In Deloitte’s recent Q2 CFO Survey, CFOs were asked to nominate the relative percentage of time they spent in each of the ‘4 Faces of the CFO’ – steward, operator, strategist and catalyst. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most indicated that they intended to spend less time in the ‘ticket to play’ roles of steward or operator, and instead planned to focus more of their time on the value creating activities offered by the ‘business partner’ roles of strategist and catalyst.
That result is no doubt reflective of the real appetite we are now seeing within management for a more fully engaged and insightful finance function that will partner with the business in order to get the right things moving in the right direction, sooner rather than later.
But, as attractive as that prospect may be, business partnering is a challenge for many finance organisations. It requires a willingness on the part of both the CFO and line executives, as well as a shared understanding of the business fundamentals. Many finance organisations simply don’t have the capability to deliver it well or, even worse, don’t know enough about their business to identify and act on the opportunities.
To be a meaningful business partner, finance has to go beyond simply producing numbers to delivering insights that helps better decision making. Achieving that takes effort from team members and an understanding that there’s no substitute for “kicking the tyres” of an organisation to find out what is going on. That means talking to the people working at the front line of the business to get the real story – find out what it would take to deliver unexpected value to your business partner and then do it.
Finance partners who are curious and willing enough to engage actively across the organisation on that level will invariably be the ones business leaders talk about for years to come.
While there are undoubtedly many challenges confronting CFOs striving to create a business partnership model, for those able to overcome these hurdles the rewards can be immense. In 2008, a Deloitte study of seventy global finance leaders showed that organisations with more effective business partnering capabilities outperformed other companies financially, illustrating the fact that business partnering can offer an effective means to a very important end: better performance.
However, to create time for partnering, finance needs to capitalise on opportunities to offload routine, lower-value tasks. One place to focus first is in the area of technology itself. Finance has a big role to play in determining how systems are configured to meet business needs and to refocus finance on strategic challenges rather than administrative duties. There is no surer way to undermine your business partner credentials than to say that your availability is limited because you are closing the books.
Business partnering requires the right skills which include experience, curiosity and not being afraid to ask the ‘dumb questions’, as well as a willingness to set aside preconceived notions, the courage to deliver hard news and the ability to take unpopular stands.
It’s important that when you identify these skilled business partners within your team, that they are deployed in scenarios that stretch and develop them across numerous areas of the business. That sort of consulting model provides not only the opportunity for business partners to integrate more fully in numerous areas of the organisation, but also offers them significant professional development opportunities if strategically managed.
Good business partnering skills are in short supply and competition for them is increasingly intense. It only takes a handful of skilled business partners to make a big impact. However, without careful planning to ensure that the hiring and talent development processes you have in place are generating sufficient business partner potential, even that small number could be difficult for many organisations to find.
So, how do you judge your team’s partnering capabilities? Start by asking the following questions:
- Can I readily name the top three concerns of each of my business counterparts?
- How much time are my people spending on business partnering?
- When the business faces an unexpected crisis, will one of my top people be in the first meeting called to address it?
- Do I know what business leaders think of finance service and its value?
- Are we tracking and communicating the business value that finance is contributing?
- Do my senior people have the characteristics of good partners and how could I help them do better?
- Are strong business partners rising through the ranks and are we rewarding their efforts?
- Are we losing good finance people to other companies rather than our business?
- Your organisation is already sending lots of clues about your commitment to business partnership. Are you listening?
Keith Skinner is chief operating officer and Donal Graham is a consulting partner with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu