Finance leadership and influence starts with this one simple thing

By Andy Burrows

What you are reading, whether you realise it now or not, could lead to a turning point in your career. And I’m confident that I’m not overstating the case.

I count this as one of my most important articles to date, because what I want to talk about is something that I learnt that revolutionised my thinking about 15 years ago.

I hope that I manage to get this across clearly to you, because the things I’m going to talk about can:

  • Be a foundation for growth in your career;
  • Start to give you the confidence to do bigger things and make quicker progress;
  • Give you the ability to build new and more productive habits.

So, I hope that I manage to spark something important for you here in this short article in the same way that someone did for me during a 3-day leadership programme 15 years ago.

Are you stuck as a Finance business partner or CFO?

So, let’s first consider where you are now.

Do you find yourself complaining that you can’t do much Finance business partnering (even as a CFO) because of all the mundane ‘stuff’ you have to do? Do you feel like your working days are filled with keeping on top of emails, grinding out numbers, writing commentaries, reconciling figures, answering stupid questions, doing endless budget iterations that don’t make any difference, etc etc?

Are you a Chief Financial Officer, or in senior Finance leadership, and you’re finding it difficult to gain any influence? Do people find it easy to dismiss whatever you say? Do they roll their eyes and talk behind your back about you being a “bean counter”? And yet, I bet you’re also one of the ones who gets the blame when things go wrong!

And then on top of that you see other Finance business partners, CFOs, Finance leaders, out there making a difference, talking positively, engaging well with the business, trusted and valued.

There are too many to list even just the ones writing about this kind of thing on LinkedIn. Refer again to Anders Liu-Lindberg’s 2018 and 2019 lists of who to follow in Finance on LinkedIn for some great exponents and (if you’re active on Linkedin) some familiar names.

You’re thinking, “those people prove it must be possible. But how can I do that? It feels beyond me! I just don’t have the time. There’s no one to support me.”

And even someone like me – how did I go from being a ‘bog-standard’ accountant (in 1995) to a regular Finance writer (and influencer) in the CFO and Finance leadership space, a book author and internet entrepreneur... without giving up along the way because of four redundancies and four rounds with cancer (one of which I’m still going through!)?

There’s no overnight success in Finance leadership

The first thing to say about myself, and literally everyone who is doing well in Finance business partnering and Finance leadership, whether they publicly talk about it or not, is that there was no way to get where we’ve got in one simple step overnight.

There is no magic.

But there is a ‘secret sauce’ that we keep neglecting to talk about!...

It’s not all about circumstance. We haven’t had lucky breaks or simply had the good fortune to work in great companies. It’s not random.

What I have to talk to you about today is the first, foundational, aspect of the core skillset you need to make progress as a Finance business partner, CFO or in any Finance leadership role.

Personal effectiveness in Finance leadership

And, so you know, I’m choosing my words carefully. I say that you need this skillset to “make progress” and not to “be successful”. Not only is success subjective and relative, it’s not entirely within your control.

We should never beat ourselves up or give up because we don’t achieve some particular goal. The most important things are growth and progress.

Conversely, whilst it’s rightly satisfying to celebrate success in achieving something, we also need the wisdom to be humble and recognise it wasn’t all down to our superiority in anything, and to celebrate the way that we went about it and what we learnt.

Ok, no more preamble! Let’s get to the point!

The ‘secret sauce’ skillset I’m talking about is what I would call “personal effectiveness”.

If you’ve read my recent article on the areas of skill needed to be a Finance business partner or CFO, you’ll remember that I categorise the skills needed for Finance leadership under three headings – business acumen, behavioural and technical.

Personal effectiveness is under the “behavioural” category. In fact, it’s the fundamental subset, the linchpin, the gasoline that ignites the others.

At the risk of getting repetitive, quoting from that article: “In my 25-year career in accountancy and finance, I can honestly say that what I’ve learnt in this [behavioural skills] area has been more helpful, more revolutionary, more career- and life-propelling, than any technical area. These are skills that not only help you at work, but will help you in every area of life, in marriage and relationships and friendships.”

Why start with personal effectiveness as a Finance business partner?

The reason I see this as so important is that fundamentally Finance business partners, Chief Financial Officers and Finance leaders are called to have credibility and influence in the business. They have to (progressively with their experience and seniority) lead the business to perform well.

And if it’s all about leading others then you have to start with yourself. People allow themselves to be influenced and led by people with personal credibility.

If you can’t lead yourself, how can you lead others?

If you can’t get out of the mire of mundane work and lack of reputation yourself then how can you lead others, and lead a business, out of strategic performance problems?

And since research has shown that to become an expert in a complex skill takes 10 years of purposeful practice (see findings quoted in Matthew Syed, Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers), you need to get a handle on this as soon as you can!

That’s why I put this early in the skills development continuum for Finance business partners on the way to CFO roles.

Stupidly simple ways to break out of a rut

There are several aspects to the skillset that I called “personal effectiveness”. And I intend, God willing, to cover these aspects in the articles I publish over the next few weeks.

But I’m going to start here with something so simple you may be tempted to dismiss it. I urge you not to!

But first let me give you some illustrations from my own experience.

In May/June 2018 I set myself a challenge. I called it my “30-day LinkedIn Video Challenge”.

I publicly committed to posting a short video on LinkedIn every working day for a 30-day period. My intention was to start to train myself to get over my awkwardness on camera especially in unscripted situations.

I was outside my comfort zone and very nervous to start with. By the end of 30 days I was much better and feeling much more relaxed, aided by the fact that people were very kind in their feedback. (And if you’re really interested, you can find those videos on the Supercharged Finance YouTube channel.)

Ten years earlier I was outside my comfort zone in a different way.

I was pursuing a business venture that required me to do a lot of networking. The thought scared me... a lot! Perhaps you can relate!

But I asked a little advice, read some simple tips, gave myself a good talking to (that’s the important part!) and joined some networking groups. Many nice breakfasts later and I’d formed a load of new relationships and was enjoying regular conversations with small business owners, finding out about what they did.

However, the foundations were laid about three years before that, just after the leadership programme I referred to earlier.

I committed (to myself) to do something every week that made me nervous. Baby steps. Actually, it didn’t even have to make me nervous. It just had to be different to what I would normally do.

So, I sat at a different desk; used a different car park; wore a colourful tie; used phone rather than email; decided to be first to volunteer for exercises at the front of class in training courses or team meetings, or ask the first question in a CEO Q&A session; and so on. It didn’t have to make a difference to anything, or even be noticeable to other people, just so long as it was breaking habits.

My aim in this was partly to prove to myself that making changes was simply an act of the will. In the past sometimes I’d felt unable to do new things or do things differently. But I had to realise that there were few physical barriers, and that with the right direction and guidance change is possible... and in many cases much easier than you think.

After a while, the changes were more noticeable and more nerve-wracking. But my fear level was decreasing as I realised that nothing bad happened when I changed things!

Finance leadership skills are within your reach

I hope you’d agree that the last example is something that you could do.

And it’s based on a skill called a “can-do attitude”!

Henry Ford famously said that, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right!” I used to annoy my team with that one as a Finance Director even before that leadership programme I was talking about! I also wasn’t very popular for telling them that, “where there’s a will there’s a way!”

But this is the essence of this incredible insight!

The people you see who make great progress with things, who don’t give up, who overcome incredible adversity, who over time develop amazing gravitas and credibility, are the people who have this outlook either naturally or with intentional development.

And you probably, like my old team, dismiss this as just one random element and think that it’s ok for you to continue with the “Eeyore” negative mentality!

But my realisation at that leadership programme 15 years ago was that this is backed by research, and in reality, it’s the starting point and foundation for great leadership via personal effectiveness.

Personal effectiveness skills as a business-focused Finance professional

This has been quite a long article, because it’s a really important topic. But I just want to finish with three very simple concepts that underpin the “can-do attitude”. There’s more to it, of course, but if you write these down and think about them, I’m sure you will start to experience some growth.

1. We are not animals. We are not governed by any kind of determinism that says that our response to stimuli is inevitable. There is a gap between stimulus and response where we all have the ability to choose. We are “response-able”, as Stephen Covey says in probably one of the best books I have ever read – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

We are able to move our thinking from, “I have to do xyz”, to, “I choose to do xyz.”

2. Give yourself a good talking to! When we are in that gap between stimulus and response (often we deliberately imagine ourselves there in order to think it through), we can ask ourselves why (normally subconsciously) we find ourselves inclined to a particular course of action.

We are blessed, as human beings, set apart from animals, with self-awareness, imagination, conscience and free will, amongst other things. We can analyse our motives and intentions. And what we find is that quite often our normal inclination is based on false beliefs (such as, “everyone will laugh at me if I speak on a stage”).

If we can consciously challenge the false beliefs underpinning the way we normally respond, we find we are able to change our inclination very quickly to the exact opposite! This is what I meant by, “giving myself a good talking to.”

3. Keeping commitments. Making small commitments and sticking to them consistently will build new habits and replace old ways of doing things.

Now over to you

Now it’s time for you to start. Why not choose the next 30 days to change something, something not too difficult, make a commitment and stick to it consistently? And then reflect on how your “can do attitude” has gone up a level.

There are more articles in this series on personal effectiveness in Finance leadership - the next one is about how Finance leaders set the direction.

Free ebook available

I've put all the articles from this series into a book which you can buy on Amazon ... but you can also get the pdf download version of the book free by clicking the link below:

An Introduction to Personal Effectiveness for CFOs and Finance Professionals

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