How to get into a strategic role in Finance

accountant career cfo finance Jun 12, 2020

By Andy Burrows

When I ran our Finance Career Growth Masterclass a little while ago, I asked people to send me their Finance career questions. I then did my best to answer those from my experience.

And there were some great questions, and some common themes came out.

So, I thought it would be good to share those with you, along with my thoughts in answering them. So, this is the first in a little series looking at various career questions relating to Finance.

The first one I want to talk about is how to get into a more strategic role in Finance.

But first, I just want to quickly make a brief point.

My answers to the questions are my own personal opinions based on more than 25 years of experience in the Finance and Accounting profession, in many different roles, in businesses of varying size, complexity, sector and geographical diversity.

You may think I’m wrong. You may even think my advice is way off. If so, I want to hear your perspective. Wherever I refer to this article in social media, please comment and get a discussion going. Discussion and getting different perspectives always helps.

The frustration when we can’t be as strategic as we want

Here’s a paraphrase of a question I received:

“My biggest question for my career is how to make the first step to a more strategic role?

“My biggest frustration at the moment is that I’m in a role where I can’t add much value or contribute to decision making. It’s an SME and l thought it would be easier to influence the decision makers. To my surprise, it’s actually more difficult.”

Another similar question was,

“How can Finance professionals be a part of the strategic decision making in their organizations?”

And there are really two aspects in here. There’s the desire to be more involved in strategic decision making, rather than just number crunching. And then there are the particular issues of small businesses. And those are both very important concerns.

Size matters

I’m going to tackle the second point first. What are the particular issues with a small business?

Firstly, notice that I’m deliberately focusing on “small” business and not “SME” as the category for the question. I believe that the term “SME” covers a spectrum that makes it hard to generalise, just like talking about “large” businesses covers a spectrum.

So, there’s a big difference between being in a small Finance team of four people in a small business with a $10m turnover and being a standalone Finance team of 40 people in a medium-sized business with a $250m turnover.

And there are different issues for Finance people.

In medium-sized businesses, the owners and investors tend to be separate to the executive directors. In small businesses, you will most likely be working directly with the owner or main shareholder.

And that affects attitudes towards Finance.

Professional investors, big corporate lenders, private equity investors, portfolio entrepreneurs, tend to love Finance. The CFO is the first person they tend to go to for practical common sense about business performance, and to get a pragmatic down-to-earth view of strategy, risk and business plans.

Contrast that with small business owners, fledgling entrepreneurs really, who are still building their business from within.

Sometimes these small business owners think they know everything about strategy and performance, and all they want is for someone to stop them getting tax office fines or running out of cash. And I’m not knocking that, necessarily. That’s pretty business critical!

Think differently about Finance business partnering

And that highlights two things:

First, when we talk about Finance business partnering as a mindset or concept, rather than a role, the practicalities of that can vary depending on the size of the business and the relationships involved.

In a small business, your help in making sure the tax returns are filed correctly and on time, and your help in managing cashflow diligently, are absolutely mission critical. And I believe we should be affirming those things in that context as very much Finance business partnering.

In a larger business, where cashflow and tax compliance are more stable and under control, those things may be “operationalised”, so that Finance business partnering can have a different focus.

But the point is that Finance business partnering should direct Finance expertise at the particular performance concerns, strategic and operational, that the particular business has at any time.

It’s no use letting the company go bust because you were too proud to get your hands dirty with a cashflow forecast, and you were too busy mucking about with sales analysis in Excel spreadsheets! No-one in the business is going to see you as much of a partner if you do that!

I was once the Head of Finance in a $10m software company, where I was one of four people in the Finance team. I helped out with literally anything I was asked to do. If the purchase ledger clerk was away, I processed invoices on Sage. If the revenue accountant was away, I generated sales invoices and planned the revenue recognition entries. Every week I planned the payment runs. Every month, I reviewed the payroll reports and ensured the funding. I checked the bank balance every day and updated the cashflow forecast. I also organised the health and safety audit, managed the receptionist, and got involved in HR.

But I also helped to provide information for the investors and potential purchasers of the business, so that they could make decisions. And I chatted daily with the CFO to make sure I was up to speed and thinking about how I could help him advise the Board.

Empathy is the starting point in heading towards strategic roles

Secondly, when small business owners resist their Finance team getting involved in the direction of the business, it’s partly because they don’t know, or haven’t experienced, the value we can bring, above the obvious accounting and tax.

It’s also partly because the business is their baby. I can tell you from running my Supercharged Finance business, I wouldn’t like someone I employ to crunch the numbers coming in telling me what my strategy should be! It’s my baby! I know best!

Build credibility and trust wherever you are

And that leads on to the other important point. And that is that, whatever size the business is, your involvement in strategic decision making is based on the extent to which business leaders trust you.

And that is partly to do with your credibility.

So, start by always doing a good job, being reliable and always showing desire to learn.

Then there are things you can do to increase trust. Sometimes these things are as simple as just showing an interest in people.

Take all opportunities to get involved in anything involving other business functions, even if it’s not about strategy. Be willing to help, or just show an interest.

Share your knowledge, and give your time, willingly to help in any way. Show an interest in all people in the business - what they do, what their story is, etc. Be curious about the business and how it makes money.

And as you take an interest in people, and as you understand the business, people will start to ask you about your story and your work, and you have opportunity to share ideas. That then leads to being asked into influential situations, like M&A projects etc.

If you have the patience, all you can really do sometimes is to keep being solid in everything you’re being asked to do. But as you show an interest in people, including business owners and their interesting stories, you’ll meet opportunities to talk about things you’ve done in your previous roles, things you’ve learnt, and to ask whether they’ve considered x, y or z.

That’s the way to build your way to a strategic Finance role, or to build your current role to be more strategic.


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