How to build a brilliant finance team

Finance team

Creating a team of accountants that are in harmony can present many challenges. Some typical obstacles: team members are too siloed, too technical, too protective, too detail-oriented, or too risk-averse.

Whilst some of these traits can be important and necessary, to achieve collective excellence, the team needs to broaden its thinking and work together more openly and instinctively.

With the right skills and mindset, you can overcome these barriers and build a brilliant, high-impact team.

“More opportunities for sharing workloads through project-working, in and outside of finance, will unlock that silo tendency, and help them broaden and upskill,” said Clare Haynes, a trainer and speaker at UK consultancy Wildfire.

“Another common problem is that the more history your organisation has, the more inflexible ‘hereditary nuts’ there are to crack and the greater the need for teamworking,” she added. “Little things like being friendly and empathetic, recognising that most resistance masks fear, and changing things in tiny increments can all make a big difference.”

To build an excellent team, you also need to create opportunities to build trust between members continually. “You don’t need to be friends with everyone, but you must have a sense of fairness and respect as a minimum,” Haynes said. “Never underestimate the power of sharing a laugh together.”

The best managers know their strengths and weaknesses and choose a team with that in mind, Haynes said. But they go much further than this. A great team leader can identify complementary skills and personalities, and can empower team members to solve problems and make progress without the leader’s input.

Interactive training

Duncan Brodie, FCMA, CGMA, managing director at Goals and Achievements, a career consulting firm for accountants near Brighton, England, said that, in his experience, accountants tend to benefit most from a highly interactive style of training that helps teams understand others’ perspectives and how to break down barriers.

“Finance teams can often be very competitive and driven,” he said. “This can sometimes lead to a lack of willingness to collaborate, even though this is vital to progress.”

A good example is a large organisation where the split between purchasing and other finance services can create tensions that obstruct collaboration.

“For a leader, clarity of purpose gets people heading in the same direction,” Brodie said. “Doing what you promise builds trust. Creating the conditions for people to perform to their potential is also important.

“You also need diversity of skills, knowledge, and experience. Know your strengths and weaknesses and theirs, but also understand how these traits interact and the impact that can have. Being a good listener helps a lot.”

Beautiful to watch

Kush Shukla, director of consultancy firm Arivu, is an executive coach and speaks at finance partnering workshops for CIMA. Leaders must take the time to learn to use tools, no matter which one they choose, to do a better job training their teams.

“A brilliant team aims to become like a ballet — beautiful to watch because they work together naturally,” Shukla said. “But many managers don’t know their team members’ strengths because they get inundated with work, become task-focused, and neglect the team and individuals.”

Shukla agreed that the abundance of technical knowledge in finance teams can be a cause of friction.

“Some people tend to guard that, because knowledge is power,” he said. “A good manager must make sure that knowledge is transferable and transferred. It needs constant diligence because whenever new people join or leave, it can change the dynamic.”

Shukla said focus should be on improving the skills of an entire team instead of picking a few standout individuals to train. “Would the team collapse if one or two members left, because the others didn’t have the right skills?” Shukla said. “That approach also helps the team become more autonomous and understand each other’s strengths.”

To overcome barriers, Shukla recommended a group development model called “forming, storming, norming, and performing”, proposed by psychologist Bruce Tuckman in the 1960s.

Forming refers to finding ways to bring people together. The storming phase is about techniques for warding off cliques, infighting, and people vying for dominance, Shukla said.

“In these two stages, get the team together regularly outside work, so they bond and get to know each other,” he said. “Once you’ve formed the team and dissolved the cliques, the norming stage helps them get to understand each other’s strengths and roles in more depth. Sometimes natural leaders will emerge at this point, so make sure they are well-positioned.

“The performing stage aims to get team members working efficiently together and autonomously, where everyone knows each other’s strengths instinctively and they are sharing knowledge. Put the right people together, but also mix the teams regularly so they don’t get comfortable and complacent and you can see how different dynamics work.”

Only when you reach this natural, instinctive stage will the team start to look like a ballet, he said.

— Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. 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.