The Purpose-Driven CFO Part 9: Developing Finance Business Partnering

 By Andy Burrows

[First published 20th July 2017]

[This article is also on LinkedIn - why not "Follow+" Andy and give the article a "like"?]

I don’t take it for granted that anyone reading this will have read the other articles in this series. Perhaps you have a particular interest in Finance Business Partnering. So, for new readers, I’ll just briefly reiterate the premise of The Purpose-Driven CFO.

That is, what I set out to do was to investigate what difference it makes going back to first principles with the things we do in Finance, and asking “why?” I know from experience that understanding why we do things can increase our motivation in doing them. Once you can see the end goal, and see the benefits of that goal, any tedious, mundane, difficult or complex steps towards it become less burdensome. And often asking “why” reveals implications that will change the way we do things. That has certainly been the case with all the other areas I’ve looked at from this angle.

So, this time I’m turning my attention to Finance business partnering, a subject of growing interest. What is Finance business partnering? And why do we have those roles and job titles within Finance? Why do we need Finance business partners?

But before we get too far, I want to plug a helpful resource:

I’ve put together a “cheat sheet” for Finance business partners, to help you to focus on things that will help the business the most. That’s a FREE resource specially to go with this article. Get that here. It’s designed to guide you through a process to identify the best ways that you can work with business managers and drive better performance in the areas that you specialise in.

What is a Finance Business Partner?

Finance business partnering seems to mean different things to different people. I haven’t had time to read all the great discussion out there. So, what follows is mainly based on my own observations and reflections from 20+ years in Finance, including a lot of time spent doing what I consider to be “business partnering” work.

If you’ve read any of my other articles on Finance business partnering, you will know that I’m not a huge fan of the term “business partner”. I also don’t see FP&A (financial planning and analysis) as having a monopoly on Finance business partnering activities.

However, I accept that there are shortcut ways of describing some roles. The ones we normally call “Finance business partners” are the roles in Finance that are dedicated to being some form of contact point for managers in other parts of the business. They are specified as being an interface between Finance and the rest of the business. And that’s a good thing, because in the midst of the busy world of month end reporting and transaction processing we may forget that we’re part of a business!

Many other Finance people have contacts throughout the business - and in that sense we’re all business partners. But for those dedicated to “business partnering” that contact, or interface, is their top priority.

What is Finance Business Partnering For?

When we come to the question of “why”, the core question of purpose, this is where I start to put forward my own opinion. The key discussion, if I have this right, is over what Finance Business Partners should do and what skills they need.

What I want to suggest is that we should drive out the purpose of Finance business partnering from the purpose of Finance that I discussed in Part 8 of this series.

And the purpose of Finance, as I argued there, is to drive business performance.

Following the logic through, the way I see it is that the purpose of Finance business partnering is therefore to help the business perform better.

Mini CFOs

There are some Finance people I’ve come across who “face off” to a business area who believe their duty as a Finance business partner is to serve their business areas. In practice that means that they help their business contact to negotiate a favourable budget, they help them to hide spurious accruals, and make sure their business cases are approved. They see themselves as existing to fight the corner of the business area they are allocated to.

I see that as potentially damaging to the performance of the business. As Finance professionals within the business, probably the top things expected of us (as well as our Finance skills) are objectivity, independence and clarity. We are there to help managers to do the right things for business performance, not to help them to just do the things they want to.

So, as I said in Part 8, we should get out of a servant mentality, and try to start challenging, coaching, mentoring, training, encouraging, etc.

I made the point in Part 8 that the investors hold the CFO responsible for business performance. And they expect the CFO to be watching out for their best interests. That means they expect Finance to be driving business performance.

What that means for Finance business partnering roles is that they should model themselves on the CFO role. They are mini CFOs! They are to their business management counterparts what the CFO is to the business as a whole.

Finance Business Partners are Key to Business Decision Making

Those who have that special role to link Finance with different areas of the business may not have the title, “Finance Business Partner”. They may be a Finance Director, a VP of Finance, a Head of Finance, a Financial Analyst or whatever. Even a Financial Controller can be a Finance Business Partner. But, whatever their title, they have two important requirements on the business side of their relationships.

Firstly, they must “know the business”. That’s a very vague expression. It really means that they should know how the business area works and the context it operates in. This is something that comes with experience, and is why I don’t personally recommend putting someone in this kind of role too early on in their career. And really, to get that level of understanding you have to learn to ask questions like the following (and grapple with the answers until you grasp the implications):

  • How does your business area fit into the overall business? What does it contribute?
  • Where does this business area fit into the execution of business/corporate strategy? What are we doing to help with that?
  • Who are our customers?
  • What is our product/service?
  • How does our product/service help our customers? What do our customers do with it?
  • Do we build or buy the product we sell?
  • Do we serve internal customers (in other parts of the business)?
  • What are the key things that help to deliver a good product or service? People skills? Good IT platforms? Etc
  • How many people are there in the business area? And what do they do?
  • Do we work with external suppliers? What do they do for us?
  • What are the key risks in the business area?

There are many other questions to ask. You essentially just have to be curious, really wanting to understand how this business area works and what it contributes, and what it’s issues are. “Know the business!”

Secondly, they must be involved in business decision making, not just as a “trusted advisor”, but as a key influencer. That is true partnership. The Finance Business Partner should be part of the management team for the area, and should contribute to discussions and decisions as an equal rather than an observer.

I know that’s not easy to achieve. It takes time and effort to build trust, as well as sensitivity to avoid coming across as the Finance spy! Sometimes to achieve this you have to get support from your boss in Finance and ultimately the CFO. If the CFO says this is the business partnering model, then even your business management colleagues can’t argue with that!

Knowing Finance

And the other side of the link is equally important. If you’re going to link Finance in with managers throughout the business, then you’re going to have to know Finance very well. That means not just your team, not just FP&A, not just Reporting, but everything that goes on in Finance. Big job, isn’t it?!

This is important so that you can fully explain to your business contacts how the finances work. You also get to know which different people in the Finance team you can draw on for help with different things. Got a problem with a supplier invoice? You need to know the AP manager. Got a tax question? You need to know how to get hold of the tax department. Want to know how monthly financial reports are put together? You need to know the Financial Reporting team. You get the picture.

The CFO leads the whole of Finance, end to end, every aspect. Mini CFOs also need to maintain an end to end view of Finance, and have contacts throughout the whole function.

To be a Finance Business Partner you must know the business and know Finance, inside out. This not only instils trust and confidence in you from your business colleagues. It means that together you will improve the performance of the business.

How to Manage Business Performance

It won’t surprise you to hear that the other thing Finance Business Partners (whatever their actual job title) must grasp is how to drive business performance. Understanding this in general terms, having a framework to work to, will help to piece together the priorities for Finance in relation to the business as a whole.

I went through this briefly in part 8, so I don’t propose to go over it again here.

You can also learn more about that in a short guide I wrote, called How Finance Can Drive Business Performance.

Be Intentional in Finance Business Partnering

Finally, Finance Business Partners must be intentional in the work they do with their business management counterparts. I guess in one sense that’s circular reasoning – I’m arguing from deliberately taking a purpose-driven approach to say that FBPs must be purposeful! But really I’m saying more than that.

 What I’m encouraging is for Finance Business Partners to consider what’s going on in the area they’re partnered with. And then in the light of what’s going on, come up with a plan for how best to drive business performance in partnership with their management contacts. This should then be discussed and agreed with the management team of the business area in the spirit of true partnership.

 What I’m saying is that it’s not enough to just recognise that the role exists to drive business performance. That’s great. But it will only take you so far.

What we need is to fully work through what that means for us individually. And in the case of Finance Business Partnering, even the involved, performance-driving, kind that I’ve been suggesting, the outworking will be different depending on the business manager(s) being worked with. 

That may even mean that if an FBP works with 3 or 4 different areas, the work they do for each of them may be different.

But how do we work out what to do?

Here’s the trick. The BPM Wheel model I briefly outlined in Part 8 is designed for this kind of thing.

My suggestion is to go through each of the elements in the BPM Wheel framework and note down the relevant issues in each of the business areas that you work with. In fact, CFOs – why not make this an exercise to make sure the whole business is partnered effectively?

To do that, start at the top level – the business and the CEO, noting the relevant points for each framework element. The CFO is the Finance Business Partner at that level. Then take the organisation structure – who reports to the CEO – and treat that as Level 2. For each area (whether a business unit or a function) do the same thing. Note the relevant points for each of the framework elements. Then go down to Level 3 – who reports in to those people and what are their issues with each of the BPM Wheel elements? Go as far down the hierarchy as you need to. But I don’t suggest you go further than team management (or department) level. By doing this you will have a comprehensive view of how strategic priorities, issues and risks flow up and down the hierarchy. And you can start to put together a business partnering action plan.

FREEBIE Downloads

The Finance Business Partnering "Cheat Sheet"

I created a “cheat sheet” to guide you through the process above, capturing the key points in your investigations. It’s another FREE thing I’m giving away just to show how this purpose-driven approach can be applied in practice. Get that by clicking here!

WHITE PAPER: How Finance Can Drive Business Performance

There is also this FREE short guide to help you get your head around the way Finance contributes to adding value and driving performance in business: Download here!

Related articles

To save you looking, here are the links to all the articles in this series:

Part 1 - Why be purpose-driven?

Part 2 - Is it time to bin the budget?

Part 3 - Purpose-driven strategy

Part 4 - Financial reporting for what?

Part 5 - Don't waste money on projects

Part 6 - Internal control is for Finance Business Partners too

Part 7 - The great alternative to analysis paralysis

Part 8 - What is a purpose-driven Finance function?

Part 9 - Developing Finance business partnering

Part 10 - Finding purpose in the boring bits of Finance

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