By Andy Burrows
Do you want to be awesome in your work in Finance?
Perhaps you roll your eyes cynically? Perhaps ‘awesome’ seems to be a bit over-the-top?
I mean, ok, so you’d rather be ‘a little bit good’, ‘in the upper quartile’ or ‘showing signs of improvement’? Yawn...
Well, whatever you think of this article, I hope you’ll come away picturing what a Finance team would be like to work in if it was really [insert your own favoured superlative].
And when you’re thinking about Finance transformation, that picture could form the basis for the vision. That’s what you want to transform into. When you close your eyes and visualise an awesome Finance team, you don’t normally visualise a brand new shiny SAP instance or an offshore service centre. So, what do you visualise?
Anyway, this article is really all about defining the new paradigm for working in Finance.
A paradigm is really a way of looking at something. Paradigms can help if they’re accurate, just like a map can help if it’s accurate and appropriate (i.e. there’s no point looking at a map of Nairobi to find your way around Chicago, however accurate it is!).
Why do we need a new paradigm?
Because our old one is out of date. It’s like an old map. Technology and culture have changed business so much that Finance needs to change too.
Management thinker, Peter Drucker, spoke of moving from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Worker Age.
Stephen R Covey explains it like this:
“The main assets and primary drivers of economic prosperity in the Industrial Age were machines and capital – things. People were necessary but replaceable. You could control and churn through manual workers with little consequence – supply exceeded demand. You just got more able bodies that would comply with strict procedures. People were like things – you could be efficient with them. When all you want is a person’s body and you don’t really want their mind, heart or spirit..., you have reduced a person to a thing.”
He goes on to say, “The new Knowledge Worker Age is based on a new paradigm, one entirely different than the thing paradigm of the Industrial Age. Let’s call it the Whole-Person Paradigm...
“The fundamental reality is, human beings are not things needing to be motivated and controlled; they are four dimensional – body, mind, heart and spirit.”
Work in the modern world is less about repetitive individual activities, and more about adaptive, collaborative, processes and teamwork.
Finance is no different. We don’t just churn out accounts, write numbers in ledgers, fill in tax returns, and so on. We are much more a part of the business, collaborating in generating optimum performance.
We’re not things any more, not just there to follow repetitive processes. We are whole-person Finance professionals - body, mind, heart and spirit.
We need to get away from the “to-do list” mentality, where we come to work with just a list of responsibilities. Monthly accounting and reporting, financial controls, bank recs, constructing the budget, doing a forecast, doing the VAT return... Turn up, do it, go home...
And what I’ve discovered from reflecting on the way I think about the Finance function is that we can relate the four human dimensions to four important perspectives on our work:
I picture it like this:
So, what does that all mean?
Well, I don’t think anyone would dispute that Finance people need to use their mental faculties to do analysis.
But it’s not quite as simple as that, and it’s more demanding than ever.
In the old days, Accounting and Finance was predominantly about recording things and adding things up.
Nowadays, the recording and adding up is all done by computers. That leaves our mental capacity free for critical thinking and curiosity.
We can now ask questions about why things have happened, and what will happen under certain conditions.
We can think about links between things. Cause and effect, drivers, links, processes.
We can model how things could look with different assumptions.
Logic and careful thinking, and high-quality questioning, will therefore be the hallmarks of a great Finance team.
Secondly, whereas Finance has always focused on the numbers, now we need to recognise that numbers only have meaning to people.
People request financial information for their own reasons, and understanding those reasons will help us to provide it in the right way to satisfy them.
People interpret our financial reports based on their level of financial acumen, and the clarity with which we present them. So, we need to be sensitive and present information in ways the users will understand. And we need to take time to explain and to educate.
We also now have to relate more closely with the rest of the business. We’re called upon to collaborate and partner. We’re called to be involved in decisions. And that requires us to build relationships where we don’t just talk about accounts and tax. We must learn to build trust, to communicate clearly, to influence and persuade.
We do our work, too, as people, not as things. So, we need personal effectiveness and interpersonal effectiveness more than ever.
Thirdly, modern Finance needs to be purpose-driven.
Now, I’ve been misunderstood a couple of times on this. When I say “purpose-driven” I don’t mean the trendy new concept that businesses can exist for more than just profit.
What I mean by “purpose-driven” is that the way we do our work should recognise the reasons that the work exists.
In the thing paradigm workers never had to think about why they were doing their work. “JDI” (Just-do-it!) was a real management style. Accountants were never really encouraged to ask questions.
Nowadays, asking questions based on the numbers, and on the actions and results of the business, is expected.
And since the automatable work has mostly been automated, we’re left with a lot more tasks that are discretionary, self-started and complex. We have to prioritise for ourselves more.
And we want to do a good job. The thing is that the definition of a “good performance” is achieving your objectives. And your objectives are just a more specific version of your ‘why’, your purpose.
So, in order to do a good job, you have to be conscious of your purpose. And knowing the purpose and importance of all the various work you have to do helps you to prioritise.
Finally, we should be business-focused.
This is the ultimate purpose statement really. What are we in the business for? To help the business!
On one level that’s not really saying very much. But at another it’s what we tend to forget.
The thing paradigm of the Industrial Age made us very task-focused, immersed in our internal processes in our own “silo”.
For instance, if we had to process staff expenses, we’d focus on what we have to do to process the accounting and the payment. But if we’re honest we’d be seeing the accounting as a system-inputting task and the payment as another system-inputting task.
What if we were to see the staff expenses as focused on reimbursing our colleagues and friends for out-of-pocket expenditure that they make in order to help the business in some way?
Do we think first of the business benefit of the people travelling to get important work done for the business? Or do we think first of the potential risk, fraud, errors in accounting, and so on, that might go on if we didn’t make life really difficult for these people?
But let’s also be clear. When I talk about “business-focus” I really mean the business and not just the people.
What am I getting at? Well, Finance Business Partners sometimes get tempted to help their non-Finance colleagues to circumvent certain financial control procedures. They’ll slip away accruals, “smooth” forecasts, see what capitalisation and revenue-recognition trickery they can “get away with”, fudge a business case. No use denying it! I’ve seen too much of it in my time!
But that’s not helping the business. What’s best for the business may be painful for some colleagues.
Do we “smooth” performance reports to avoid the CEO falling off his chair or from getting mad and firing someone?
Hiding performance issues is not helping the business, because no-one can do anything about what they don’t know about, even if they get upset about it!
Being business-focused is having the performance of the business as the highest priority in everything we do. We think about how our jobs can help the business perform to meet the expectations of the owners.
What impact do we, or can we, have on performance, both directly and indirectly, in the way we do our jobs (whatever they are)?
In concluding, I hope that you can see now that the whole-person paradigm for Finance is not just an excuse for a pretty diagram. It really does reflect the development in business and world culture.
In responding the way that business is changing, we need to be:
Then I think we’ll be ‘awesome’!
Why not, for a bit of fun, download our Finance Awesomeness Scorecard, to help you think through areas where your Finance team could improve in the whole-person paradigm?
And, as ever, if you have any other ideas triggered by my thoughts, I’d love to hear from you!
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