Getting stuck in with other departments, interpreting raw data and not seeing your desk in days. It’s accountancy – but not as we know it. Here’s what you need to know about being a finance business partner.
When Robin Kiziak recalls his first days working in a finance business partner (FBP) role at a DIY firm, he describes the experience with one word: “scary”. Suddenly, he was required to deliver PowerPoint presentations to head honchos and get chummy with strangers from different departments.
Yet, for those that venture outside their comfort zone, like Kiziak eventually did, a finance business partner’s (FBP) role is arguably one of the most exciting jobs a mid-level accountant can do.
In recent years, the FBP role has increased in popularity at a rapid pace, particularly in larger organisations. It is quickly becoming an essential cog within the finance function. But what do they do, exactly?
Finance Business Partners are often to be found on project-based work. Theirs is a vital role in large organisations, working closely with various departments, usually. They interpret financial information or raw data and investigate new revenue streams before presenting their analysis to company stakeholders and leaders. The insights and business intelligence they gather helps companies make crucial decisions and drive efficiencies.
“Finance people are no longer back-office bean-counters,” says Matt Weston, UK managing director at financial recruitment firm Robert Half. “Now, they rotate around the business, sitting with different departments. For businesses today, finance is at the heart of every decision-making decision. FBPs are integral to their strategic importance.” Thanks to this 360° approach, FBPs argue it’s one of the most wide-ranging roles in accountancy.
The ability to develop a rapport with different stakeholders is essential for anybody hoping to become an FBP.
“For many accountants, becoming an FBP will require a personal transformation, because you’ll be out of your comfort zone,” says Liu-Lindberg. “When many of us enter the financial industry, it’s because we enjoy sitting in front of a screen working on Excel Dashboards all day long, sending emails because we’re frightened to talk to people. Given many of our tasks will be automated or available through the cloud, the only thing left for us to do is go out and talk to business leaders about how the numbers are moving, and what they can
do about it. That’s difficult.”
Beth Rowan, who currently hot-desks between offices in her role as senior finance business partner at PRS for Music, says the role doesn’t feel like work. “When I first started, I spent so much time chatting to people rather than being at my desk. I felt I was being unprofessional,” she explains. “To be an FBP, you need the confidence to speak to people, rather than hiding behind your emails.”
It was the 2008 financial crisis that really “fired a starting gun” for the explosion of FBP roles, according to Anders Liu-Lindberg, finance business partner at AP Moller-Maersk. With revenues and profits nose-diving, it suddenly became imperative for companies to cut costs wherever possible. With an FBP lurking in their midst, it meant that departments had to become more strategic and leaner.
Now that FBPs permeate all areas of the business, you’re less likely, say, to see a marketing team lavish thousands of pounds on ill-advised publicity campaigns seen by four people. “Decisions now needed to be made [within companies] that were fact-based, rather than from the gut,” Liu-Lindberg explains.
Weston says finance people used to be a corporate function, only working as scorekeepers who kept end-of-year accounts. “But you’re now seeing them in every department; they’re now involved in every meeting, budget and communications plan. Businesses are missing a trick if they don’t integrate finance into everything they do.”
Understand the organisation
A capacity to wholly “understand” an organisation, from who-does-what in the fusty facilities team through to the minutiae of the last quarterly report, is another essential part of the FBP role.
To learn more about the DIY firm, Kiziak suggested shadowing warehouse staff, often turning up for 6.00am shifts to heave boxes from the back of a truck. As he points out, enmeshing yourself with a different team can lead to a re-evaluation of previously ignored or misunderstood departments.
“You can sit in meeting rooms and talk about productivities all day, but unless you see what’s happening out there, you won’t understand the challenges,” says Kiziak. “Listening to people is the key to understanding the business.”
Rowan notes that the things you overhear and chat about to people are important, too. “Making a coffee and chatting to somebody from a different department can be just as important as attending meetings,” she explains. “You pick up on little things that can turn into something bigger.”
Communication and advisory
The prospect of presenting at management meetings or translating tricky fiscal concepts to disinterested non-financial staff can make many accountants feel uneasy. Being a good speaker hasn’t traditionally been part of an accountant’s job description. Still, communication and advisory skills are now predicted to be indispensable for those accountants who want to navigate the automation-heavy workplaces of the future.
Liu-Lindberg admits he didn’t have these skills when starting at AP Moller-Maersk in 2014. “I acquired them by pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” he says.
In his spare time, Liu-Lindberg co-runs the Business Partnering Institute consultancy from his Copenhagen hometown and regularly blogs about the subject. For him, being an FBP is exciting. “You have an impact,” he says. “If you’re a finance controller reporting numbers and putting up nice schedules for an auditor, you honestly have little influence. But an FBP is like the glue [holding together] different stakeholders within the business.”
There’s no general career path to becoming an FBP, but usually two or three years’ experience is needed first. It’s worth bolstering your CV by “getting heavily involved with project-work” says Weston. “Put your hand up for everything, develop softer skills and make sure you understand your business.”
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