Finance business partners go beyond the production of standard reports and analysis to lead multi-disciplinary conversations that inform and improve decision-making — and ultimately boost organisational performance.
Mastering the role of business partner can also serve as an alternative route to senior management, due in part to the holistic view that the experience brings, research indicates.
Finance Business Partnering: The Conversations That Count, a CGMA report based on dozens of interviews with senior executives in a variety of sectors, found that accountants need to develop new skills to become effective partners to the business (click here to read the full report). The additional skills are behavioural, rather than technical, and are most commonly acquired through experience in the role.
Anton Broers, a finance manager at Royal Dutch Shell, described these traits as key to business partnering:
- The courage to speak up, to challenge managers, and to hold a mirror up to the business. This might involve raising issues such as the unintended consequences of a performance metric.
- The possession of influencing, relationship-building, and communication skills. These are required to get the message across and get a discussion going.
- Persistence. Helping peers from other disciplines understand the wider and longer-term implications of an action may take some time.
- Understanding of the business.
- The ability to translate the numbers into a business story.
An effective business partner is “the one who makes connections between people and between issues,” Broers said. “They will be sitting in the middle of the table brokering and linking up points, adding an overview and the financial angle.”
The research found that insights into how to improve performance are usually generated through conversations with colleagues in the business. Management accountants bring their accounting toolkit but also their business overview, professional objectivity, and a commercial perspective to these discussions.
Starting the conversation
By stimulating internal discussion, good business partners can facilitate the development of insights in collaboration with business managers. The series of conversations outlined below can help improve business understanding and generate insights:
- The business model. Developing the story of how the business works. The discussion helps everyone understand the business’s position, performance, and prospects, enabling the organisation to focus resources on how it actually generates value.
- Horizon scanning. Considering possible scenarios to identify opportunities to pursue or decide how to build the resilience needed to safeguard the business’s future.
- Performance measures. Determining which non-financial metrics should be monitored to create meaningful performance data to support both current and long-term value creation.
- Data sources. Which sources of data at the company’s disposal can be used to create a competitive edge, and how to go about capturing, interpreting, and acting on those data.