Confidence, Communication and Influencing Skills for Finance Business Partnering

By Andy Burrows

I want to give some helpful thoughts today about developing the behavioural skills needed for Finance business partnering.

I’ve written in the past about how essential it is for Finance business partners, CFOs, and indeed Finance professionals in general, to develop behavioural skills. And I know that other Finance writers are talking about this too.

And people are hearing the message, and I get asked about it. One question I received during a Finance careers event went something like this:

“I’ve worked in technical accounting and as a financial accountant, but my ambition is to do the best I can in my career. So, I really want to move to a Finance Business Partner role, as I feel there is more career growth potential in that area. My challenge is that my behavioural skills need a serious boost. What can I do to help improve my communication skills and my ability to influence or persuade my stakeholders, or even to simply be convincing enough at interviews to be given a chance in the role of Finance Business Partner?”

And, of course, in response to this particular question, I agree that Finance Business Partner is nowadays the best route to a CFO role.

Further, it shows good awareness to have perceived that behavioural skills are critical to success in Finance business partnering. That is very different to technical accounting, where knowledge of the IFRSs and IFRICs is paramount.

So, what I want to do in this article is focus on some simple first steps, rather than baffling you with big concepts.

And actually, even though I have heavily paraphrased the actual question that was put to me, the language used tells me that the questioner can already communicate very well. The reasoning is good, and the question is pertinent.

Which leads me to my first observation – sometimes it’s more of a confidence problem than a communication problem.

Is it a communication problem or a confidence problem?

This is actually very common amongst naturally analytical accountants. It’s not that we can’t use words. It’s that we’re shy, reserved or fearful in speaking to people. It’s not so much communication as confidence that is the issue.

There are several revelations that unlock the way forward with learning to be confident.

Start with your mindset

First, address your mindset.

Very briefly, research has shown that your attitude to ability and intelligence can affect your ability and intelligence.

If you have a fixed mindset you believe that your intelligence and abilities are part of you. You have a maximum that can’t be improved. So, you’re always trying to find that thing you’re best at, what your talent is. If it’s too much effort, that means it’s not for you, because it’s just not you.

If you have a growth mindset, intelligence and ability are not part of you. They are things you go and get with hard work, effort, learning and practice, and perseverance. So, you work very hard in whatever you enjoy, and what you want to do. You believe that almost everyone has the potential for great abilities and intelligence.

The research shows that those with the fixed mindset underachieve, and those with the growth mindset achieve more.

Use the language of freedom

Second, use the language of freedom.

Very often we use language that belies a level of philosophical determinism. We say, “I can’t”, too much. Why can’t we?

  • I can’t come home on time because the boss is making me stay late.
  • I can’t help being shy.
  • I can’t help being anxious.
  • It’s just the way I am.
  • They won’t let me.

What those statements really say is that you think that you’re not in control of things you do. Someone or something else is determining it.

But, in short, that’s wrong. We can change. We have the freedom to choose our response to any situation. Even in situations we have no control over, we can choose our response.

Try, instead, using language such as:

  • I choose to
  • I can do this
  • What can I do to...?
  • I will decide what to do
  • My priority is
  • My options are

So, instead of “my boss made me stay late”, you say, “I chose to stay late because I wanted to help get this project over the line because it will give me a sense of satisfaction and pride.”

See the difference? The outcome – the action – may be the same, but you feel empowered rather than bound. And you emphasise that you’re free to choose something different in the next similar situation.

The reason this is relevant is that an aspiring Finance Business Partner might say they can’t communicate very well because they’re naturally shy, or they’re an introvert. The barrier they feel is sometimes not their communication skills (although we can all improve these too). The barrier is actually that they are scared!

And the encouragement I’d give is that you can communicate. All of us have the potential to communicate very well.

Ditch the beliefs that are holding you back

Third, challenge your limiting beliefs.

When you analyse what you’re thinking when you shy away from talking to people, often it comes down to:

  • They’ll think I’m stupid
  • I’ll trip over my words
  • They won’t have time
  • They’ll say no
  • They’ll think I’m boring
  • I might not understand what they say
  • They may not be the right person to talk to
  • ... the list goes on and on...

If you’ve learnt to be positive about your freedom to choose, you realise that you can choose what to believe about these things. You can ask yourself whether these things are true.

How can you tell if those fears are true? And even if they are, so what? What’s the worst that can happen? What if these fears are unfounded? What am I missing out on by believing something that might not even be true?!

And then use your freedom to choose an action that goes with the more positive belief.

How to get more confident in communication

Ok, then, practically what can you do to ingrain yourself with more confidence in communication?

Step 1 – make a list of things that make you uncomfortable in dealing with other people.

Step 2 – choose the smallest thing off the list that you could do tomorrow.

Step 3 – do it.

Step 4 – do it again!

Step 5 – keep on doing it until it’s no longer uncomfortable. And in the meantime,

Step 6 – pick something else from your list and plan a time to do it.

Step 7 – do it.

Step 8 – at the end of the week, and end of the month, spend a few minutes thinking about how you felt when you did those things, what you learnt, and what you will tweak next time you do it.

The essence is to start small, make a plan to do something, do it, review it, choose something a little bigger to try – and repeat... many times. That’s the way you’d practice hitting a golf ball, isn’t it?

I used to tell myself that “videos are not for me, because I’m just not very good on camera”. So, in May 2018 I set myself a “LinkedIn video challenge”, to make a quick video of me talking about a topic and post it on LinkedIn, every working day for a month. It was awkward to start with, but I learnt and gradually improved, and then felt more comfortable. If you’re interested you can find those videos on YouTube.

I used to be afraid of networking events. So, I decided to join a networking organisation and go to breakfasts every 2 weeks! I found that the more I forced myself to speak to people, the easier it became.

The key is to focus the conversation on the other person, and then answer any questions that they throw at you. So, ask them what they do? Who do they do that for? What does that involve on a daily basis? What do they like about it?

There’s a lot more I could say, but I hope that’s a helpful start.

Influence doesn’t come from practicing influencing

Moving on to think of influencing.

There is a lot said about Finance becoming more influential within the business – moving from information to insight to influence. Right?

So, in thinking about the behavioural skills needed for Finance Business Partners, perhaps influencing should be up at the top alongside communication?

But I think there’s a misunderstanding. People tend to think of influencing and persuasion as “having a way with words”, being able to form an irrefutable argument that makes people do what we want.

Influencing, in fact, comes from credibility, trust, good listening and a win-win mindset.

Credibility is a function of integrity and intent (you honestly and transparently want to help the business), and of capability and results (you have the skills needed to help the business and have a track record of being helpful).

And I’ve written elsewhere about how to build trust as a Finance business partner, as well as good listening and having a win-win mindset.

So, here, I just want to summarise that into a few short points.

First, focus on the other person, not on what you want them to do/believe. Be interested in their perspective, what motivates them, what they would want.

Second, listen to what they actually say without filtering it. And don’t reply until you know you’ve correctly understood their perspective.

Third, go into conversations ready to be influenced and see things differently.

Fourth, believe that there’s a way for everyone to come out with what they wanted or needed. Desire that the other person gets as much out of the relationship as you.

Persuasion starts with putting on new shoes

Finally, if you want to persuade anyone of anything you have to start by putting yourself in their shoes. And that includes interview situations.

In essence, to persuade someone of something you have to know what they need to believe in order to accept your argument.

For example, if I am trying to sell my services to someone, they have to believe that:

  1. The service will be beneficial to them;
  2. I am capable of delivering the services to a consistently high enough standard;...

... and there are probably other things too.

In an interview situation, in your preparation you should be asking yourself what the interviewer needs to believe – specifically, what skills and experience does he/she need to believe you have? Do they need to believe you’d fit with the team? With the company culture?

And then you think through the potential objections and questions they may have.

And if you start thinking this through and discover you don’t know the answers to these questions, ask them and start listening really well (as per the section above!).

In short, influence and persuasion are about reorientation.

Stop thinking about how influential or persuasive you want to be. And simply think about the other person.

Beyond first steps

This has been a pretty high-level skim of a few things you can practically do to improve your behavioural skills. I hope it’s been helpful.

There are more resources listed below to enable you to take things further. In truth, learning behavioural skills is a lifelong task. But when you build these skills you grow in maturity and wisdom.

I have a short book published called An Introduction to Personal Effectiveness for CFOs and Finance Professionals. It’s available on Amazon. But don’t click that link! Click the next one – that will get you a pdf version free of charge!

And if you want to go even further, get Stephen R. Covey’s classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Related Posts

How to become a great Finance Business Partner... even if the thought scares you!

Important soft skills for business-focused Finance professionals

Free material available

Introduction to Personal Effectiveness for CFOs and Finance Professionals (ebook)

Finance Career Action Planner

Other products

Finance Career Growth Blueprint (ebook) and Finance Career Growth Mini Course

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