Finding ways to say yes: FDs need to stop being gatekeepers

24th May 2019
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FD decision making

In his latest column for AccountingWEB, Andy Shambrook argues that an FDs job is to make the financial outcomes of commercial ideas better, without making the commercial idea worse.

I used to be a finance manager. And then the CFO called us in and said: “We’re restructuring finance. You’re all going to be finance business partners”. And we said, great, what does that mean then?

My then CFO scrambled for an answer and said: “Go out there and partner the business”. And we said great, what does that mean? It became clear that the CFO wasn’t really sure what it meant! But fair play to him, a week later he came back and said:

“I want you to go out there, challenge the business and make recommendations to improve performance.”

It turns out that these were the worst two pieces of advice I ever got. More on that in the coming weeks where we’ll look at some of the myths of finance business partnering. I was a finance business partner for the next five years, finally becoming a finance director.

I learned how to challenge, without everyone hating me. And I learned how to make recommendations without coming across as a total know-it-all from my finance ivory tower.

And then after 12 years in finance, I became a sales director. Suddenly I’m being partnered by finance – my old finance team. I didn’t like it. And I only had one person to blame: me!

It gave me a whole new perspective on what finance is really there to do, and mainly what finance business partnering is. For me, finance business partnering is about three things:

Building relationships

When I worked in finance, I never really valued relationships. Even as a finance director I didn’t invest enough time in them.

Then I became a sales director and learned that influence is all about relationships. Here’s the thing: you can’t influence anyone to do anything, unless they trust you.

Accountants focus on process and numbers. Finance business partners get to know people, find out what’s important to them, and find out how they can help them.

Turning data into insights

Data answers the question what, information answers the question why, and insights answer the questions so what, what next, how could we improve.

Accountants deal in data, telling people what happened last month. Explaining variances to budget or forecast.

Our job in finance is not to be a gatekeeper, or say no to things. Our job is to help make the financial outcomes of commercial ideas better, without making the commercial idea worse.

Finance business partners deal in information and insights. Getting to the root commercial drivers of performance, and helping people answer the question so what.

Bringing numbers to life

After working in sales, I worked in marketing, and learned that the worst way to bring numbers to life, is to use a table of numbers.

The best way is to take a few important numbers, and make them big.Accountants present tables of numbers. Finance business partners take a few numbers and bring them to life to communicate clear messages.

If you build relationships, turn data into insights, and bring numbers to life, you’ll influence decisions. And that’s the point of being a finance business partner – to influence decisions.

If you’re not influencing decisions, you’re not business partnering. You may be doing loads of other great stuff, but unless it directly influences change, it’s not partnering.

So, If you want to be a better finance business partner, here are 3 things to think about:

  • Spend less time at your computer and more time having coffee and getting to know people
  • Stop telling people what happened last month, and start telling them why it happened. And not some rubbish why like phasing, accruals, or one-offs. Give people a commercial driver. And even better, help them answer the question so what.
  • Ditch the tables of numbers, and replace with the simple visuals you’ll see at the front of published accounts

You're not the gatekeeper

Our job in finance is not to be a gatekeeper, or say no to things. Our job is to help make the financial outcomes of commercial ideas better, without making the commercial idea worse.

Anyone can run the numbers to work out whether an idea works or not. It takes a different mindset and approach to instead help make people’s ideas fly financially. That’s what finance business partnering is actually about.

Finding a way to say yes, because the margin, profit, and cash all make sense.

Replies (4)

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By tom123
24th May 2019 13:13

On the face of it, sounds good, and of course a lot of the institutes love the idea that accountants don't really do any of the numbers.

In reality, though, how many finance folk don't fill the majority of their time doing the numbers?

Most businesses have sales as the limiting factor, and working capital following close behind.

Is there demand from operational people to get this 'business partnering'?

My previous employer used the title, but if I recall most of our work was mechanistic.

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Replying to tom123:
By AndyShambrook
28th May 2019 15:08

Hi Tom, yes you're right that the big problem is that a lot of businesses use the title but don't change the way people work.

It's not about walking away from the numbers, it's about how we use the numbers and the mindset we approach the numbers with.

Many finance people see the month end report or the budget as the end of the process. I see it as the start. So I want to get the numbers sorted ASAP so I can then spend as much time as possible in using the numbers to influence change.

You make a really good point about do operational people 'get business partnering' and the answer is no and they don't need to. In fact the last thing we want to do is go out and say 'hey we're gonna partner you'.

What they want though is help and support to achieve their commercial and operational goals. And when finance people have that mindset and approach it is always very well received.

Thanks for the comments and questions Tom.


Thanks (1)
By NancyBradley
27th May 2019 08:46

Great hearing from people who have not only broken down the Finance Silo but actually escaped from it completely!

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Replying to NancyBradley:
By AndyShambrook
28th May 2019 15:10

Thanks for the comment Nancy.

I loved finance and still do. In fact one day I'd like to go back because having worked in sales and marketing I'd just do so many things differently.

I do still love the role finance can play, and actually think that finance have a unique 360 degree view of a business.

It's just we spend so much time budgeting, forecasting and reporting that we don't have enough time left to make use of it

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