business partner

What does it mean to be a business partner in Finance?

Is the Finance function a true business partner? The Marketing Director of a business I worked for once said in leading a seminar, words to the effect that, “functions like Finance, HR and IT are just overhead costs. They don’t add value. They don’t bring in new business or sell anything, and they don’t produce anything.” I didn’t respond at the time, but I remember being quite offended. I felt put down, as if he was saying that I was no value to the business. I was, at the time, I have to say, fairly naïve – this was my first job outside of public practice. What follows here are some of my reflections on the relationships between the Finance function and the other parts of a business, from working in more than ten different companies over thirteen years since then.

“Business Partner” – a misleading phrase

One thing that has mildly irritated me occasionally over the years is the use of the term “business partner” to describe aspects of functions that support and control the main activities of a business (the main activities being the provision of goods or services to customers). In my experience, Finance and HR use the term a lot. I even use the phrase myself, because I know what people mean by it!

Normally, being a “business partner” simply means that the function or the individual is trusted to be involved in high level strategic decision making. This is as distinct from the mundane provision of information and operation of transaction or control processes.

I think the thing that irritated me about the term (albeit only mildly, and less and less over the years) is the misunderstanding it generates. This misunderstanding can be exposed by a few exaggerated statements:

– “Some functions are not doing business, so they can only partner the business, or maybe just cost money. They don’t make or sell the product or deliver the service, so they are less important.” So there are people you employ in your business that are not part of your business, but if you like them enough you may let them partner you in your business.

– “Doing business is all about making the decisions, rather than the mundane processing and controlling. I, the CEO, and my board, are the business, because we make the decisions about the business. Business partners help me make decisions about my business.” So the other people in the functions are just recording, supporting, controlling and doing. They’re not really part of the business. They just do jobs.

My view is: We are all the business. We all need each other. Not just the people making the big decisions. Not just the people making and selling and providing.

One body

We all need to recognize the value of each other’s contribution to the success of the business. There is a passage in The Bible that speaks in this way about the church. It likens the church to a body. No one part of the body can call itself the body, but the body would not be a whole body without each part. Each part has its role and place, and importance in the overall function of the body. The church is the body. So every member of the church has a gift and calling from God that contributes to the overall function and goal of the church. We cannot do without each other.

So it is with business I believe. We are all parts of the business, and without every part functioning properly and together the business will fail. This is my fundamental mindset when I deal with relationships in business. Each function and person must support each other in achieving the goal of the business – e.g. more customers, more sales, more profit, lower costs, a better brand, happy shareholders, stable cashflow, improved communities, etc.

So when managing a Finance team I encourage them to see themselves as helping the business to achieve its goals first, then in all their cross-functional relationships if they can help their colleagues it will ensure we are acting as one.

On the other hand when I speak with my colleagues in Ops, Customer Services, Marketing, HR, IT, and so on, I make sure they know what I am there for. Basically we are on the same side. I may have to challenge their spending or their performance against sales targets, question why they have not collected cash from customers quickly enough, set hard budgets, cut costs, and do many things they may not like. But if they know fundamentally that I do this, and Finance does this, because we are following our remit to help the business succeed – then it becomes more a question of asking for their help in achieving our objectives, whilst offering our help in achieving theirs.

Different personalities and skills suit different roles

Character differences produce a lot of friction. But it is possible to recognize that and get better at working together. Clearly Myers-Briggs, Insights, Belbin and the multitude of personality assessments demonstrate this clearly. But it is really self-evident.

You get many different personalities in a team. And indeed everyone is different. But you also get certain personalities gravitating to certain roles and functions. I believe certain personality traits go with certain skills, although this is a generalisation that doesn’t always work.

For example, an analytical person may gravitate to the Finance and IT areas, where there is a degree of set process, logic and numerical certainty. On the other hand, a sociable person may gravitate to areas that deal with people – HR, sales or marketing.

And each different business will require slightly different shades of characters within the different functions.

Recognising the strengths and weaknesses of certain character styles in different situations really helps to get people working well together. Instead of looking down on the marketing or sales person for the way they can’t understand the figures, or act unpredictably, we analytic-types can both help them with that weakness and seek their help when we need slightly more expansive and unstructured thinking. Working together creatively leads to competitive advantage.

Finance is sometimes seen as interfering

“What do Finance know about selling? So how can they give me these ridiculous targets?”

“What do Finance know about making our product? So how can they ask us to do it more efficiently?”

“Why do Finance ask us to fill in useless information on our transaction screens? They are just wasting our time.”

“Why do Finance always need an authorising signature on every bit of paper? They are the reason we are not as efficient as we could be.”

Finance people will be familiar with these and other similar accusations. How do we respond? How should we respond? Because one of the main things (though certainly not the only thing) a business is trying to do is to make money for its shareholders, Finance will always be in a central position and get its fingers into a lot of pies. And that can sometimes be seen as interfering in things we know nothing about.

The point I want to get across is that with every such complaint comes an opportunity for dialogue. That’s DIALOGUE! Not talking, not arguing our case, but constructive two-way dialogue.

But before I say something more about dialogue between Finance and other areas, I want to clear something up.

We Finance professionals are trained in Finance, normally first of all as accountants, and then analysts and financial managers. We are not (normally) trained in manufacturing, engineering, C++ programming or human resource management! So when we are accused that we don’t know these things, we should not try to make out that we do! We recognize there are things that we know and things that we don’t, things we are good at and things we are not.

dialogue

But the next point is equally true – 99% of the time we don’t need to know either! For example, I may not know much about C++ or .net frameworks or web design, but when I challenge the IT department for employing contractors to develop an application, I don’t need to know all that. The thing I may need to know is what the application is for and how it will help the business (financially or non-financially). If they can’t tell me that, or their statement of benefits falls apart under scrutiny, then I have a right, as someone responsible for financial success, to ask them to stop. What we need to know is what is relevant to our remit as financial custodians
But my main point is DIALOGUE. Every interaction with our colleagues, especially when we are challenged, is an opportunity to 1. Listen; 2. Understand; 3. Think; 4.Explain; 5. Change; and 6. Move on in working together (perhaps into a feedback loop so that the whole dialogue process continues).

Partnering means listening

  1. Listen – Just ask them to tell you more, and then shut up and listen carefully. Finance does not have a monopoly on the truth. We don’t know everything. We need to learn. It also may be true that nobody understands perfectly the way the business works. Businesses are complex, they are made up of imperfect human beings, using machines made by human beings and computer programs written by imperfect human beings! Things never work 100% perfectly, and since we are not perfect we may in fact be the cause of the particular imperfection! This is your opportunity to learn about something in the business, and may turn into an opportunity to help.
  2. Understand – Ask questions to get an understanding of the issue. Look for cause and effect. Ask who does what and when. Ask questions to help your colleague understand the issue they are raising. They may not fully appreciate what they are highlighting. You can help them simply by asking questions.
  3. Think – Don’t just jump in with a suggested solution. Give it some thought. Go away and draw diagrams, process maps or play with spreadsheets if you have to. Ask other colleagues their opinion if you need to.
  4. Explain – Ensure that your colleagues are aware of why you need information, or need things to be done in a certain way. What are the business consequences of them failing to follow procedures? Will we lose money? Will we pollute valuable information sources? Will we be less efficient? Get everyone on the same page. They may start to see how they can do things differently to achieve the desired result. There’s more likelihood of a win-win outcome if you understand each other’s perspective.
  5. Change – If you need to. Being ready to modify things to ensure you can both achieve better results shows that you really believe you are both on the same side. It shows you appreciate their difficulties as well as your own requirements.
  6. Move on in working together – if you have gone through this active dialogue then you will hopefully have solved a problem at the same time as making a friend and powerful ally. They will be both more ready to help you if you need something in the future, and willing to talk openly and less confrontationally about problems in the future. Keep the door open. Offer to review what you’ve agreed.

Final thoughts

Finance sometimes does not portray itself well. If you rely on Finance for anything it is to provide information on how the business is doing, and to make sure that transactions and managed and controlled efficiently and effectively. You rely on them to be able to analyse and tell you whether something will lose or make money. But sometimes we don’t do our job properly and lose respect and trust.

In those cases, in my experience, you have to be open, especially at a management team level. Explain what you are trying to achieve for the business, and how it will help. Share with your colleagues the problems you are having. Ask for help. There may be someone in another team that is good at process analysis, or good at Visual Basic macros, or good at training, or experienced in restructuring or integration. You would help them if they needed your help, wouldn’t you? And keep sharing – share your successes and your problems. When you understand someone’s problems, share their successes and get involved in helping, you become more sympathetic. So get people on your side, because in reality they are already.

Finally, sometimes people in other functions don’t realize their actions have financial consequences. E.g. lack of detail in transactions leads to errors which leads to loss or time wasted. E.g. delays in dealing with Finance queries can lead to losses if it becomes too late to go back to customers to clear up errors.

Don’t just beat people up for doing the wrong thing and call them stupid behind their back. Go back to the dialogue outlined above, and educate them. I have found that if people realize the consequences of their actions, they are more likely to take care over doing things right. Point out where things are going wrong, and then start to listen to their side… then you’ve started a dialogue.

Conclusion

finance business partnerA business without Finance at the heart will be risking loss through errors, inefficiency or even fraud, and will risk making the wrong decisions through not understanding financial information. But Finance is not the business, and neither is it merely a business partner. We need to recognize the roles, remits, strengths, weaknesses and personalities at play across the whole business. We should value the diversity and work together to succeed in business through trust and open dialogue.

What should Finance do better to make relationships work? In short, better dialogue. You have two ears and one mouth – use them in that proportion! Be always more ready to listen than to speak. And communicate always with the assumption (whether or not there is evidence for it) that you are all on the same side, working for the success of the business.

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