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5 Attributes That Sustain FP&A Professionals in Tough Times

  • By Shiraz Ahmed
  • Published: 6/24/2015

In today's competitive environment, FP& A professionals encounter heightened expectations. And with the continuous fiscal, regulatory and corporate governance reforms as well as influx of string of highly successful cyber entrepreneurs, there is more and more expected of finance professionals. No discipline feels this weight of expectation more than financial planning and analysis professionals.

If you are one of those creaking under this strain, and want to be sure you can hold up, assess yourself against these five key attributes:

Analytical skills and problem resolution penchant

Some individuals have a knack of spotting an issue with a report or an analysis simply based on their analytical review. This analytical ability also allows them to methodically dissect a problem and bring it to its resolution even if it is outside their sphere of expertize. If you have an analytical eye and keen problem resolution sense, you will do well in FP&A.

While finance and accounting education bolsters your chances of success in FP&A, some of the most effective FP&A managers I have worked with had no accounting or finance academic background. Some of them had engineering credentials while others studied business management, yet they excelled in the field of finance purely based on their meticulous approach to problem resolution and extra ordinary analytical ability.

Examples of application of analytical skills would include generating projections based on trend and seasonality or applying percent of, or per customer, ratios to identify risks. Similarly, offering solutions to business issues based on understanding of the variables, processes and interfaces is an apt example of problem resolution mind-set.

Quit stating the obvious, be incisive and insightful

Business managers demand analyses and insights to allow effective decision making. Most business managers can read (and they love to read!), and the more they read, the more they want to find out “why?” So you better have more than percentage increase and decrease in sales revenue and admin expenses in your commentary—something that one of my trainers used to contemptuously dismiss as “elevator analysis.”

You cannot provide insights unless you have understanding of the business dynamics and strategy. This has to be supplemented with the broader knowledge of competitive landscape, developments in the industry and overall macro-economic trends relevant to your business.

Impactful communication builds credibility

Even if you have all the right ingredients in place, you still need strong verbal and graphical presentation skills to get your point across. If you are verbally explaining the financials, you need to be concise while striking the right notes and be sufficiently prepared to endure the barrage of cross-questioning. If it is a slide, it needs to be crisp and clear with the right mix of graphical, tabular and narrative information. Being impactful makes you more credible and allows you to rub shoulders with senior management

The key question is how to strike the right balance between being insightful while utilizing the five-minute attention span that you will be granted. The rule of thumb is you need to be more persuasive and detail-oriented when you have a bad news as compared to when results are as per expectations.

This is because business managers like profitability, trajectory and alignment to agreed goals owing to their own stakes or due to their interface with investors, analyst, regulators or creditors. This is why it is important to be pre-emptive and highlight any opportunities and risks that are lurking in the shadows early so business managers can actually do something about these in advance.

Interpersonal skills are not just for the front office staff

Unlike some other support units, FP&A doesn’t work in abundant isolation. In order to drive decision making, monitor execution or glean insights you have to be constantly in touch with rest of the organization including sales and distribution, production and other support functions. FP&A is actually embedded in the day-to-day operations.

Everyone has to pass the FP&A litmus test whether it is proposal for a pricing change, launch of a ‘breakthrough’ product variant, pitch for a marketing campaign or a typical front office driven investment ambition. If the financials don’t make sense (i.e., FP&A petulantly refuses to sign of) the project faces the unpleasant prospect of an early demise.

Process improvement—transformation is the only constant

Those who believe FP&A is about appearances are mistaken. Those who think it is purely about numbers are only slightly more enlightened. FP&A is as much about processes and underlying systems as it is about numbers and communication. Like all other disciplines, FP&A is under tremendous pressure to standardize, to be more nimble and yet be more insightful and accurate. Ultimately, all business managers are looking for cost efficient processes with augmented value-add.

To be an accomplished FP&A manager, it is imperative to understand the system and process interfaces and to strive to improve upon these as turnaround times and resources are expected to decline. FP&A transformation is a hot and vast topic focused on automating manual workarounds, eliminating duplicate or non-value add activities, standardizing and differentiating between production vs client interfacing roles and placing them in the right locations. If you don’t stay abreast of these developments, you risk being out of fashion.

If all else fails, emulate the effective managers around you. There is a reason why they are so successful at what they do.

Shiraz Ahmed is Cost Management Lead—Global Citi Holdings at Citi, London. Read an expanded version of this article here.
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