By Andy Burrows
In this article I’m going to give you nine tips from my experience that will help you to increase your business reputation and impact, even if you’re not a Finance Business Partner.
When I’m coaching and training, especially speaking to our My Finance Coach members, I’ll often come across frustrations such as:
“I’m stuck! I can’t get into a business partnering role!”
“My role is so dry. How can I be Finance Business Partner?”
And my advice is essentially to put the thoughts of a Finance Business Partner role, and Finance business partnering, on one side. I encourage people to think more in terms of how they can help the business, than whether they have a particular role or title or not.
Sure, it helps a lot to have a Finance Business Partner role on your way up the ladder, if you want to be a CFO.
But the most important thing is to be business-focused, wherever you are and whatever you do in Finance.
That’s why I talk mainly about ‘business-focused Finance’ rather than Finance business partnering. It’s more inclusive.
So, here are my nine tips:
Sometimes it can feel like we don’t have time to go ‘out and about’, chatting with non-Finance colleagues. Finance Business Partners make out that it’s all they do, while we’re stuck back at the ranch, herding numbers around the balance sheet and P&L.
But we often overlook the fact that pretty much everyone in Finance has some level of interaction with people outside of our department. It’s a case of making more of it.
If you have a customer who isn’t paying on time or has a problem with their PO number, or whatever, who do you speak to if you’re in credit control? The account manager, the sales person? Are they in Finance? No! And there you are talking to them! Use the opportunity to open up wider conversations, to understand their processes, their priorities, and find out where you can help them more.
If you have a purchase invoice that you need more information on – perhaps you don’t have enough to code it correctly, or perhaps it’s large or it looks like something that should be prepaid or accrued or capitalised – who do you speak to if you’re in reporting or purchase ledger? Cost centre managers? Are they in Finance? No! And there you are talking to them! Use the opportunity to talk and build relationships.
If you’re putting a budget together, or a forecast, do you do that on your own? I hope not! You speak with non-Finance colleagues. That’s something to build on! Follow up!
You’re not ‘stuck in the back office’ as much as you think.
Sometimes opportunities open up to get involved in cross-functional projects, like acquisition integration, systems implementation, new customer take-on, or new products. These are excellent opportunities to learn about what other teams do, what their main concerns are, and how they fit in. It’s also a chance to share what you know, share about what Finance is all about (people often read us all wrong!), and show what else you could help them with.
We sometimes avoid these opportunities, though, because we’re afraid of the extra work.
I’m not going to tell you that you should always take on the extra work. But see them, perhaps, with a higher priority. Consider carefully whether you can delay other work to fit them in, because these things are normally important for the business, will help with your reputation, and will teach you a lot.
Being business-focused starts with understanding how your role helps the business.
Have you ever thought about this? Genuine question. Let me know in the comments or in an email.
I don’t think we think about this enough. Every role in the business helps the business in some way. If a role doesn’t help the business, it shouldn’t exist at all. Don’t bother with trying to distinguish between “value adding” roles and “non-value adding”. They’re all value-adding unless they’re pointless and time wasting.
So, in Finance terms, it’s not that Finance Business Partners are the ones who add value (or “create value”) and everyone else doesn’t. I once saw a horrible analogy that showed Finance Operations as the roots of tree, Reporting and Analysis was the trunk and branches. Finance Business Partners were the ones delivering the fruit to the business. But as someone said, “would you rather be a root or a fruit?” Terribly snooty, if you ask me.
So, come on, how does your role help the business?
Mostly we just come in to work, do what’s in our job description, and go home. We don’t ask how it actually helps the business.
Here’s an example. If we didn’t process purchase invoices, who would have to do it? Someone has to do it! I know it sounds like I’m stating the obvious. Bear with me!
So, the reason we in Finance are employed to process purchase invoices is because we have the expertise and the knowledge of how they should be recorded, and to save someone with different expertise having to do it. If a customer services advisor had to process invoices, they wouldn’t be using their skills and experience in customer services.
So, knowing that, isn’t it obvious that a great way to help the business in our invoice processing is to make it easier and easier and less time consuming for non-Finance people?
It takes a shift in thinking to ask, “who am I doing this for? Why am I doing it?”
If we’re starting to see that we have more contact with non-Finance areas than we appreciate, and that whatever we do benefits the business somehow, then we can build on that by offering to meet up with people who benefit from our work.
We’re talking here about being conscious of our stakeholders.
What I’ve found is that meeting with people who we interface with is much more productive than emailing or other more impersonal means.
In my first Finance Manager role, my team used to send out weekly reports to Customer Services, Operations, and other departments, with queries on transactions. Then when I asked why some of the queries were so old and unresolved, they’d say that either no-one had answered or that they’d passed it to a different department. I suggested that as well as a weekly report, they should have a weekly meeting between Finance and the other departments, run through the queries and actually discuss them in person. Within a few weeks they were down to a minimal number of outstanding queries.
It sounds great, doesn’t it, to get all the hi-tech intranet, messaging, self-service reporting, etc? And yet quite often that reduces our impact because it removes proper communication and relationship building opportunities.
If you’re wondering what to talk to your non-Finance colleagues about, over and above your transactional or specific queries, I’d say simply be interested.
In other places, myself and others have talked about being curious as a key trait of a Finance business partnering mindset.
Be curious and learn what they do, why they do it, even how they do it.
Try to piece together a picture of how each area fits into the way the business serves the customer and generates value for the owners.
Ask why certain things are thought to be priorities, why certain KPIs are monitored, why they like or dislike some of the things Finance does.
And don’t accept everything they say, necessarily. What you’re trying to do is to see things from their perspective, to understand them, first of all. Once you understand them, you may have a clearer view of where they fit in with business strategy and performance. But it may require further discussion to persuade them to see things differently.
The point is that curiosity, leading to understanding, is the starting point for collaboration and closer working relationships where you can help the business more.
And remember, you’re there to help the business to perform better, not to help a particular non-Finance colleague to achieve a potentially misguided objective. Always bear that distinction in mind! (That’s partly why you may notice that I don’t talk about everyone outside of Finance as “the business”. I talk about Finance and non-Finance people, all of us working together to make the business successful.)
When you’re liaising with your non-Finance colleagues, listen out for their priorities. Or outright ask them!
They may not have the right priorities, in your opinion. That’s allowed! But the fact is that if they are prioritising some things higher than the thing you need their help with, then you’re going to struggle!
Rather than going off in a huff, one helpful approach can be to use that knowledge of their priorities to help them more. Ask what you can do to help them with their priorities, rather than just trying to give them more work to do.
Not only is that potentially helping the business too, but it also builds trust. Because it shows that you genuinely care about helping them, and not just about getting your stuff done.
Then use the trust you’ve built up when you need to challenge them to think more clearly about their alignment with business strategic priorities.
Business strategy should unite people across the organisation around a vision. It should be specific enough that everyone should know their role in achieving the strategic goals.
Whether it’s in the curious questions you ask or in conversations around projects, you can show your growing business acumen by being laser-focused on business strategy. If you’re all bought into the strategy, then you can never be accused of business heresy if you try to bring strategy and vision into conversation. It may be annoying! But people usually admit that you’re annoyingly helpful by keeping them on target.
The point is that whether you’re the Financial Controller, Financial Reporting Accountant, Tax Manager or Internal Auditor, you’re allowed to speak about business strategy! And it’s being a business-focused Finance professional if you do!
I’ve said in other places, we’re not in the business just to spectate or commentate.
The profit number – or any other number in the P&L or balance sheet, for that matter – is not just a product of mathematics. It’s not something that is just a number on a report.
If you randomly get your calculator and type 2 + 2, that will give you 4. What will that mean? Nothing! But if 2 is the amount of cash you had at the end of last month, and 2 is the amount of cash generated this month, and 4 is the amount of dividend the owner needs to allow her go on holiday next month (!), then the sum has a real life consequence!
What I’m saying is you must understand what the numbers mean, not just crunch them out and send out a P&L report.
When I first worked in a business Finance team, one of the first jobs I had to learn was doing the monthly P&L commentary. Quite scary when you’re new to the business. So I tried to copy what they’d done for the previous months to get me going. When I read the previous months’ commentaries, however, it was a double-edged sword. On one hand they were so bad they didn’t give me much to copy from, but on the other hand I couldn’t do them much worse!
And the reason I say they were bad is because they’d say things like, “distribution costs are £45k up on budget and £55k up on last year, which is 25%.”
No-one had thought to ask why! If distribution costs are different to budget, either the budget was wrong or something has changed. If they’re different to last year, either we’re sending more goods out or being charged more postage. Each of those reasons need a different response.
What I actually found out was that a lot of the ups and downs were because of incorrect accruals. And where did those accruals come from? Finance! Oops! Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked ‘why’ so much!
I’ll leave that story there!
What I’m keen to get across is that some of the best “Finance business partners” I’ve known have been Financial Controllers. Why? Because they knew the numbers inside out, and what they meant for the business.
The critical thing is business-focus, not job title!
I find myself saying this a lot. Talk about value more than cost, process or procedure.
Value is a business performance term, and it will always lead you back to the business vision and strategy. And it will always help your conversations to keep those things in mind.
Often in Finance we obsessively talk about the cost of things. Or we can get the reputation for enforcing unhelpful rules, procedures and processes, just for the sake of control. We chase signatures and obsess over codes.
It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about those things. But they bring us to better collaboration in the context of business performance management if we keep value in mind when we talk about them.
What value would be generated by spending on something?
What value can be protected by a particular control or procedure?
I hope those points are helpful to you and give you ideas about how you can turn a role you thought was mundane into a business-focused and impactful role.
It’s all about having the right mindset – being business-focused.
Business-focused Finance is what I’m all about, and it’s what I teach and coach in the My Finance Coach membership that I run for Supercharged Finance. Do take a look and see if it’s something that would work for you.
And have a look at the free downloads below too. They’re designed to help you to learn how to be more business-focused, have more impact in business, and to have a rewarding and successful career in Finance.
Short guide to How Finance Can Drive Business Performance
Andy Burrows is a popular writer and speaker on a wide range of topics in Business Finance and Accounting. He provides online training and coaching, through the unique My Finance Coach service from Supercharged Finance.
He was named as one of the top voices on LinkedIn in 2019 in Finance, Accounting and FP&A.
Qualified as a chartered accountant, Andy has worked in many senior Finance roles over the last 20 years, including Finance Director at one stage, across many different sectors in a variety of companies.
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