I remember my first break as the financial planning and analysis (FP&A) manager at a profitable technology marketing company. Everything was set up for me to succeed, yet I failed at my first major task for a variety of reasons. Fast forward to Masonite, where I saw a whole new set of finance challenges. Our job was to evolve FP&A to add more value to the business lines, which required changes in technology and expectations. And we succeeded.
Though these organizations were fundamentally different, my mission at both was the same—I knew that I had to be a strategic business partner at all levels of each organization to prove value. Looking back years later here are five lessons I learned along the way.
Lesson #1 – Build trusting, real partnerships.
No matter how many hours you put in, collaboration is what will help your company win. To build trust and valuable relationships, view your peers, executives, direct mangers and indirect managers all as business partners. Propose alternative views, provide insightful feedback—and even push back when required—but do so from a place that helps the company and the teams you work with collectively win. When you can add value at every turn, you will stand apart from the crowd, earn that seat at the table and become indispensable.
Lesson #2 – Own the numbers and execute.
Finance does not own the numbers; we are there to interpret, evaluate and give feedback for sound decision-making. While that’s all true, these aren’t the elements that make a strategic business partner. I quickly learned that I needed to view myself as an owner, regardless of what project I was on or role I had. To think like a CFO or CEO, act as if it’s your own investment money on the line. Ask specific, pointed questions, and seek to understand and offer context on the business issues the same way they would.
Lesson #3 – Start small and just listen.
Skepticism regarding letting new people in is a common occurrence at many organizations. I took this personally at first, but my CFO at Masonite told me to “just beat the drum, Scott.” It was his way of saying: Be consistent. By starting small, being consistent and executing well, I did start to earn the trust of other teams. To properly assess how I could start to be a strategic business partner, I set up time with as many of my colleagues as I could, beginning with my own divisional finance teams and then extending into the rest of the business. I listened—to what folks had been through, how they got to where are, and most importantly, what was holding them back. Then, I created a detailed three, six and 12-month roadmap that not only looked at the long-term, but also broke out the short-term steps that needed to be taken along the way.
Lesson #4 – Don’t be afraid to hire people with superior skills.
As a leader, you will not be successful without a great team. Don’t be afraid to hire smart people who are better than you in certain areas. Learn from them! Prioritize the development of people over the development of your own interests. Ultimately, this scaling of knowledge helps the whole company win.
Lesson # 5 – Use technology to empower your team.
A year into my new role at Masonite, we were working to continually improve company forecasting. All of this required significant time gathering and prepping data, slicing, dicing, etc. It wasn’t the best use of our time or that of the highly technical team we hired. So, we turned to technology. There were lots of options for the finance suite: consolidation, reporting, planning, visualization, predictive analytics, etc. We filtered these options through a series of questions:
- Does it add value and help us do our jobs better?
- Does it enable our teams by unlocking the potential to do more of the right stuff?
- Would we have to reshape heaven and earth to install the solution?
- Is there a tangible impact to the business?
Based on this criteria, we ultimately chose predictive analytics. We could create market-based forecasts based on real-time changes in what was happening outside of our four walls—such as macroeconomic data, consumers, commercial markets, weather, internet trending, etc. We could create executive reporting to discuss these drivers of our market forecasts—and answer those “what ifs” that plagued my first major assignment. Most importantly, we could use all of the above to quickly work with our business partners to ask and answer specific questions instead of building data sets.