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How to be a great business partner?

We all know that the finance function has to add value these days and to do that we need to partner with our counterparts in sales, operations, technical etc. This is not new but was re-emphasized after the financial crisis.

The problem that my organization is struggling with and I tend to think many organizations are facing similar issues is that we cant break through the barrier between the functions. Therefore I am in search of stories showing how a finance function became a great business partner.

To get the discussion going here are some of my considerations which I am trying to implement in my organization. First of all figure out where the finance function fits in with the operating cycle of your organization.

I would look at the cycle as: Plan-Do-Study-Act. Being a support function the finance function will usually never become the do'er or the actor. We need to influence these phases however by involving ourselves in the planning and studying phase.

Planning:

Get the business case right

- ensure there is a uniform way to do project evaluations

- challenge assumptions and include contingencies

- make sure revenue is not overestimated and costs underestimated

- run scenario analysis

Studying:

Ensure high data quality

- too often finance is ridiculed for not having the right data

- wrong conclusions are drawn from wrong data

- get the systems to work with you instead of against you

Performance management

- make sure the right KPIs are measured (wrong conclusions can also be drawn from correct data)

- follow-up on the business case not just your budget or forecast

- ensure learnings are documented in a structured way

Consistency

- deliver frequent and consistent information to your counterparts

- dont start new initiatives unless you expect to also carry through on them 6 months from now

Communication

- dont start communicating until you have tested your conclusions

- too often finance is dismissed because they dont know how to communicate the numbers

- know that numbers need to be presented differently to finance vs non-finance

Of course many other things can be important but I welcome the discussion!

Answers

Topic Expert
Linda Wright
Title: Consultant
Company: Wright Consulting
(Consultant, Wright Consulting) |

I agree with all that you have said thus far, but I think finance can also add to the do and act stages. Understanding the business which takes commitment and time will make finance a more valuable partner. Using dashboards to assess performance to plan can also enhance the communication of results. Finally, consistency of communication--repetition, repetition, repetition--will get finance and non-finance staff on the "same page".

Anders Liu-Lindberg
Title: Regional Finance Business Partner
Company: Maersk Line Northern Europe
LinkedIn Profile
(Regional Finance Business Partner, Maersk Line Northern Europe) |

Thank you for your feedback Linda. I had a discussion about finance taking part in the do and act stages with one of my peers little over a week ago. She claimed when I brought up above to her that her boss would tell her that she should be in the do and act stages because that is where finance would add value. So I challenged her on that statement and for all examples she brought up we pretty much agreed that where finance could make a difference was actually in the planning and studying phase.

Similar to that you mention dashboards which are definitely good tools to use however as I see it they belong in the study phase. I fully agree with your point about consistency. The more we can repeat the message the higher chance we have of actually getting through to our counterparts. Mix in 1-2 new topics each time you get the chance to present something and this will increase awareness even further.

Finally I also agree that understanding the business is key! We cannot ask the right questions and challenge assumptions without understanding the business. That will eventually alienate us from our counterparts and create tremendous resistance towards the finance function. Depending on the type of industry simply knowing the business might bring finance into the do and act stages I agree, but this is not a universal statement.

(Agent, JKS Solutions, Inc.) |

Over the years, I have dealt with multiple business partners from various professional and ethnic backgrounds and each and every time the key to a successful partnership was chemistry. You can be the world's best Finance expert in your industry, if your personalities, work styles and attitudes don't match it won't matter. I'm not saying that you have to be identical twins but you need to be able to get along.

Once that is the case you first need to build trust. You do that by delivering the answers needed and be a sounding board. This will take time. Then you should figure out what he/she likes to do and is good at and slowly complement the other areas with your input/skill set to make your business successful without coming across as trying to make him/her look bad or trying to take over.

Lastly, you need to understand the business and be able to translate operations into financials and vice versa. Talk to all levels in the business. Use common language and easy to follow charts instead of numbers and ratios.

Anders Liu-Lindberg
Title: Regional Finance Business Partner
Company: Maersk Line Northern Europe
LinkedIn Profile
(Regional Finance Business Partner, Maersk Line Northern Europe) |

This is an interesting aspect Nicholas. There is no doubt about that chemistry is important, but I would very much appreciate your feedback given two different scenarios:

1. Your organization both finance and the counterparts are in place and you need to start business partnering. Would you then as a finance function perhaps together with HR start to match the personality profiles of your finance staff with the counterparts profiles instead of looking at the finance staffs skills and competencies? Where after you will then seek to close any skill gaps where you would have a matching personality profile?

2. You are creating a new function only for business partnering. Again would you first look at the personality profiles of the counterparts and then try and recruit someone first and foremost with a matching profile hopefully with the necessary skill set as well or would you define your business partnering function by a certain skill set and let that drive your recruitment?

I agree with your two other points.

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