How to Build Trust and Be a Better Finance Business Partner

  • By AFP Staff
  • Published: 1/30/2023
Trust Article Header

Effective business partnering begins with trust. It is the foundation on which everything else is built, including the ability to develop strong business relationships and drive the business forward.

To answer the what and how of this important topic, here are some highlights from Paul Barnhurst and Christian Wattig’s AFP 2022 session, “How Building Trust Enables Effective Business Partnering.”

What is business partnering in finance?

Finance business partnering may be a defined role or a task within a role. A finance business partner supports the business through financial analysis, reporting and forecasting; they also act as a reference point to other parts of the organization when specialized skills are required.

A finance business partner applies broader business and commercial acumen to the insights they bring and advice they provide, seeking to add value by translating complex financial and non-financial information into readily understood concepts and outcomes. This shows up in four distinct ways:

  1. Accountability. Our role as finance business partners means that we can point to what's causing an issue such as underperformance, which opens the opportunity to do something about it.
  2. Simplify and question. Finance plays a key role in deciding what information to focus on, as well as knowing what questions to ask and of whom. Ask the right questions and you can get people to challenge the status quo, to think deeper.
  3. Influence. The best financial analysis in the world means nothing if no one acts on it. Figure out the influencing style that works best for you and put it to work.
  4. Visibility. How can you look at the business differently? What metrics aren’t being considered? In order to drive the business forward, find the leading indicators that inform your recommendations.

Learn how to develop a closer working relationship between finance and operations in AFP’s FP&A Guide: How FP&A Can Become a Better Business Partner, underwritten by Workiva.

Why building trust is important to business partnering, and how to build it

To effectively collaborate and create change, you first must establish trust. When you have trust, your business relationships improve — and people are more likely to share information with you. When you apply that information to financial forecasts or models, you have the basis on which to make recommendations regarding risks and opportunities.

In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey states that where trust does not exist, it acts as a tax that diminishes interactions because it adds hesitancy and the need for verification. Where trust does exist, it acts as a dividend that enriches each interaction. Trust is built up over time, and he goes on to explain the four core elements on which credibility and trust are built: integrity, intent, capabilities and results.

Act with integrity

If you want to act with integrity, you need to do three things: Be honest, show consistency and be willing to share bad news. The first should go without saying. Ethics and honesty should be part of your modus operandi in all areas of your life. In terms of consistency, treat everyone the same and show respect to everyone, from the analyst to the CEO.

A willingness to share bad news means not hiding it. Sometimes it could be an emerging risk or poor business performance; in other cases, it may be a mistake that you have personally made. It is important to surface bad news appropriately because people will see that you focus on the correct business outcomes created in an ethical manner.

You can go a step further and demonstrate your leadership abilities by showing how you might prevent a repeat of similar errors, such as process improvements, instituting checks and automating manual controls. This demonstrates that mistakes are an opportunity to learn.

Focus your intent on the business

Having career goals is important, but it’s equally important to remember that you don’t climb the ladder by focusing on yourself. You do so by focusing your intention on the business and how you can meet the business’s needs.

The CFO is the steward of company capital; the role of FP&A is to put that capital to its best use for the company. Your intent for yourself and in holding people accountable (remember that from above?) is to keep everyone focused on the common denominator of serving the business rather than self-serving “empire building.” This alignment builds trust by demonstrating your focus on what your partners need.

Understand individual and team capabilities

FP&A is moving away from the days when a single person or two could meet all the department’s needs. The idea is to build a team that has all the capabilities that meet the business needs.

Thinking about the team overall, it is crucial to perform an assessment to see what you need as a team to meet the business’s needs. You may discover skill gaps within your current team. For example, if your data is a mess, you may need to look at hiring a data analyst. Once you have filled that skill gap, do another assessment. What do you need now?

When it comes to the capabilities of your team, you may find that people have capabilities you have not thought of as assets. For example, an FP&A professional told the story of one person on his team who struggled with traditional finance capabilities. But there was one thing he did really well: drink coffee.

Whenever that team member got a cup of coffee, he went to the various business partners and talked to them. He then reported back to the finance team everything that was happening in the business, allowing them to better prepare for presentations to the business. By supplying this information, he was adding great value to the team and helping them build credibility with the business.

In terms of individual capabilities, the ability to tell a story and influence people is critical. You can have the respect of your colleagues and have amazing ideas, but if you don’t have influence or the ability to convey the story in a way that will bring them along with you, your idea will never be put into play.

Deliver results

The three previous elements of trust help you get everything ready to be a great partner, but there is one more step: You have to deliver results to earn a seat at the table. FP&A is in the perfect position to drive tremendous results in any organization. One of the best examples of this is Amazon Prime. It’s estimated that over 200 million people in the world have an Amazon Prime account. FP&A played a significant role in this success by performing a lot of the critical analysis to say that Amazon shouldn’t just provide free shipping to everyone; it should be based on a subscription service. Finance earned a lot of trust by delivering on that revenue generator.

While there are many ways FP&A can add value to the business, ultimately, delivering results goes a long way toward earning trust. And to deliver results, you need to work hard to understand the business and spend time getting to know their needs instead of just focusing on the financials. Get out and talk to people. Trust starts with demonstrating competency and delivering results.

Learn more about the who, what and why of FP&A with AFP’s 2022 FP&A Handbook.

How to protect psychological safety

You’ve established trust, now what? Now you need to protect psychological safety. A great way to start is to make yourself vulnerable.

Let’s say you’re seeking feedback, genuine feedback, from your direct reports. That can be difficult to get. No one wants to say something negative about the boss’s favorite project.

You can warm things up by sharing with them feedback you’ve received and what you’re doing to improve. Show them that feedback is just data; it allows you to become better at something.

Building on that is creating a sense of psychological safety. A good way to get the ball rolling, to create the mindset shift you need to get them talking, is to run a postmortem on your project. Tell them to assume it’s five years from now and the project has failed spectacularly. Why did it fail? What happened? Thinking of it this way takes people out of the mode of treading lightly around the boss and asks them to think through everything that could go wrong — in order to make it better.

This article was written using information from the AFP 2022 session, “How Building Trust Enables Effective Business Partnering,” presented by Paul Barnhurst and Christian Wattig. AFP members can watch a recording of their full session on AFP Learn.

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