By Andy Burrows
There is a common frustration among Finance Business Partners.
Many of them almost feel as if they have been mis-sold the role.
They were promised that they’d be close to the business, as writers like me keep saying we must be in Finance. They were promised involvement in important discussions and strategic decisions. They were promised freedom from mundane number crunching.
And yet one of the biggest complaints from Finance Business Partners is that they still seem to spend too much time compiling reports, checking numbers, drilling down, building forecasts, and writing commentaries. And they hardly have any time left to spend with the non-finance colleagues they’re supposed to be partnering with.
And, to be clear, I’m talking about the way that Finance Business Partners feel about their jobs, not the way that others may criticise them.
So, for instance, this is a question that was sent to me during a recent Finance careers event:
“I am technically an FBP, but I don’t feel I am actually doing this role. I have to do all the month-end processes and manage purchase ledger, so my time is filled with a lot of process-based work that gives me less time to get out in the business. Would you say it’s normal for an FBP to be processing?”
And I believe it’s true to say that true Finance Business Partner roles don’t involve managing a purchase ledger or doing month-end processes such as posting accruals or closing ledgers.
In the case of the question I received, it sounded to me as if the questioner was working in a business that isn’t actually big enough to have Finance Business Partner roles.
And that’s something that I don’t think is said enough. Finance Business Partner job titles and full-on Finance Business Partner roles are only really for big businesses.
SME Finance functions can partner the business without needing FBPs. The one central Finance function can do everything for the business, and support the business without needing to split itself up.
Where Finance Business Partner roles are needed is where the business is big enough to have multiple business units or large separate operational facilities. Businesses where Finance business partnering work best are normally multi-site, and/or multi-geography, multiple-product-line, groups, and especially groups that have then pushed for efficiency by centralising transaction processing into shared service centres.
In those cases, Finance Business Partners are then the links to ensure that all business areas are supported fairly by Finance.
Finance Business Partners in those situations are primarily about helping with decisions. But they also assist business areas with understanding, adhering to, and accessing Finance processes. And they broadly use Finance expertise to help non-Finance colleagues with both operational and strategic management.
However, if you are in an SME, in a small Finance team, who else is there to manage the purchase ledger? It is a business-critical activity. Suppliers need to be paid, otherwise the business can’t survive!
It may not strictly be business partnering as per the way we normally think, but in a broader sense it is. It wouldn’t be good business partnering to be sat chewing over strategic analysis with the marketing director whilst suppliers are not getting paid!
I once worked for a small company as Head of Finance and through team resignations I actually ended up being the AP clerk for a month and then Assistant Accountant for another month! I worked on Sage typing in invoices and calculating revenue recognition! And actually, through that I was able to reengineer a few of the processes and create a revenue recognition spreadsheet that then helped me to provide the information that was needed for due diligence in selling the business (more of your classic Finance Business Partner kind of thing).
It’s here that I’ve learnt there is a difference between a business partner mindset in Finance and having a Finance Business Partner role.
If you have a mindset where you just want to be as helpful in the business as possible, using your skills of course, then you’ll find yourself doing a real mix of things. It may even turn out to be enjoyable, growing with the business.
I’ve taken to describing the mindset as “business-focused Finance” in order to distinguish it from the Finance Business Partner role. The former is the most important thing, and is applicable to everyone in Finance, whatever their title or role. The latter is a role that is only viable and helpful in some organisational architectures.
One of the important things is to know how the things you do help the business. And then if you act accordingly, in a way that intentionally amplifies that help to the business, your non-Finance colleagues then know you care about helping them, and they come to you when they need help.
Then you’re doing business partnering just through showing you care and that you understand how you help them. That can naturally draw you into relationships with other parts of the business that lead to more strategic work.
It’s also interesting that not all the highest value Finance work comes from classic Finance Business Partner decision-support. We tend to think in terms of FP&A, decision support, modelling, analysis, and so on. But if I think about the times I believe I’ve helped the business as a Finance person, working alongside non-Finance colleagues, some of those have not been analytical.
For instance, I headed off an adverse impact on the majority of our clientbase using my knowledge of transaction processes.
Also, one of the best Finance business partners I have come across was actually a Financial Controller who knew the accounts and transactions in such depth that her non-Finance colleagues trusted her with any question they had.
The most important thing is to think about the business in everything we do.
However, with all that said, if you are keen to progress your career in Finance, you have to go further than managing purchase ledger and closing month-ends in smaller companies.
I made the point in another article, that in bigger companies Finance Business Partner is a better stepping stone towards a CFO role nowadays.
So, whilst it’s essential to start by checking your attitude towards your role and the way that you approach it, and seeing whether you can adjust your role, it is possible that it’s time to move on.
You have to remember that if you want to get to a CFO role one day, CFO roles are all about business leadership. And that means you need business acumen and leadership skills.
To develop business acumen, you learn from applying analytical tools and techniques to business performance, competitors and the market, and you need to get a reputation for being business-focused. And to develop leadership skills you need to start to show results from your team. So, you need to be getting into roles that give you opportunities to learn and practice these things.
In larger companies, that may mean Finance Business Partner roles. But to generalise, it’s the skills and experience that counts, and the mindset, rather than the job titles.
In conclusion, the three key things to take away are:
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