Written by Jenny Okonkwo
Is ‘business partnering’ a consciously chosen career path, or more like an area you fall into? When considering a Finance career, I knew I wanted to be a ‘management accountant’. This included providing superior financial decision support to leadership teams in both Commercial and Operations.
So, what makes a successful Finance Business Partner?
1. Acting as a neutral ‘go between’ for Sales and Operations.
This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Both functions have very different agendas, priorities and points of focus within a business. The finance business partner (FBP ) is often acting as the ‘referee’ between the two departments, reconciling and compiling both viewpoints on the future for executive decision making. Business performance ideally needs to be tracked against a single set of metrics (I’ve learned from experience that this is not always the case). For this reason, FBPs are often process owners for corporate sales and operations planning (S&OP).
One aim of S&OP is to assist in more effective demand planning and inventory management by delivering an integrated business review of year to date performance plus a consensus sales and production forecast for the following period (e.g. month, current quarter and full year).
2. Educating your customer base
In one of my assignments, I remember a humorous moment where one of my senior internal customers welcomed me into the organization by saying ‘you are welcome to police our activities at any time’. After politely pointing out that I was a ‘business partner’ and not a ‘policewoman’, I went on to explain the agreed vision for my role. Thankfully we were on the same page!
3. Leading from the ‘middle’ of the organization
FBPs are often required to make recommendations that may influence the decisions of stakeholders at the Executive level. They need to be comfortable in managing ‘change’ (leadership) as well as managing ‘complexity’ (management). What lies at the heart of this dual role is a constant need to ‘provide the numbers’ in the shortest time possible (to minimize risk in decision making). This in turn frees up resources and increases the opportunity to ‘think beyond the numbers’ (to maximize commercial opportunity).
While working in the IT division of a global consumer bank, I was tasked with developing a financial management framework for a multi-million dollar technology upgrade that had been running for a year. The mandate was to get visibility on the project spend to date and to stop the costs from spiraling out of control.
Through my investigations into this situation, three things came to light:
- A formal support structure was needed to lead the financial management, planning and control and training activities
- Financial data and systems barriers needed to be removed
- More communication and teamwork across the programme was required.
The first two issues were addressed by building and leading a Project Management Office, implementing appropriate systems and processes, and training the project staff. The project cost base was quickly established and project managers made accountable for their individual budgets. The project financials were included in the monthly project status meetings and overspends were analyzed in depth.
Despite all this good stuff I felt something was missing. A key question came to mind: how can an overspend on a UK based project, which we will call ‘Project X’, be effectively explained when it was actually driven by a scope change in ‘Project Y’ in Singapore?
After a great conversation with a highly talented IT programmer, my global Project MIS idea was born. The system was built from Lotus Notes, providing instant ‘borderless communication’ (accessible across all geographies).
Here’s how it worked:
- The system was populated with all the projects from around the world that made up the programme, along, with project manager name, contact details, project team member details, etc.
- Scope changes on individual projects (which happened frequently) were logged by the Project Manager (PM)
- The originating PM would automatically be prompted to log any interdependencies with other projects
- A notification email would automatically be sent to the impacted PM.
- Both PMs would then convene either physically or online to discuss and agree potential consequences, risks and issues
- These would subsequently be logged in the system
- A risk mitigation strategy would be developed (e.g. certain work packages would be put on hold, to avoid subsequent rework on other projects resulting from the scope change)
- If a solution could not be found, the matter would be escalated electronically to the next level of management for resolution.
A simple idea, yet extremely effective. Not only did project communication increase by over 50%, project risk (and consequently cost overruns) was significantly reduced.
From a ‘knowledge management’ perspective, the MIS provided a repository of valuable project insights and information that could act as a reference guide on future change initiatives; information that otherwise have been lost.
4. Strong ‘value-add’ in day to day responsibilities
From experience, it is challenging to wear both a full-time ‘Controller’ hat and a full time ‘Business Partnering’ hat. Progressive and forward looking pharmaceutical firms in my opinion have got it right by having a separate decision support function, allowing these managers and analysts to focus purely on helping move the business forward, attending to the more traditional accounting duties at the year-end, to ensure a minimal financial exposure to the company.
5. Strong relationship building skills
The other business and support functions (Sales, Marketing, IT, Supply Chain, etc) need to partner with a Finance professional to whom they can relate. Strong people and communication skills are critical. Showing interest (at the beginning) , followed by more detailed knowledge in the business (its products, services, suppliers and competitors) separates the ‘Partners’ from the ‘Processors’.
My advice would always be to go out with one of the drivers if your company has a delivery service, join Operations on the next inventory count and visit trade shows where your sales-force are presenting or exhibiting. One of the biggest compliments I received was from a Senior Operations executive who in the course of a 1 to 1 conversation said ‘[“……now that we have the ‘right person’ in your role…….”]
6. Sponsorship / buy-in from President / General Manager
If the concept of business partnering is new to your organization, ensure that the President / GM is bought into the philosophy right from the start. Even in a culture where partnering is well established it’s important to align what you think are critical objectives with those of the business leadership. I have been in meeting situations where there was a lack of awareness amongst the Executive as to what the No1 priority should be, i.e. the CEO had one view and the Finance Leadership had another. This is especially common in dual reporting situations, i.e the Finance Director / VP reports into both the GM of a subsidiary and the CFO at Group Head Office.
7. Sponsorship / buy-in from Head of Finance function
A challenging situation can arise where the Head of the Finance function has come from a totally different career route and has not had any exposure to business partnering. Business partnering is not about ‘cracking the compliance whip’; it is about building relationships and confidence in your personal abilities to change the impossible to the possible. Diplomacy, tact and professional integrity are needed in abundance. It’s important to be seen as a business planning and decision support specialist who ‘looks beyond the numbers’. In many instances there are valid business reasons for why 2 + 2 = 4.5 and it’s having the confidence to present the business case accordingly.
8. Skills and competence level of the wider Finance team
Depending on the size and skill set of the Finance function, business partnering can occur at one of several levels of what I will call the ‘Finance Business Partnering Progression Model’ (discussed in a future article).
9. Support / buy-in from the business
There was one role during the earlier stages of my career, in an organization where, due to legacy staffing issues, the Finance function was held in very low regard. It came to my attention that the VP of Operations was highly concerned about the levels of annual product warranty spend in the business, an ongoing business problem which required urgent attention.
Presenting him with an 80-page Powerpoint deck, detailing warranty spend to date / by month, analyzed by various dimensions including customer, product SKU, customer location, province, etc four weeks after joining, complete with a national overview and executive summary quickly changed historic perceptions of the value add role of Finance.
10. Self-confidence and professional credibility
Be confident in establishing boundaries (business partnering can often feel like trying to ‘ringfence a cloud’). Say what you are going to do and do what you say – enough said!
11. Identifying and delivering quick wins
The real life scenario outlined in Point 9 illustrates this well, and helps promote the attributes mentioned in Point 10.