Every FP&A professional has an active role to play in business partnering, supporting the leadership team to aid decision making. To enable this, the FP&A team must be positioned to inform the future impact of decisions that are being made now. This requires understanding what the company’s strategy is, where the company is heading, what part your business unit/function play to get there and what are the KPIs on which they are being measured.
There are four steps to become a trusted strategic partner:
- Build strategic engagement
- Develop strategic insight
- Communicate better through visualisation
- Embrace change
This article will look into each of these steps in more detail.
Build strategic engagement
Building strong relationships with your stakeholders is fundamental to effective engagement. This is not an ancillary part of the role as a business partner, but a critical first step.
- Spend time to know your stakeholders. What are their priorities, how are their success being measured and what questions are they asking? Be ready to challenge points they may not have considered and raise ideas, even if they may not be finance related. Ensure analysis and reporting provided aligns with what your stakeholders needs, and not only what is accessible and meaningful to you.
- Understand the business. Show an interest across all levels in the business area you are partnering, considering both qualitative and quantitative factors, to evaluate risks and opportunities. This will enable more informed conversations with your stakeholders and demonstrate your interest in the success of the business.
- Become familiar with the company and business strategy. The strategy teams are a good source of information on new developments and ideas. Keep abreast of new initiatives to plan for resourcing and funding requirements. Be at the forefront by engaging in project planning meetings early.
- Develop interpersonal skills. The softer skills required to build relationships including communication, presentation and influencing skills should not be taken for granted. Many finance professionals who have developed strong technical backgrounds may not have received professional training in these areas. Ensure these are captured within training and development programmes to build confidence when interacting with senior business leaders.
Develop strategic insight
Insightful analysis and reporting need to have relevance and impact. This requires taking extra steps to look at the data beyond the routine reporting, to understand whether there are further questions to be explored and what the resulting actions may be.
- Stop looking back. Unlike most areas within Finance, FP&A’s primary responsibility is to enable the business to look ahead. This often involves developing scenarios and measuring impact of activities that have not yet happened, and no historical comparatives or reference points exists. Having the right relationships and connections will help identify the relevant variables and data points to derive this insight. It is often an iterative process to arrive at the range of feasible outcomes.
- Think outside the box and be curious. New variables and metrics can be derived from existing data to drive deeper insights into measuring performance. All metrics are relative. Apart from variances to prior periods and budget, how are different products or business segments performing relative to each other, relative to competitors, and what are the effective fee rates and margins which can show a competitive advantage, or even a disadvantage. Be innovative, experiment with different methods of looking at data, but make sure to be thorough in your investigations.
- Draw on data outside of Finance. Ensure you develop a coherent picture with variables your stakeholders are interested, including both financial and non-financial data held by other teams or systems e.g., CRM, pipeline, macro factors etc. Do not be afraid to share your thoughts and ideas with other areas of the business, collaboration can strengthen relationships and derive solutions that are mutually beneficial.
Communicate better through visualisation
Effective communication should result in the recipient fully understanding the points being made and be informed to act on the materials presented. The advancement of technology and visualisation tools have raised the bar on how financial data and insights can be communicated.
- Simplify the presentation of reports. Regardless of whether you have access to data visualisation tools, or whether you continue to use Excel or PowerPoint, the tool is only an enabler. The objective of visualisation is to effectively communicate insights and performance with focus and impact. Avoid the use of spreadsheets and presenting endless pages of financial data. Utilise storytelling, simple charts, and clear headlines to enhance engagement.
- Question the question. Think hard about what question you are looking to answer. Is the answer providing only a number, a variance, or will it inform a decision, e.g., if performance is not tracking to plan, do resources need to be reallocated, and if so, from where and where to? Consider the impact and ensure the visuals draw your audience to the finding and recommendation being made.
- Be dynamic. Do not expect a static set of reports and data to remain fit for purpose. Develop dashboards and KPIs that will provide consistent and concise information. Add supplementary insights on current projects or initiatives to ensure ongoing relevance. Fresh insights encourage regular engagement with your leadership team, and more importantly an open dialogue.
The market and industry landscape are changing at a rapid pace, and business leaders have no choice than to respond accordingly to remain competitive and profitable. FP&A can play an invaluable role in supporting leaders to achieve success.
- Develop talent. FP&A leaders need to think hard about the future developments of the FP&A profession and how to build a team and talent fit for the future. FP&A is increasingly diverging into two areas: strategic partnerships and data science. The skills and capabilities required to fulfil these two areas are substantially different. This may result in structural changes where multiple teams are required to support different specialisms, or the team composition needs to be carefully designed to capture the diverse range of skills. There is no one size fits all. Thinking ahead in terms of recruitment and training is crucial to ensure the team is equipped for the times ahead.
- Explore new technology. New and advanced technology does not necessarily mean it is good and fit for purpose. Evaluate the benefits and suitability, ensuring business stakeholders are engaged to bring them on board from the start. As tools for data analytics and visualisation matures and becomes more user friendly and accessible, explore solutions for the areas where there can be the most impact.
- Drive change. Be proactive in the pursuit of change and challenge status quo. Engage with the leadership team to inspire and influence strategic changes, to achieve the vision of the future.
To become a trusted business partner, FP&A needs to devote time to their stakeholders and their needs. Building strong relationships is a critical first step to secure a seat at the table.
The development of strategic insights requires innovative and forward-looking thinking. Do not be afraid to experiment with different types of analysis and metrics. Findings need to be presented concisely and draw the attention of your audience to what may impact their decisions.
Since change is inevitable, develop your FP&A team with skills that are fit for the future. Explore technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Be proactive in steering the vision and change.