4 January 2021

Finance Business Partnering: The Collaborative Frontier

by Yash Deshpande

Job descriptions for finance professionals have drastically changed over the last decade. Requirements which initially focused on accounting standards, budgeting methodology and spreadsheet expertise are occupying smaller space in job ads. The focus has shifted to business partnering, understanding of business strategy, value creation and most importantly using business intelligence tools. All with the goal to break organizational silos and increase business performance.

Today, it is quite normal to see technical skills such as Python, R, SQL and Power BI as key requirements for finance roles. But even more so, management accountants are expected to take on a finance business partner role.

Fundamentals of finance and accounting are the starting point. They are essential to land a finance role. But to grow in your company you must be able to influence stakeholders and provide leaders with quantitative and qualitative analysis for decision-making. And you need to have the ability to collaborate cross-functionally and to innovate solutions.

Here are some of the highlights of what you will learn:

Finance’s Future Is Business Partnering

Finance departments now have a front seat in many decision-making processes. What used to be seen as a team of number crunchers, monotone business reporters and financial gatekeepers has undergone a multitude of change. Finance is no longer seen only as a back-end and captive department.

Recently, the finance function has gained vogue amongst stakeholders and recruiters alike. It is seen by an increasing number of executives as a central powerhouse that supports strategic decision-makers with scenario analysis. Finance can also guide the sales team in selecting the best deals and work with procurement to identify cost-saving initiatives.

Members of the finance team have regular sit-down with upper-level management to exploit new opportunities and mitigate risks. In an increasing number of companies finance is now becoming an agile and proactive decision maker. This means that finance professionals are gradually developing a new programme of work.

Over the last decade, the finance department has undergone a makeover enabled by collaboration. Finance, which often used to work with a silo mentality, has stepped outside its comfort zone. It has embraced working in cross-functional teams to become an effective business partner.

Much like the transformation of Albert Brennaman in the movie Hitch thanks to the collaboration with Alex “Hitch” Hitchens! Remember the nerdy and introverted guy who took the dance floor with his suave dance moves?

Recommended reading: The Changing Mandate of Finance

How To Become an Effective Finance Business Partner

It does not matter whether you are part of the finance team at a start-up or a Fortune 500 company. There are ways for you to effectively collaborate across the firm and play your part in value creation.

Let us look at how you as a finance professional or finance leader can improve collaboration with other departments. This does not only benefit your company’s business performance. As described in a recent report by CGMA, it will also be beneficial to your career.

These are the strategies that will help you instill a collaborative spirit in your finance team:

  1. Start with on-boarding
  2. Break down organizational silos
  3. Automate to educate
  4. Cross-functional meetings
  5. Job shadowing and side gigs
  6. 360-degree feedback
  7. From numbers to stories
  8. Social events
  9. Centres of Excellence

1. Start with on-boarding

A major mistake that departments commit when on-boarding new team members, is failing to explain how the departments are interlinked. Sure, most managers say things like ‘We submit XYZ reports to sales every Monday’. But they fail to explain a unified vision and what impact their work has on the overall business.

On-boarding sessions help you relate the importance of your role to the end customer but forget to focus on all your internal customers! And you interact much more with your internal customers than external ones. Some good ideas to instill collaboration through the on-boarding process are:

  • Present your organizational chart and show interdependencies between the departments and teams within. This will help new joiners understand the impact and importance of the work they do. Also, they will realize that they cannot work in organizational silos and need to seek interaction with different teams.
  • Demonstrate the links between key performance indicators (KPI) and processes in finance and other departments. This will clarify the impact of your work and the interdependency with different teams.
  • Encourage new joiners to have one-on-one sessions or coffee chats with colleagues from other teams. This will help them learn about the company culture and encourage business partnerships from day one.

2. Break down organizational silos

The finance function runs the risk of working in silos if it does not regularly step out and interact with other teams. This is partly due to its nature of work. For example, with data available at hand, finance professionals might get complacent and avoid interacting with stakeholders. But the benefits of boundary-crossing work are well documented as an insightful article in the Harvard Business Review points out.

As a result, finance team members might end up with heads buried in data and. In the meantime they may be completely unaware of key performance issues that the firm might be facing. In pursuit of laser focus, the finance team would actually miss out on the bigger picture and common goals.

Hence, as a finance manager, you must be on guard and always ready to break down silos. If you see signs of organizational silos forming in the department, do two things. Firstly, work with the team to identify why it’s happening. Secondly, develop a strategy for how the silo mentality can be broken.

As P&L managers, finance professionals must focus on performance management. They cannot afford to miss out on the overall business issues and lose alignment on the business strategy.

If you notice silos building up in your organization, speak to your leaders right away. Discuss ways to break the silos which will naturally enable more collaboration within the team and across the departments.

3. Automate to educate

Many finance professionals spend a lot of time with manual non-value add work. This means that there is less time for interacting with colleagues from other departments.

Finance teams are now embracing robotic process automation (RPA) in areas of accounting and FP&A where repetitive tasks can be easily automated. A direct result of automation is that finance professionals have time at hand which they can use to interact with colleagues from other departments. Managers must encourage such cross-team interactions.

Speaking with sales colleagues will help finance professionals better understand the market and customer sentiments. Interacting with those of the procurement department may help in understanding demand and supply issues. All this knowledge gained will help finance evaluate the business in a more holistic manner and better support the stakeholders.

Encourage yourself and the team to explore various automation and visualization tools. Use RPA and BI tools such as Power BI or Tableau to free up your time from non-value add processes. This allows you to focus on improving business performance.

Tools such as Volve’s all-in-one corporate card and expense management solution are a great way to automate expense related reporting. The full process of expense submission, approval and reporting can be done in less than two minutes. This effectively eliminates the 20% manual work that the accounting team spends time on.

Recommended reading: Keep Calm And Let Finance Automation Kick Out Chaos

4. Cross-functional meetings

A great way of imbibing a unified vision and preventing organizational silos is to encourage more cross-functional team meetings. If people are able to opt into any meeting, they will understand more of the organization and the ongoing projects. Also, people who are not connected to a particular project will be able to view the problems in a more objective manner. Someone not connected to the project would be more likely to ask questions that others have been avoiding or could not come up with.

Typically, cross-functional meetings are a great way to quickly make important business decisions. They improve communication and collaboration, and encourage team members to share information. They foster positive company culture, allow people to collaborate in proximity and focus on pursuing a common goal. Working through emails or Zoom calls usually does not foster the cohesiveness or laser focus needed to solve tricky problems.

Cross-functional teams are also a great way to retain talent. Many people enjoy working in different functions throughout their career. Cross-functional exposure will help them evaluate their next career move within the firm rather than outside.

5. Job shadowing and side gigs

A key skill required by today’s employees is empathy. It is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and be able to demonstrate your point of view. This goes a long way in building collaborative understanding. There are a couple of great ways to build empathy amongst your employees:

Job shadowing is a great way to build empathy and get colleagues to share information. Imagine being able to follow your stakeholder from the production department for a few hours.

This will allow you to first-hand experience the challenges they encounter on a daily basis. It will expose you to the daily challenges that they face and overcome. This is an experience which you would never get during the normal course of work.

At times, finance professionals are unaware of the ground-level issues that teams such as procurement, field sales or production encounter. Job shadowing programs will help finance teams empathize with different departments. They also help in building a kinder approach when dealing with delays in projects or budget overruns.

Another amazing way is embracing the gig economy way. Companies these days are looking at employees to solve some key problems instead of hiring external consultants. These so-called gigs or short-term assignments are a great way for finance professionals to contribute to the firm and collaborate with different teams.

A gig could be helping another department implement business intelligence tools for creating dashboards. It could be a process re-engineering project to shorten cumbersome legacy processes. Or you could even organize knowledge sharing sessions to educate other departments on budgeting and in business planning assumptions.

6. 360-degree feedback

There are situations where employees will share an excellent rapport with their manager but have strained relations with their stakeholders. This has an adverse impact on the firm as people still get promoted and fail to understand the importance of relationship building.

If you are in a managerial position, it is important that you incorporate a 360-degree feedback of the team as well as of yourself. Finance sits at the core of the firm, so building relationships with other departments is of key importance. This avoids any future breakdowns and miscommunications.

Since finance manages all financial processes of the firm, hostile relationships with stakeholders are particularly counterproductive. They will lead to miscommunication, lack of data transparency and blame-games in case of missed key performance targets.

Hence, a 360-degree feedback of the team and department will highlight areas where relationships are strained and can be fixed before they turn sour. A 360-degree feedback will also nudge people who might be reluctant to interact with other departments. This is important as relationship building will be an aspect evaluated in their career growth.

7. From numbers to stories

Think of a finance presentation and people imagine slides full of numbers and a monotone presenter. Finance professionals these days are told to shift away from the mountain of numbers and embrace the art of storytelling. Stakeholders and senior leaders typically find it hard to follow the trail of numbers that are in the slides. What’s easy to follow is the story that you want to tell through those numbers.

A key skill in improving your collaboration with other departments is to incorporate storytelling in your presentations. This will help more stakeholders to understand what you are presenting and make the right business decision based on your information. In turn, they will be more motivated to collaborate since they would get the entire picture of your topic.

The lack of storytelling and reliance on numbers have been a major hindrance for finance in getting their ideas through to senior leaders. So, for your next presentation, ditch the slides full of numbers and arrange the numbers to tell a simple but effective story.

8. Social events

Happy hours, coffee chats and cross-team lunches are a great way to foster bonding between different teams. If you are a finance professional, aim to set up one or two such events per month. It does not have to be formal and organized for building relationships.

Grab a coffee with a sales colleague and have a casual conversation. This is a great way to build better interpersonal connections and detect early signs of organizational silos building up.

Set up a bi-monthly call with a senior leader outside your department where you can be mentored by them. As a finance professional, this will help you in building your personal brand and expand your network. You can be a role-model encouraging others to follow similar methods to increase collaboration.

9. Centres of Excellence

Recently, Oracle did a study on the key traits of “agile finance leaders” involved in driving digital transformation. It revealed that 81% of such leaders had created a Finance Centre of Excellence. Oracle created a Finance Centre of Excellence (CoE) when it was moving to a cloud subscription model. The CoE helped them effectively manage the transition and develop best practices guiding the business.

CoEs are a great way to extend the critical expertise of employees throughout the organization. A CoE is a centralized unit of dedicated people with a mission to streamline access to scarce, high-demand capabilities. CoEs support rapid execution of topics requiring specialist knowledge across the business.

A CoE acts well as a North Star where people can turn to for guidance and learn the best practices avoiding trial and error. It consists of domain expert employees from different teams. They work together on a regular basis to evaluate organizational processes, come up with best practices and share the expertise across the organization. Collaboration is what CoEs are built on and are a great example from employees to learn from.

Start Business Partnering Today!

The biggest benefit of the finance department is its connection to all other areas of an organization. Since finance works on spends and budgets, it has a sound understanding of how to navigate the firm financially. But at the same time, finance lacks an understanding of external market, customer sentiment and production level issues.

Hence, in times when the business environment is changing rapidly, collaboration is key. Finance professionals should develop a collaborative relationship with all stakeholders and incorporate customer orientation as core ethos.

So how can you take your first step towards business partnering? It’s simple! Break down silos! Send that meeting invite to a colleague whose work interests you and ask if you could follow them around for a couple of hours.

Reach out to your Finance Leader and suggest revamping your team’s on-boarding process to make it more holistic. Or, look at the presentations that you have made in the last month. Do you see slides full of numbers? If so, start researching on how to incorporate storytelling in your presentations.

These are small but effective steps towards perfectly fulfilling that finance business partner role!

About Volve

Volve’s corporate card comes with an automated expense management solution and reporting tool. This enables all functions of business to capture productivity growth potential from time-cost reductions, greater accuracy, increased visibility and control.

From sales to human resources to finance operations, management can look forward to shifting resources from repetitive manual practices to realizing strategic goals that create more value and deliver higher returns.

Experience how one single solution can improve accountability, accuracy and efficiency. Test drive Volve today free for 30 days. Simply a smarter way to work.

Yash Deshpande
My professional finance journey started in India with cars (Volkswagen) continuing in Singapore with short stints in leasing (Daimler), liquid soaps (P&G) and now laptops (Dell). Who says Finance can't be fun? On weekdays, I crunch numbers, grapple with BI tools and try to weave engaging stories for business leaders. On weekends, I write blogs for upcoming start-ups, engage with interesting folks over coffee, wind up with a movie and shuffle across 3 books.

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