"The first foundational piece in becoming a better business partner is creating the right relationship between business and finance—much of which depends on the interpersonal and business skills of the FP&A team. Building trust and establishing credibility has to be established at the outset,” said Ketan Goculdas, director of FP&A at Sparta Systems, Inc.
Here are three actions FP&A can take to build trust into a collaborative partnership:
KNOW THE BUSINESS
Focus on what they focus on. Knowing how your business partner serves the customer is the first step to gaining trust and showing alignment. Finance should be focused on the customer as well, knowing they work through this partner relationship.
Spend time in the business. “By working in the business, you find out what are the exceptions to the rule,” said Ashley Merritt, FP&A, former practitioner and now an independent consultant. “Always make a point of visiting with the business to talk about finance and the business and the challenges it faces. That may mean the CFO flips burgers at the company owned store, the director of finance goes up a telephone pole to string wires, or the FP&A manager packs boxes in the warehouse. When you sit in the business, you hear the conversations, see the process, and witness how things really get done.”
Be curious and open-minded. In order to be open to the business, you have to seek out the people and things you do not know—about your own company, the market, the data, tools, etc. Recognize and respect the value of experience and institutional knowledge in the business, even if you are going to challenge it. For example, some processes may seem unnecessary, but they are probably created.
KNOW THE PEOPLE
Communicate. “Communication is at the heart of being able to build that credibility and achieve successful partnership,” said William Howell, FP&A, FP&A manager, Ceridian UK. "FP&A needs to see and know other parts of the business. And even if it can’t visit in person, it should meet with the business executives when they visit the headquarters. “Don’t expect the business leaders to be mind readers,” said Howell. It’s important for FP&A to clearly explain the budget and the plan in jargon-free terms, whether your medium is in-person, by email, using PowerPoint or data visualizations.
Combine formal with informal processes. In most situations, the formal processes are easy to set up: investment gate reviews, periodic performance review meetings, forecast updates. To understand the actual work, make more informal contact with the teams across the business to better understand what they do, their resources, and key business drivers.
According to Jenny Okonkwo, FP&A, founder of Transform Consulting, “You learn most of your information in informal settings, not business review meetings,” she said. “The trick is to make sure you are in a position to have these offline conversations and business managers trust you to be discreet.” Many business managers won’t reveal their concerns during gatherings with management. She advised FP&A to “embrace the formal and informal agenda and treat them with equal respect.”
Be transparent to the business. Nick Pennell, operations lead of the Global EPM Center of Excellence at KPMG, said that it is incumbent upon FP&A to ensure the businesses have a “go-to” FP&A contact, either embedded within the BU or assigned within the FP&A team. This allows the business and the FP&A professional to develop a tight relationship. “The relationship is not with a function, it’s with a person,” he explained. Transparency and integrity in the process is a key to success, whether that is planning, investment review, or accountability reporting. Finance needs to be seen as an impartial team member who plays a role that everyone can understand.
Be credible and inspire confidence. It may sound obvious, but others need to trust the accuracy, honesty and relevancy of what you say. Make sure that the information FP&A provides the business is accurate and timely. “It must also be data provided in a contextually relevant manner,” said Rob Hull, founder of Adaptive Insights. “The finance team member has to have the ability to sit with the business manager and provide both operational and financial data in a way that demonstrates how it’s relevant to that manager’s business.”
Provide timely responses. This is similar to the preceding point, but worth a separate bullet if you want to adopt a customer-service mentality. According to Casey James, FP&A, senior manager of FP&A at the Cheesecake Factory, FP&A shouldn’t let requests linger in a queue. “Get it done in a timely manner, and don’t just answer the question but add something to it, a different perspective, information that’s actionable, an insight.” Add value every time you touch a person, a document, a model, or whatever the piece of work is.
Offer something they cannot get anywhere else. If you want a seat at the decision-making table as a business partner, what do you bring to the table that they don’t already have? It may be finance acumen, critical thinking, quantitative interpretation, advanced analytics, access to data sources, linkages to corporate plan, capital resources…the list goes on. Know what you and finance offer, and then bring it.
Be independent. Even though you are a business partner, remember that you represent the finance point of view. That means you play a central role in capital allocation across the company, with a reporting line to the CFO. You may the only negative voice in the room as you challenge assumptions, calculations, data quality, and presentation of information. Try to “disagree without being disagreeable” person—focus on the issue and not the agendas or personalities behind them.
This article is excerpted from the upcoming AFP Guide to How FP&A Can Become a Better Business Partner. View additional FP&A Guides here.