One important skill finance professionals are never taught during their formal education is the power of personal engagement with operations and using these relationships to deliver bottom line value. There is too much focus on models, processes, procedures and systems without regard to the fact that all these have to be developed, operated and interpreted by people.
I never cease to be amazed by the number of job ads that contain the title “Business Partner” without the candidate or employer knowing what the term means or understanding the behaviors and competencies associated with effective business partnering. Many organizations also fail to understand the powerful linkage between partnering and organization performance. They simply see business partnering as an attempt to convince themselves that by following latest trends the organization will achieve success.
What is Business Partnering?
Getting beyond the clichés , Finance business partnering can be broadly defined as “the alignment of the finance function with business operations in order to acquire business knowledge and influence decision making”. It recognizes that the true value of a finance professional has shifted away from the “what happened in the business” to “what should happen” and “how to execute change”.
In its most pure form, the finance business partner will have a dual reporting relationship, directly in to the finance function and indirectly to the business . In a more general sense business partnering is about real-time information gathering and decision-making that crosses formal organizational structures.
A typical partnering function has two high level objectives:
- Providing commercial finance support to the activities of the business - this aspect calls on predominately “operational disciplines” of a finance professional such as forecasting, analysis and modeling.
- Challenging the status quo of the business with an emphasis on shaping the future strategic direction. In particular challenging those charged with decision-making within the business.
The latter objective emphasizes the personal qualities required of the finance professional. This includes the power to influence , their gravitas and command amongst members of the business, and the ability to carefully manage multiple stakeholders.
How to be a great Business Partner
There are a number of aspects to being a great business partner. From my experience they include the following:
- Sell the benefits to yourself first. If you believe in them, then others will too.
- Identify key people drivers. Every business has a core group of people who are a key source of business knowledge or are at the heart of business decision-making. If you are new to an organization and can’t readily identify them, seek the counsel of a long term employee who does.
- Build acceptance for partnering within business operations. If the business and their leader understand your intentions then they are more likely to grant you a seat at their table.
- Form well developed relationships with the business and nurture them– partnering is all about people and if the relationships are there, then insight and influence will follow.
- Focus on one-to-ones with the business. A group can be an intimidating environment for people to make decisions or to be challenged by someone from outside the group. One-to-ones allow relationships to develop and insight to flow.
- Don’t be afraid to be challenged back from the business. It is all about getting the right outcomes, and often the business will know best.
- Be Future Focused. Over interpreting the past adds little value. Your role is to help the business move to a perfect future rather than dwell on an imperfect past
- Don’t allow yourself to go native – you are finance professional after all. Getting close to the business does not mean you should allow your judgment to be clouded or influenced in the wrong way.
- Don’t be their administration clerk. Partnering is about providing high value insight and challenge to the business. The moment it becomes just about updating bespoke spreadsheets kept by the business indicates that something has gone wrong and the reason for the partnership needs to be overhauled.
Business Partnering and the link to Corporate Performance
Business partnering is not an end in itself, but a means to driving improved financial performance. The main benefits of a well designed and executed business partnering function include:
More accurate and timely decision-making:
- The finance professional is better able to identify business performance defects at an earlier stage.
- Alternative solutions from those at the “coal face” of the business are easier to discover
- Agreeing and implementing corrective action can occur more promptly
Breaking down the line management silos of a business that often cause dysfunctional decision-making and sub optimal financial performance:
- A culture of trust and working together is established that maximizes information flows
- It is easier to influence the business where rich partnering relationships are in place
Business Partnering in Practice
A few years ago, I joined an organization that had a globalized client base, but was local in its approach to business finance /engagement. It could be described as being “old school” where the business produced a profit & loss, and made all the decisions.
Timesheets were regularly submitted late; the quality of business analysis poor, but most of all the interaction between the finance department and the business was virtually non existent. As one business leader remarked to me on my first day, finance was the “dark side” of the company.
The first observation about this silo structure was the profound and obvious impact these behaviors were having on business performance.
In order to change things, I formalized a business partnering program that involved:
- Obtaining business backing for the need for business partnering. This was done through a series of one-to-one presentations that highlighted the benefits of aligned decision-making.
- Creating decision useful analysis tools including a data warehouse and sales pipeline that aggregated data from disparate systems in the organization. These tools created future oriented resource planning that drove profitability improvement.
- Weekly partnering meetings, that shifted the focus away from month-end to discussing future sales pipelines and supporting resource plans.
- Hosting regular feedback sessions where the business and finance could honestly appraise the relationship
These factors forced the business to clean up their data quality issues and drive accountability in updating systems in real-time. The weekly meetings shifted the focus to the future and drove reciprocal accountability between business and finance. The “them and us” had become “we”, which is what business partnering is all about.