Relationship building skills for Finance business partnering

By Andy Burrows

Today, I want to talk about relationship-building skills as a Finance business partner. And I want you to come away with tangible ideas as to how you can improve the way you build relationships.

If you’ve followed this loose series from the beginning, where I pointed out that Finance business partner is the new best route to a CFO role, you’ll know that I mapped out the three skills areas that are common throughout the continuum from Finance business partner to CFO.

And what I’ve done then is to focus in on one really important area of behavioural skills that I believe is the key to all the rest – “personal effectiveness”. And I’ve spent the last three articles expanding on the foundations.

And you may have found it quite weird that I started with skills that are very much individual personal skills. I mean, Finance business partnering is fundamentally all about dealing with other people. And so, you might expect that I’d be focusing on interpersonal skills, like influencing or communication.

But, my argument has been that if you’re going to lead others (and influencing is a form of leadership) then you have to start by leading yourself.

If you can’t bring about change in your own life and work, where is your credibility to lead others through change and improvement?

So, you have to start with developing a “can do attitude”. You have to learn to search into yourself for your motivation, having the ability to critically assess the values and principles you use, and to use creativity and imagination to set a vision and direction. And you have to be able to manage yourself to do the important work of following that direction, while other urgent matters continue to press in on you.

Today I’m going to pivot towards building interpersonal skills onto that foundation.

7 Habits

But, I’m going to come clean at this point. I’ve been basing everything in this series on one of the best books I’ve ever read: Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I wish I’d read it earlier in my life.

And at the risk of digressing too much, I want to say that a lot of people misunderstand that book. If you really take the time to understand it, it is quite revolutionary. But I’ve seen too many people make the mistake of thinking Covey’s main insight was the whole important vs urgent thing I outlined in my last article (I saw an article in Forbes recently saying exactly that).

And one of the things in the book that very gently presses from beginning to end is Covey’s belief that your personal effectiveness increases to the extent that you are living your life (and building your habits) according to “correct principles”.

The principles he’s talking about are things like fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, service, excellence, growth/potential, patience, encouragement.

He makes the point that, “principles are not values. A gang of thieves can share values, but they are a violation of the fundamental principles we’re talking about.... Principles are guidelines for human conduct that are proven to have enduring, permanent value. They’re fundamental. They’re essentially unarguable because they are self-evident.” (p35)

Finance business partners and other people

And so, as we pivot towards the interpersonal skills, and as we talk about relationship building as a Finance business partner, I want to start by mentioning two unhelpful Finance business partnering stances as examples.

First example – thinking it’s all about my influence.

I can’t help feeling a little uncomfortable when those working in Finance business partnering describe their aspiration as becoming more influential in business decision making.

My question is, how does that mean we are viewing other people, our non-Finance colleagues?

Are we assuming that we have all the right answers and that we just need to find (hopefully quick) ways of manipulatively persuading and influencing our non-Finance colleagues to accept our viewpoint?

Is that the right way to view influencing? Is that the right way to view other people – just there to be influenced to carry out our ideas?

Second example – going “native”, i.e. taking sides with the non-Finance manager you’re partnering with and helping them ‘beat the system’ (that the Finance team controls!)

I’ve seen this a lot! I even discovered one of my direct reports doing it and hiding it from me!

I discovered that the accruals balance was a mish mash of spurious credits and debits he’d entered in the system, with no backup, to massage the costs of each department to balance to the plan or forecast.

He did this because he saw it as his job to help the corporate cost centre managers “beat the system” and avoid getting their costs cut when they were under budget or getting in trouble when they were over budget! (No wonder the cost centre managers never had a bad word to say about him!)

Even CFOs do this when they tell one story to the CEO, another to the Exec team, and yet another to the shareholders/investors.

But what does that mean? We are manipulating reactions – i.e. trying to get the end results we want (in terms of bonuses, reputation, career longevity, or simply a quiet life!) by means of telling lies with numbers.

Ethics and Finance business partnering?

So, it’s time to ask the divisive question – how do you want to do the Finance business partnering job? By manipulation, lies and deceit? By politics, semantics and clever presentation of information (i.e. spin)?

Or by using your skills and experience to help your colleagues collaboratively to achieve a common objective – clear improvement in the performance of the business that you can all be proud of together?

In terms of “correct principles”, our qualifying accountancy bodies are very clear and upfront, which has always resonated strongly with me. The very first thing you’re taught by the ICAEW, and I assume the same of ACCA, CIMA and all the others across the world, is the “code of ethics” – principles such as objectivity, confidentiality, integrity, professional behaviour, professional competence.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not naïve. I’ve seen these flouted on a monthly basis throughout my career. But I believe in “correct principles” enough not to become cynical.

What I’m doing here is saying that as we pivot from our self-leadership skills to look at relationship-building skills, our principles will determine how we develop.

Do we just want some quick techniques to help us get what we want out of our business colleagues? Or do we want to build skills based on character and principles that will help us relate to everyone better in the long run?

And I say that lest you think that what I say next can be reduced to a set of quick tips and techniques.

Finance business partnering and leadership based on trust

Fundamentally, relationship-building and the positivity and smooth working of relationships is all based on trust. Negotiation, persuasion, communication, all feel so much better when the level of trust is higher.

I’m not going to spend any time proving that. I think it’s self-evident.

So, the question is then, how can I build trust so that I experience those benefits when it comes to communication, persuasion and leadership?

And I’ve got a few ideas to help you make a start. Think of these in your dealings with every person you have any kind of relationship with, and you can start to build up that level of trust that you need. And it’s genuine trust, too, because these things will actually make you habitually more trustworthy!

1.     Understand the individual

Everyone is different. We are all different mixes of personality types, emotions, hobbies, family experiences, and so on.

Taking the time to understand ‘what makes them tick’ is something that builds up trust.

An example of this is the irony of having a conversation focused on the other person. I learnt this when I used to do a lot of networking. You get in conversation with someone, you ask them questions, show a real interest in them and their business... and they go away thinking what a great person you are and what a great conversation they had with you. They possibly start to think of you as someone they can do business with... and you may not have even told them what business you’re in!

If you then show that you were listening, by building that understanding of them into your future conversations and activities, you can build even more trust.

2.     Don’t neglect the little things

Even what we might call “stupid little things” build trust.

I well remember working in a very big Finance function. The Group Finance Director could have been excused for not being very visible, since the Finance function had almost 1,000 people.

And yet, he’d regularly come down from the Exec floor on a Friday afternoon just to wander round chatting to people in Finance.

And, more to the point, he would remember the conversations he had last time, and follow up. He effectively showed that he was listening, and he cared.

I also remember walking past him in the corridor one day, and he bothered to say, “hi Andy!” He actually remembered my name!

Not only that, if he knew you were the source of some useful analysis or insight, even if it had been embedded in a presentation by a senior manager, he’d get in touch and say thank you directly.

Those are the kinds of little things I mean.

3.     Keep commitments

Keeping commitments is really important when you want to build trust.

And this is probably more a lesson in being careful what commitments we make, so that we know we can stick to them.

The point is, if people come to know you as someone who does what they say they will do, then even your caution in committing to new work becomes a signal that you don’t want to let them down. And they start to trust you as someone they can rely on.

4.     Clarify expectations

Closely related to keeping commitments is clarifying expectations.

I’ve seen lots of people fall foul of making assumptions.

Sometimes it might be they produce a whole ten-page presentation full of analysis when all the person wanted was a phone call with the answer to a question!

Clearly, we have to be careful we don’t go to the extreme of being annoying and clarifying even the blatantly obvious!

But, done well, what this says to the other person is that you care about what they want and why they want it. And if they’re going to rely on you to get something done, then you want to be able to do it well.

You can also see it the other way around, when you’re delegating. It builds trust when you show that you care that someone succeeds in an activity you’ve delegated, by being really clear what the expectations are, and by being available and willing to answer questions about it.

5.     Show personal integrity

Showing integrity is important in building trust.

But integrity is more than honesty.

Honesty is telling the truth. Integrity is being true.

It means doing what we say we’re going to do, and being the way we know is right.

It means not being hypocritical, for example, complaining about someone cutting corners and then blatantly letting ourselves off for doing the same.

It means not saying, “oh she’ll never notice that”, while sweeping dust under the rug!

Stephen Covey comments that, “One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.”

Even if someone agrees with you when you gossip about someone, if you ever then disagree with them they’ll probably think/know that you’ll be off gossiping about them to someone else.

Doing the right thing, having personal integrity, builds up trust. Lack of integrity undermines it.

6.     Apologize sincerely

When you mess up, if you genuinely apologize this can not only undo the damage to the trust between you and the other person, it can build it up.

A genuine apology means you recognise both the wrong and the impact on the other person.

It means you take ownership and don’t try to shift blame.

It means you genuinely care and want to reverse any negative impact.

It means this is not your normal standard.

It means that they can still trust you.

Trust makes things much easier in Finance business partnering

In coming articles we’ll start to look at other interpersonal skills, but I hope you’ll agree that those things become a whole lot easier when there is a foundation of trust.

There are no shortcuts in building trust. So, decide today what kind of person, what kind of Finance business partner, what kind of CFO, you want to be. And think about what that means for the way that you treat people, and what does that for levels of trust in your relationships.

In the next article in the series, we'll move on to look at one of the most important skills to master, if not the most important - listening.

Related Posts

Why Finance Business Partner is the new best route to the CFO role

Finance leadership and influence starts with this one simple thing

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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:

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