It never ceases to amaze just how many job advertisements contain the title ‘business partner’ without the candidate or employer knowing what the term means, or understanding the behaviours and competencies associated with effective business partnering. Many organisations also fail to understand the powerful linkage between partnering and organisational performance. They regard business partnering simply as an attempt to convince them that by following the latest trends the organisation will automatically achieve success.
What is Business Partnering?
Moving beyond the clichés, finance business partnering can be broadly defined as the alignment of the finance function to the operations of the business, leveraging that alignment to obtain business knowledge and also influence decision making. It recognises that the true value of a finance professional has shifted away from ‘what happened in the business’ to ‘what should happen’ and how to execute the necessary change.
In its purest form, the finance business partner will have a dual reporting relationship, directly in to the finance function and indirectly to the business. In a more general sense. business partnering is about real-time information gathering and decision making that crosses the formal lines of a company organizational structure
A typical partnering function contains two high level objectives. The first is providing commercial finance support to the business’s various activities; an aspect that calls on predominately ‘operational disciplines’ of a finance professional, such as forecasting, analysis and modeling.
The second lies in challenging the status quo of the business, with an emphasis on shaping its future strategic direction. In particular, it means challenging those charged with decision making within the business. This objective emphasises the personal qualities of the finance professional, including the power to influence, his or her gravitas and command among members of the business and the ability to carefully manage multiple stakeholders.
How to be a Great Business Partner
What are the elements that go towards becoming a great business partner? They would certainly include, although not necessarily be limited to, the following:
- Sell the benefits to yourself first. If you believe in it, others will too.
- Identify key people drivers. Every business has a core group of people who are a key source of business knowledge or at the heart of business decision making. If you are new to an organisation and cannot readily identify them, then seek the counsel of a long-term employee who does.
- Build business acceptance for partnering with the business. If the business understands your intentions it is more likely to grant you a seat at the board table.
- Form well-developed relationships with the business and nurture them. Partnering is all about people and if the relationships there, the insight and influence will follow.
- Focus on the one-to-ones with the business. A group presents an intimidating environment in which to make decisions and provide business challenge. One-to-ones allow the relationships to develop and insights to flow.
- Don’t be afraid of challenge back from the business. It is all about getting the right outcomes, and often the business will know best.
- Be future-focused. Over-interpreting the past adds little value. Being aligned to the business helps to drive a perfect future, rather than dwell on an imperfect past.
- Don’t allow yourself to go native. You are a financial professional ultimately. Getting close to the business should not mean you allow your judgment to be clouded or influenced the wrong way.
- Don’t become an administration clerk. Partnering is about providing high-value insights and challenge to the business. The moment it becomes merely updating bespoke spreadsheets kept by the business indicates that either the capital or human resourcing of the business needs an overhaul.
Business Partnering and the Link to Corporate Performance
Business partnering is not an end in itself, but a means to driving improved financial performance. The main benefits of a well-designed and executed business partnering function include more accurate and timely decision making. This means, for example, that the finance professional is able to identify business performance defects at an earlier stage, alternative solutions from those at the ‘coal face’ of the business are promptly identified and that agreeing and implementing corrective action occurs more promptly.
A further benefit lies in breaking down the line management silos of a business that often cause dysfunctional decision making and sub-optimal financial performance. Instead, a culture of trust and working together is established that maximises information flows. In addition, it is easier to influence the business where rich partnering relationships are in place.
Business Partnering in Practice
Some years ago, the author joined an organisation that could be described as globalised in its client base, but local in its approach to business finance and engagement.
Timesheets were regularly submitted late; the quality of business analysis was poor, but interaction between the finance department and the business was virtually non-existent. As one business leader remarked to me on my first day, finance was the ‘dark side’ of the company.
The first observation about this silo structure was the profound and obvious impact these behaviours were having on business performance.
In order to change things, formalising a business partnering change programme was needed, which involved:
Obtaining business backing for business partnering. This was done through a series of one-to-one presentations that highlighted the decision making and alignment benefits.
Creating useful analysis tools for decision making. These included a data warehouse and pipeline that aggregated data from disparate systems in the organisation. The tools created future-oriented resource planning that drove profitability improvement.
Weekly partnering meetings. These shifted the focus away from month-end to discussions on future pipelines and supporting resource plans.
Setting up regular feedback sessions. At these meetings business and finance could honestly appraise the relationship
These and other factors forced the business to clean up its data quality and drive accountability in updating systems real-time. The weekly meetings shifted the focus to the future and drove reciprocal accountability between business and finance. The ‘them and us’ had become ‘we’, which ultimately is what successful business partnering is all about.
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