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Changing the finance function mindset

A COLLEAGUE of mine is fond of saying that “careers are built on roles that do not even exist today”. Over the past 15 years, many organisations have sought to embed the role of business partner within finance functions. So why is it that we see so little evidence of true business partnership benefitting the organisations of today?

For many, the role of the business partner has changed, but the functional mindset has not. One of the main reasons for this lack of progress is that organisations persist in seeing business partnering as a role rather than a new way of working: simply giving someone the title does not elicit the kind of contribution that we would recognise as true business partnering.

As a consequence, the most critical shift required is not one of structure, but one of mindset. The ability to think in terms of business contribution, not business support, is what is required to be a true business partner.

The partnership itself is often ignored, while functions focus on defining roles and organisation structures. The result is that the support function mentality becomes pervasive, in the place of the development of effective relationships based on shared goals, respect and a valued equal contribution. Credible partnership relies on shared accountability for performance and yet there is still a marked reluctance among some to rise to this challenge.

Effective business partnership means a congruence of values, shared challenges, mutual accountability and shared responsibilities. We have not discovered an organisational nirvana, but a growing number of courageous individuals are grasping the true meaning of this much debated approach and gaining valuable insight into how organisations can make progress.

In embedding business partnering, it is essential that functions:

Focus on changing mindset rather than role

Finance functions need to change their mindset and focus on performance. Successful business partners combine a deep knowledge of the business dynamics with functional expertise. For example, one CFO responding to research we conducted on the subject reported that his most talented business partner had minimal functional training, but was adding value in a significant way.

As one participant commented: “The most talented business partners are ‘business savvy’, understanding the business from its head to its guts.”

Collaborate with those they hope to partner with to create a clear, shared definition of effective partnership

When making change, it is a natural reaction to look to other organisations to find a blueprint to follow. Such an approach is fraught with risk as it ignores the need to develop a model from the perspective of the unique priorities of a business. There is no best practice – only the right practice for your organisation.

The CEO is governed by the strategic priorities of the organisation and its performance success. If finance functions are to truly add value, then these must be the driver.

Drive business partners to seek shared responsibility for the organisation’s challenges and equip them to make a value-adding contribution to tackling them

Changing the team may accelerate the change, but the key is to attract or develop people who have the appetite, and the ability, to make a very different contribution.

Development programmes can certainly help, but the creation of a culture of responsibility is more vital

Ensuring that the function is positioned as a business partner is not about selling the concept, but rather making an essential contribution that speaks for itself. Structures are important, but they can get in the way – mindset and contribution are the twin pillars of success.

A respondent said: “Finance is at the heart of everything we do. The CEO and the CFO have a monthly review with each of the MDs. Finance educates them that it’s OK to take risks, about cost disciplines and about margins. We’ve gained a breakthrough on this, reaching a consensus that it’s OK to achieve a 35% margin, in a business that had previously rejected anything below 75%. I had been staggered at this arbitrary benchmark when I arrived, and challenged the view that margins matter more than profitable revenue growth.”

Evangelise the power of true business partnership in driving organisational performance

It is clear that many are on an evolutionary journey. Finance can no longer be solely concerned with the traditional process-driven activities, but must also make a lasting contribution to business success.

Driving this change requires courage, vision, persistence and, in practical terms, business partners who:

• have specific goals and performance targets that relate to business challenges;
• are deployed on these challenges, as a matter of priority;
• are devoting the lion’s share of their time, energy, and skill to making a success of these challenges;
• are trying to influence a different definition of the business challenges if they do not agree with the prevailing view.

Embrace implementing business partnership as a significant and complex change

The successful implementation of business partnering is a collaborative evolution, not a revolution. Create a roadmap for change that prioritises business performance. The roadmap should be multi-dimensional, not linear or inward-focused. Above all, it should secure a relationship of trust with the CEO and executive team.

The economic crisis we face demands deeper reflection by those who lead finance functions. This is the time to consider long-lasting change – not just temporary cost-cutting efforts. True transformation, which leads to improved performance and productivity, means breaking down ingrained structures and behaviours throughout the organisation. Finance professionals are well positioned to make a lasting contributing to strategic and management thinking.

This is nothing less than exploiting the opportunity to add value to the business.

Simon Court is founder and CEO of Value Partnership

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