Chief financial officer of the New Zealand Defence Force, Bridget Marks FCA, has a pretty good idea about what makes a great finance team. After 11 years with the defence force and 18 years with Deloitte prior to that, Marks is an accomplished business leader, with years of corporate and public sector experience.
But even the best managers have ambitions to be better. As in many teams, the attrition rate of Marks’s finance function had risen and she knew engagement between her team and the rest of the defence force could be better.
A vision for the finance team
Seeking the expertise of advisory firm Synthesis Group, Marks produced a strategic plan laying out where her finance team should be two years from now. Synthesis founder William Pegg runs a program called Partnermore, to develop and embed the strategic plan, then uplift the service delivery skills and strategies of finance teams. It’s a stakeholder-first way of working and one he describes as “authentic”.
Marks can vouch for that. “When I explained to William where I wanted to go in terms of making the finance function fit for the future, he worked with me to clearly define what that vision looked like,” she says. “He asked me some pointy questions and really challenged me. We had a good, robust debate.”
Certainly, what Synthesis offers is not corporate training, which Pegg says employees tend to forget quickly. And it’s not consulting. He calls it “applied advisory”, which is working with a client to discover where change is needed, build team capability and be their running partner as they implement change. And, it’s essential that the finance team itself implements the change.
“The central essence of Partnermore is how to partner more effectively with your stakeholders,” explains Pegg, “and the goal is, how do I become a trustworthy adviser? If you want to see a change in how you engage your stakeholders, you and your team need to change first, with the goal of becoming worthy of their trust.”
Developing interpersonal skills
Because a finance team’s stakeholders aren’t typically accountants – in Marks’s case they’re generals in the defence force – the vision for finance needs to be communicated in a way that is understood across the organisation.
This means accountants and finance teams should be focusing on interpersonal skills such as communication, service co-design, analytical and critical thinking, and social influence – rather than technical skills.
“Technical skills are table stakes,” says Pegg. “Finance professionals are often technically brilliant, but they aren’t always the best communicators. Take for instance the balance sheet, cash flow and P&L: we look at them every other day and it’s common sense to us. But how do you decode that in lay terms that get your stakeholders going, ‘Oh I totally get how that works for me and what this means for my division’?”
The Partnermore program covers the central tenets of becoming a trustworthy adviser: deep stakeholder insight, authority positioning and influence.
“If you understand what they are and put them into practice across your entire team, you will see this shift in how your team engages with its audience and, ultimately, how the organisation engages with clients,” Pegg explains.
“I like to ask leaders the question: ‘What would it mean for you and your stakeholders, if your finance team had a single, cohesive way of working, where full and remarkable advice was consistently put up first time?’.”
“…the goal is, how do I become a trustworthy adviser? If you want to see a change in how you engage your stakeholders, you and your team need to change first with the goal of becoming worthy of their trust.”
Better stakeholder engagement
After working with Pegg since May 2022, Marks has improved service delivery skills in the team and made stakeholder engagement more effective and efficient.
“It’s improving the organisational engagement and the level of the conversations my team is having,” she says. “At the same time, they are grateful for the investment I’m making in their development. It’s giving them tools for their future careers. And it should ultimately improve attrition.”
“Technical skills are table stakes. Take for instance the balance sheet, cash flow and P&L: we look at them every other day and it’s common sense to us. But how do you decode that in lay terms that get your stakeholders going, ‘Oh I totally get how that works for me and what this means for my division’?”
Synthesis Group is conducting a public webinar, learn-at-lunch workshop that explores what genuine finance-wide business partnering could look like for your team. Book your place now!