By Andy Burrows
[First published 28th February 2017]
It is becoming fashionable nowadays to identify some roles in Finance as Finance Business Partner. It’s intended to emphasise the need for managers in the business to have a strong understanding of financial performance. And therefore, the Finance function ought to provide people who can come alongside business managers, providing financial insight and understanding.
I have been known to express my unease with the use of the term Business Partner. For one thing, it suggests that we are somehow separate from the business. We can only partner the business. So, it always seems to trigger a little internal irritation in me when I hear people say, “we’ll need to consult with the business”, or some such thing. But for another thing, it suggests that business is all about strategic decision making, and somehow the mundane things don’t matter. So only special people get to be “business partners”.
But my purpose in this article isn’t to go over that again. The point I want to pick up on here is the observation that the role of Finance Business Partner seems to sit exclusively within the Financial Planning & Analysis team (FP&A). It seems to me that there are a couple of unhelpful signals that come from that.
In some ways, I understand what is underneath the trend. CFOs have for a long time been seen as the CEO’s right-hand person. That puts Finance into the heart of the business, rightly in my view. CFOs have become the owners of business strategy, the balancing voices with the overall performance of the business at heart. And so, they have increasingly needed financial information and analysis to arm them for their discussions in the executive team.
That takes certain skills and a deep business knowledge. Where does that come from? If you’re the number crunching Financial Controller, where does that business acumen come from? The answer is that we’ve needed a team that focuses on providing performance information and analysis, insight that is helpful to managers within the business in making decisions about how to run the business well. That, as far as I can tell, is where FP&A has come from.
And that’s why Finance Business Partners sit in FP&A. They align with their colleagues in other functions and areas of the business. They seek to understand how those areas work, and how they contribute to the performance of the business. They develop an understanding of what drives business performance. And they can use their understanding of the numbers to help their business colleagues to make better decisions. And at the same time, they can help the CFO to drive financial discipline further into the management structures of the business.
So, what is the problem with that? Well, there is nothing wrong with it if the context is right. But I think we have to be careful.
I passionately believe that Finance is about business performance – through and through. So every part of Finance could be called business partners.
One of the unhelpful signals that is sent out by having roles called Finance Business Partner in FP&A is that it gives the impression that FP&A is the elite team. They are the special ones. They are the ones privileged to get close to the business, whilst the rest of Finance just get on and do, well, whatever it is they do. But who cares? The FP&A team are the ones the CFO spends time with. Are the others doing things worth the CFO’s time?
If you’re in the Financial Reporting or Financial Control team, aren’t you the ones providing the financial accounts that show how the business is performing?
If you send out the sales invoices, aren’t you helping the business to perform by making sure you charge customers correctly?
If you’re in Credit Control, aren’t you helping the business to survive by making sure the cash comes in quickly from customers?
If you’re in Accounts Payable, aren’t you helping the business to perform by making sure the suppliers are paid on time, and continue to be happy to provide goods and services?
If you’re in Treasury, aren’t you keeping the business going, ensuring there is enough cash, helping the business perform by reducing financial risk?
You see, there are ways to link back every role in Finance to either supporting and enabling business performance, or providing part of the business performance management process. You just need to think about it a little bit. And, I don’t know about you, but I find that way of thinking liberating and motivating. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not just doing mundane stuff. You’re an important part of the business. Where would they be without you?
And therefore, the business partnering mindset that you used to think was reserved for the FP&A team is something that everyone in Finance can have. Talk to your colleagues in other parts of the business to help you do whatever you do better. Help them to do their jobs with more recognition of the financial implications of what they do and their impact on your function. Commit to that dialogue that will make everyone work together better to improve the performance of the business.
And finally, this point may be obvious, but should still be made. FP&A needs everyone in Finance to have the same business partnering mindset, for two reasons at least:
First, it grows the talent to come into FP&A, not just with the right analysis skills, but with the right outlook on business – the right mindset.
Second, FP&A realise, because they’re paid to understand the dynamics of business performance, that every role in Finance contributes to business performance. Therefore, rather than looking down on their Finance colleagues from their ivory tower, they should be spending time with them helping them to understand and appreciate their importance.
What do you think? Am I being harsh on FP&A? What’s your experience? Does your CFO neglect certain areas of Finance? Are you in FP&A? Are you a Finance Business Partner who isn’t in FP&A?
Let me know. It would be great to hear your perspective.
See these other articles on similar subjects...
And if you do have a Finance Business Partner role and want to work out the business partnering priorities, I've put together a little prioritisation "cheat sheet" which you can download here.
And if you want me to take you through a 7-day challenge to complete that cheat sheet, and come up with your own business-focused, value-adding, Finance business partnering action plan, sign up for my 7-Day Finance Business Partnering Email Challenge!
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