Synergies are not cost savings for the best CFOs

By Andy Burrows

After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant in public practice in England in 1995, I went to manage a Finance department of 16 people in one of the smaller divisions of a big bank.

It was my first experience of management, which was one of the reasons I took the job. I wanted to learn new skills.

Fortunately for me, at that time the bank was revamping its performance management processes and putting everyone from team leaders to senior executives through new management and leadership training.

And that made me reflect quite deeply on what it meant to manage people and lead teams right from the start of my management career.

One of things I quickly realised was that managers and leaders shouldn’t see themselves as delivering personally. It’s the team that delivers together, not the manager alone.

What that meant for me was that, whilst I had my own individual responsibilities, those responsibilities were secondary to ensuring the required output of my team.

The way I used to explain it was that my purpose as a manager or leader was to make the team “greater than the sum of its parts”. I was there to ensure we all pulled in the same direction, had the necessary resources and skills, and worked together effectively.

My involvement as a leader would make us better as a team than if we were just a collection of individuals.

This is the essence of “synergy”.

And that’s why I think it’s unfortunate that when we talk about “synergies” in Finance we quite often think that’s synonymous with cost savings. But in reality, that’s only the case in one example of synergy – where there’s an overlap of activity in a business combination.

I also think it’s unfortunate that when people read Stephen Covey’s classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, they often dismiss his sixth habit – Synergize – as something mystical and inaccessible.

My view is that when we see someone we consider to be a great leader, what they’ve achieved is the ability to “synergize”, to create synergy, to make things greater than the sum of the parts. Great leaders make us feel we’re an important part of something, that we have a great purpose, that we’re trusted and valued, that the team would miss us if we weren’t there, that working together is the key to achieving things.

It’s also probably what we’d most likely relate to the term “gravitas”. Have you ever read a job advert for a senior role that asks for “gravitas” or “presence”? It used to really frustrate me! What the heck do they mean? How can they test for it? Surely, it’s just one of those things you know when you see it, but you couldn’t describe it?

What I’ve come to see is that if you want to have the “gravitas” to be in Finance leadership and business leadership, you need to aim for synergy.

So, in this article we’re going to look at how you can achieve that. What do you need to do? How do you need to think, and to be, in order to bring about synergy, to make things greater than the sum of the parts?

1 – Encourage a can-do attitude

Firstly, to encourage synergy, you have to somehow imbue a can-do attitude into the group, into the individuals involved.

In a previous article in this “personal effectiveness for Finance” series I explained that the foundation for personal effectiveness is a “can-do attitude”.

A can-do attitude recognises that all human beings, ourselves included, have the ability to learn, to make decisions, to recognise right and wrong, to use our imagination. We are not animals governed by deterministic or mechanistic responses. We can choose what we do and how we respond to a larger extent than we normally give ourselves credit for.

I used to say to my team in that bank, using the Henry Ford quote, “if you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right!”

A few years later, as a Finance Director, I was criticised by one of my managers for having my “head in the clouds”. That was because as we were trying to plan our way through a really difficult juggling act of high priority projects and business-as-usual, I refused to give up trying to find the best solution. I didn’t let the situation get me down. I just kept asking questions to consider different angles.

The foundation for synergizing is helping people to believe that in the situation in question, and in general, they have choice, their imagination and conscience are valuable, and that their thoughts are a valuable contribution.

2 – Listen well and really care what other people think

In a more recent article in this series I stressed the importance of listening – really listening – to people.

And when I say really listening, I mean listening with the purpose of understanding the other person, not just to work out how to answer them.

It’s being open and really valuing other people and their perspectives.

If you are trying to find a solution to a problem, why would you believe that you alone have all the best ideas? Can you really be confident that you’ve considered every aspect and every angle?

You already know what you think. Getting someone else’s thoughts gives you new information, helps you get more insight, learn new things.

And, has it ever crossed your mind that the people you meet are so much deeper than what you get to see each day?

You may see someone at work every day, working in a particular way. But then if you saw them at home with their kids and their hobbies, you’d say things like, “you’re a completely different person at home!” Or, “I never knew you had such a creative talent for artwork,” or whatever.

We also can’t see the experiences people have had that can influence their thinking. Someone may have learnt valuable life lessons from an accident, serious illness, bereavement, mistakes, relationship problems. It’s not necessarily that people hide these things. It’s often that there’s no need or no time to talk about them.

When you really listen to people you give them what Stephen Covey calls, “psychological air”. You give them space to develop their thinking and to explain what influences their thinking from things they’ve learnt and experiences they’ve had.

And this contributes to synergy because it allows you to see more aspects of the problem you’re trying to solve or the question you’re trying to answer.

It’s like shooting a film with multiple camera angles. The more angles you have, the richer and more authentic you can make the experience for the audience.

3 – Build trust

Another important thing you need in order to generate synergy when you bring people together is trust.

When people trust each other, they are more willing to listen, and more willing to make themselves vulnerable by sharing undeveloped thinking. And that can often lead to powerful new ideas when people help one another to think things through.

I’ve written about this before in this series. And I outlined the kind of things that build trust – taking time to understand people, not neglecting the small things, keeping commitments, clarifying expectations, showing personal integrity, apologizing sincerely when necessary.

These things take time. Trust isn’t something that turns up overnight based on following some simple technique.

And this is why, as predominantly left-brained accountants, we shouldn’t dismiss or avoid team building events or the embarrassing “ice breakers” in workshop sessions.

And this is why we should be careful and respectful and mature in the way that we treat all people, every day of our lives, in every situation.

Taking time and effort to treat people right, as fellow human beings, every day, will pay dividends when we really need synergy in situations in the future.

4 - Believe that better solutions come from collaboration

The other thing that contributes to making 1+1 = more than 2 (which is simply saying that we’re making more than the sum of the parts, the definition of synergy) is a win/win mindset.

Again, I’ve explained before that a win/win mindset is a fundamental belief rather than a negotiating stance or technique.

And this is something that is genuinely hard to get used to.

I mean, when you go to a workshop session, what are you normally thinking beforehand?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking how you’re going to share your views on the subject and how you can persuade people to come round to your way of thinking!

A win/win mindset looks at things differently. It goes into the workshop wondering what interesting new perspectives we’re going to encounter. And it believes that the final solution will be something that no one has thought of beforehand, but is something that is better than anyone could have thought of on their own.

This interacts with the aspect of trust, in that when you trust that others also want the same thing, and when you believe that they also want to find the best solution possible, then you’re more willing to adjust or give up the view you came in with.

The interesting thing is that when trust is low, you may be willing to compromise. This is giving up something for the sake of something else. In this case, however, everybody loses something. It’s not win/win. It’s 1+1 = less than 2!

When trust is high you all truly believe that by collaboration, and by understanding everyone’s positions fully, you will find a new solution that better fits all the requirements rather than just some of them.

Synergizing Finance leadership

So, what has this all got to do with Finance business partnering and CFOs? What has this got to do with Finance leadership?

Well, I guess the immediate application is within our teams and within the Finance department itself.

Collaborative, consultative, synergistic thinking will pay dividends at any level, whether you’re a team member, a team leader, a manager or a senior Finance leader or executive.

And as you cultivate this way of thinking more and more, you will mature and make yourself ready for increasing levels of responsibility, and therefore increasing seniority. You will attain that “gravitas” that the job adverts talk about!

But it also applies to the way that we deal with our non-Finance colleagues and departments.

Do we really believe that improving the interaction – the synergy - between Finance and the rest of the business can make the business better? Can the business as a whole be greater than the sum of its parts (of which Finance is just one part)?

Can we create synergistic ways of working with our non-Finance colleagues, where we seek to understand them first before trying to help them; where we build trust with them by keeping commitments, not undermining their work, finding ways to make them more successful; where we demonstrate that we believe in collaboration and not simply political influence?

Surely, this is the pinnacle of purpose-driven Finance and business-focused Finance.

The final article in this series is all about how to maintain energy and grow consistently in your career and in your life.

Related Posts

Everyone’s a winner with good Finance business partnering

Great CFOs listen without prejudice

Relationship building for Finance business partners

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An introduction to personal effectiveness for CFOs and Finance professionals

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Short guide – How Finance Can Drive Business Performance

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