In a new series, AccountingWEB's FD columnist Andy Shambrook will deconstruct ten myths that continue to dog the finance profession. First up: Why 'partnering' your business is actually a bad idea.
Back when I was a management accountant, my CFO called us in and announced their intention to restructure finance. Transactions, they said, are moving to a shared service centre and we’d all be finance business partners.
In a previous column for AccountingWEB, I detailed the initial confusion around what ‘finance business partnering’ meant. When we asked, the CFO rather cryptically told us to 'go out there and partner the business'.
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After we pushed back, they elaborated: “I want you to go out there, challenge the business and make recommendations to improve performance.” So I went out there and challenged the business and made recommendations. Results were, um, mixed.
It was only when I became a sales director that I truly understood what finance business partnering meant. I learned how to sell, influence, persuade and negotiate from the professionals.
I learned very quickly in sales that if you want to influence someone, the last thing you want to do are to challenge and make recommendations. Plus, as a sales director, I now had finance partnering me, challenging me, making recommendations, and trying to drive my performance.
It wasn't a nice experience, and it completely changed my perspective on finance business partnering. So here's the first of 10 finance business partner myths that are killing your influence, and what to do instead:
Myth one: our literal job is to ‘partner the business’
Okay, time to come clean: I actually don’t like the term 'finance business partner'. Which is strange given I’ve called my business The Finance Business Partner.
What’s good for the goose, surely? But the reason I don’t like it is because of what the term implies. To be a finance business partner implies we are there to “partner” the “business”.
Without getting too deep into philosophical deconstruction, if we are partnering the “business” we are basically saying we are not part of the business.
You might think it’s just semantics. But take it from me, this is exactly how it can feel to others when you’re being partnered. And how many times do you say or hear things like “what decision does the business want?” or “the business are running a promotion”.
The classic us and them scenario
This “partnering” approach sets up an 'us and them' situation, where finance (us) try to partner the business (them). I often tell people on my training course: you know how you feel when the auditors come in and start asking you questions?
Well, that’s how sales, marketing and operations are probably feeling about you! Harsh, yes. But I really wish someone has told me that when I worked in finance. Partnering is not something you can do to the business; you can only do it if you are part of the business.
Every time you refer to ‘the business’ you are basically saying there is finance and the business, and that these are somehow separate entities.
Sales, marketing and operations often refer to finance as being in an ivory tower. Part of the reason is that finance refers to the business, in effect suggesting to sales, marketing, and operations that finance are not part of the business.
Sales, marketing, and operations can interpret this as finance thinking they are somehow superior – even if that is not finance's intention.
So what to do instead?
Stop referring to ‘the business’ and stop trying to ‘partner the business’. The harder you try to partner people, the more resistance you'll create. The harder you try to challenge, the more resistance you’ll create.
Just like the harder you try and drive performance, the less likely you'll actually achieve it, especially if you are using the P&L account to do it. And recommendations? Well, guess how non-finance people feel about recommendations from finance? As I said, how do you feel about recommendations from the auditors?
So here are three things you can do to break down barriers, improve your relationships, and get yourself more involved as part of the business:
Spend less time at your computer and more time getting to know people and helping them achieve their goals. The more you show people you are there to help them, rather than finance, the more they’ll trust you and let you into their world.
Relocate your desk and sit with the teams you want to influence, even if you only hot desk two or three times a week. Humans are naturally territorial, and just sitting physically with the sales team, for example, you will start to be subconsciously seen as part of that team and breaks down barriers. You’ll also hear way more about what’s going on.
Take a tip from sales and go and ask the people you support what they want from you. In sales, we call it voice of the customer. You never assume what your customer wants, so you ask them. And not once a year or decade. Every time you speak with them you’re constantly making sure you’re clear on their needs right now and how you can meet them.
And if you’re leading a team of finance business partners, how can you tell whether they’ve broken down the barriers?
My simple measure is this one question: How much time do they spend at their computer compared to how much time do they spend face-to-face with decision-makers?
Because influence doesn’t happen from your desk, especially if your desk is in the finance department. And influence doesn’t happen over email, no matter how much time you spend crafting it.
Influence doesn’t even happen at the formal meetings because decisions aren’t made at the formal meetings, they are just ratified there. Decisions are made at the informal coffees and lunches.
And you know you’ve broken the barriers down when you get involved in those.