Business partnering as a concept has been around formally for at least 20 years. It's built on the notion that finance must do more with its resources to support decision-making in the business. CEOs need a forward-looking view on the business and the industry. Here is why, what, and how finance can help deliver that forward focus and become a better business partner, along with several examples of business partnering in action:
- Why: Finance acts as a business partner to optimise business performance. If performance is not improved — if value is not created — then we shouldn't do business partnering. There are no legal or compliance reasons to do so.
- What: Finance influences decisions by changing conversations and qualifying the input that goes into decision-making.
- How: There are four main elements, as discussed below.
How finance can become a better business partner
Drive business performance management
All companies have a performance management cycle that follows the business cycle. In this cycle, finance participates to share a view on performance. This is our entry point into business partnering.
Create valued insights
However, if all we do is provide the numbers and the reports that show performance, we're not doing much. We should be sharing insights with business leaders. For this article, "insight" is something people did not know that will help them make better decisions. If all you do is share things they know, it's nice, but it doesn't help them because it's already factored into their decision-making. If you share something they don't know but doesn't help them, it's even worse, because then you take away capacity from them to make better decisions.
Build trusted relationships
Without trust there cannot be business partnering. If your numbers are not trusted — if your character is not trusted — then you won't be listened to. That means, to build relationships with your stakeholders, work actively on building trust by increasing your credibility, reliability, and intimacy while decreasing your self-orientation. Do this well and you can build trusted relations where your advice is the difference between a good and an unwise decision and where your "no" is trusted as much as your "yes".
Communicate with impact
You can be the best management accountant in the world, but if you cannot communicate the results of your analysis, then you won't make any impact. This is about understanding your own and your stakeholders' preferences for communication. Most likely you'll need to adjust your style of communicating for them to understand you. It's obvious simply because we're finance professionals talking to nonfinance professionals, but it goes beyond that. If you don't understand the difference between your personality type and that of your stakeholders, take time to get to know those stakeholders better.
How business partners create value
Here are real-life examples of how finance can be a business partner.
Years ago, I worked as a finance manager for a smaller entity, and we had worked hard on becoming better business partners. That work all came to fruition when we could help both our commercial and operations colleagues create tangible value. Here's what we did:
- In one case we had experienced eroding profits on the contract we were working on. This was particularly due to rising labour costs that were not covered well enough in the contract's escalation mechanisms. That's what our analysis showed, and we presented this insight to senior management. This caused quite the stir, and we were tasked together with the commercial team to come up with a recommendation on how to construct future contracts to avoid this issue. Through rigorous analysis, we found that some minimum thresholds had to be adhered to when negotiating the contracts depending on their length. This insight helped the commercial team negotiate better contracts with a total additional value of $5 million. This would have never happened without the business partnering efforts from our side.
- In another case, two operations managers had been tasked with cutting 10% off their budget. Ideas were nowhere to be found, and no one was taking the lead until one of them suggested hosting a workshop where we got the teams together to figure out how to save the 10%. Immediately the finance team took the lead to set the scene, facilitate the workshop, and run the numbers on the ideas generated and prepare a final recommendation to deliver the 10%. This was done in about four weeks. The result? About $4 million was shaved off the budget — a real saving to the company. Without that partnering, the ideas might have come too late, and we would have missed the target.
This is how business partnering creates tangible value, coming up with insights and influencing stakeholders' decision-making.
What does it take for a management accountant to become a business partner?
The CGMA Competency Framework lists five categories of skills — technical, business, people, leadership, and digital. The core skills needed to be a successful business partner fall mainly under the "business" and "people" categories, and the framework devotes specific attention to collaboration and partnering in the "people" category. Here's a breakdown of some of the critical business partnering skills:
- Business acumen;
- Business understanding; and
- Customer focus.
Business acumen is the skill of knowing how to do business and how to make money. It encompasses everything from strategy to financial literacy. This is where most business leaders are strong; hence, it is something aspiring business partners should aim to match. It is also a more generic skill and not specific to the company or industry you work in.
Business understanding is specific to the company or industry you work in. This is where you should ask questions to understand how the business model works and how each business area, eg, sales, marketing, operations, etc., works to create value.
Customer focus is critical to business partners. If they don't help their customers or internal stakeholders meet or beat their targets, then they're not being business partners. This is more a mindset than a skill, but it still comes with a concrete toolbox of how to do it, eg, working as a key account manager.
How can you close the skills gap?
If you're a management accountant today and aspire to become a better business partner, you're rightly asking how to close the skill gaps you most likely will have. Try the following steps:
- Look at the core skills outlined above and ask your manager and business stakeholders to rate your current skills.
- Create a plan with your manager of specific training courses or short-term assignments you can take to further develop the skills where you have gaps.
If you haven't held such a role in the past, you might need to get management buy-in to make the leap and try a business partnering role for yourself. The worst that can happen is that you fail, learn from it, and succeed the next time.
With this simple approach, you're ready to start the business partner journey, a natural next step in any management accountant's career.
Anders Liu-Lindberg is a senior finance business partner at Maersk and co-author of the book Create Value as a Finance Business Partner. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.