How to become a great Finance business partner... even if the thought scares you!

By Andy Burrows

Feel the fear and do it anyway!

Many of those who observe and comment on the state of the Finance function in general portray Finance people as being fearful of change.

The hype around robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence, the explosion in different tools on top of the ERP system and Excel, the speed of business change, and the cost pressure on Finance, add up to a significant feeling of uncertainty.

I have to say, when I work with Finance teams, I don’t necessarily feel that fear tangibly. People seem to get their heads down and work hard, and grab automation opportunities with both hands as something that will make their lives easier.

But I think it’s the way we characterise or explain things.

You see, I don’t think Finance people are fearful of losing their jobs, which is often the way it’s expressed by commentators (like myself). I’ve lost my job several times in my career – and it’s a freakin’ pain in the butt! But that’s the way things seem to go these days. (And in a different context I may go on to analyse how that kind of uncertain environment is not hugely helpful for corporate (and therefore societal) value creation. But that’s not what I want to write about today.)

However, alas, I think, there is a type of fear, and I can detect perhaps what could be described as resistance.

My purpose is this article, though, is not to simply to observe this and bemoan it. I really want to encourage Finance people to “feel the fear and do it anyway!” The direction of change is beneficial and positive, and we should embrace it.

The only progression routes lead outside our comfort zones

But first, let me just say a few words more to outline why I think there is this feeling around. You see, I think the reality of a certain amount of fear and resistance is revealed most clearly when talking about professional development.

What direction do you head once you’ve got your professional accounting qualification (or the equivalent in your part of the world)?

It used to be the case, in business Finance departments at least, that the next steps were to learn more complex management accounting techniques, like activity based costing, different budgeting or forecasting techniques; or improve IT and data skills such as learning to use Excel, VBA and Access; or data presentation methods, etc.

Nowadays, the pressure is on Finance people to develop post-qualification in two new(ish) directions:

  1. Get very technical and learn about BI tools, databases, programming, statistical methods and data science;
  2. Step away from our desks and PCs and join our non-Finance colleagues in their decision-making.

The first involves learning potentially very complex and “nerdish” skills, with the risk of corrupting or misinterpreting millions of rows of data!

The second involves learning how to communicate, influence and negotiate with people, with the risk of looking stupid!

And the fear and resistance arises when we meet people who seem to just be completely at home with one of these.

We all know people who seem to live and breathe code and data, and we feel we’re not like them.

We all know people who seem to have a fabulous rapport with the managers in Marketing or Ops, and we feel we’re not like them.

Or perhaps we just feel like we got into accounting because we were good with numbers, but code, data and people are whole different ball games!

The truth is that in either of these new directions we will probably have to go outside our comfort zone. New management accounting techniques or Excel skills are just a straight-line extension of the career path we started in accounting. Data science and business partnering, on the other hand, are completely new paradigms.

I want to focus, in this article, on Finance business partnering, because it’s the clearest current path towards a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) role.

Don’t worry if you don’t think you have CFO talent

And one of the things that doesn’t help is the view that “you’ve either got it or you haven’t”. In other words, you’ll either make a good Finance Business Partner (or CFO) or you won’t. Either you have the talent for it, or you haven’t. If you haven’t “got what it takes” (i.e. talent) then you won’t make it as a Finance Business Partner (or CFO).

I’ve just been reading Alan Warner’s very good book on Finance business partnering, Finance Business Partnering – the Search for Value. In one of the Finance business partnering case studies, Warner notes that, “There are always a few who do not prove to be right for FBP, ... , and there would be development conversations to move these few to other roles.”

And yet, there is increasing scientific evidence that talent is not what you need.

Take, for example, Carol Dweck’s pioneering research into Mindset. She, and others, have found that if you believe in natural talent, that each of us has an innate level of intelligence or particular skill, then you are most likely to underachieve.

She calls that a “fixed mindset”. That is contrasted to a “growth mindset”, in which a person believes that they can learn and excel in just about anything they put their mind to, given enough time, effort and coaching.

Those with a “growth mindset” tend to perform better in the long run, because they don’t give up when they face difficulties, and they love the process of learning something new.

Practice hard to be a good Finance business partner

There is also evidence that “purposeful practice” is more important than natural talent. See, for example, Matthew Syed’s best-selling book, Bounce – The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.

Syed’s review of the research into high performance and success demonstrates that there are several factors that go into success. Natural talent, however, is not one of them. “Purposeful practice”, however, is essential.

Seriously! Read the books above if you don’t believe me!

And what I’d like to do is to plant some seeds, showing how some of these ideas can help us to develop Finance business partners, and the Chief Financial Officers of the future.

Of course, the first observation, if you take on board all this research, can be stated like this:

You don’t have to already look like a Finance business partner to become a Finance business partner!

But, further than that, how can we apply the idea of “purposeful practice” to developing better Finance business partnering, and better CFOs?

When we talk about purposeful practice what we’re really pointing out is that it isn’t just the mere repetition of an activity that leads to expertise.

Practice purposefully for Finance business partnering success

Of course, repetition will get you a long way, just like the more you drive a car or ride a bike, the more confident you get.

When I first started my accountancy training, I observed that the partners/directors in the firm could spot my mistakes within seconds. I would labour over boxes of books and records, putting together a balance sheet and P&L and a tax computation, for days. And then I’d present it to the boss in a 30-minute meeting... in which they would tear my work apart from just looking at it... no calculator, no reference to a sales day book or anything!!

You can probably relate to this scenario!

The thing that amused me as I progressed, though, was that when I became a Finance Director, and my accountants came to present the management accounts to me (before I signed them off for the monthly management report), I used to annoy them in exactly the same way!... They would put the P&L on the table, and within 60 seconds I’d find the first mistake just by looking at it!

We call it “experience”. In other scenarios, it’s just called, “practice”.

But practice also needs to be purposeful. That is, being, “intentional and analytical.”

You need to know what you want to improve and be able to analyse what is going well and not so well.

So, Matthew Syed also speaks of the “perfect conditions for feedback”. Feedback is essential to being able to analyse what’s going well and what isn’t. Then you can analyse what you can change to improve your skill in whatever you’re doing.

Two of those things are:

  • Developing consistency in technique, so that the source of “mistakes” or sub-optimal performance can be isolated and seen clearly. Then you can work just on ironing out those isolated areas.
  • Developing a fast feedback mechanism, a bit like tennis players standing facing a ball throwing machine. The faster you see the errors, the faster you can correct them, the faster you learn, and the faster you improve.

To be a CFO it’s as much about how you learn as what you learn

So, how can we apply these lessons to Finance business partnering and preparing for a CFO career?

It’s going to need some individual tailoring in terms of development plans, I think.

But I think basically it boils down to:

  1. Believing that we are capable of learning whatever we need (having a “growth mindset”);
  2. Being self-aware and intentional in what we’re doing, especially when adding a new element to our work;
  3. Getting enough repetitious, consistent, regular, good-quality feedback, quickly enough and frequently enough to do something about it; and
  4. Trying to build a solid, consistent technique in areas of what we do, so that we can isolate what we still need to learn.

Alan Warner (Finance Business Partnering – the Search for Value) has a good high-level categorisation of Finance business partner skills needed:

  • Financial skills
  • Behavioural skills
  • Business acumen

Applying the above purposeful practice principles to each of the particular skills under each of the above headings should enable us to move from accountants to Finance business partners and even Chief Financial Officers, even if the thought scares us to death right at this moment!


Let us know what you think in the comments section at the bottom of the page...


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