That creates an environment of learning and desiring to learn.

Finally, often we have to force people out of their comfort zones – take away chairs and desks (!), set up job swaps, or whatever. It’s worth it – for individuals, for Finance and for your business.

Why not give it a try!

And please share your own stories of risk-taking in Finance, where you've gone outside your comfort zone, in the comments below.

Related posts

Developing Finance business partnering (The Purpose-driven CFO Part 9)

How to work with the business as a Finance Business Partner

Have a look at these free downloadable resources

Finance business partnering “cheat sheet”

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