A personal account from Scott Stern, senior director, solution consulting – finance, Prevedere

I remember my first “break” as FP&A manager at a profitable technology marketing organization.

Unlike in many organizations, the finance team there was well-respected and well-integrated with the innovation team. Everything was set up for me to succeed. Yet I failed at my first major task of providing analysis to the CEO and CFO on protecting our market footprint. Despite preparing for days and knowing every single number by heart, I couldn’t answer our CEO’s questions with confidence. I knew the numbers, but I couldn’t provide feedback on the “what if” questions he truly needed answered. I had all the information, but I didn’t have the answer. Fast forward to Masonite, and I saw a whole new set of finance challenges. FP&A, especially at Masonite, was a relatively new corporate function when I joined, with mostly administrative responsibilities. We were tasked to evolve this group to add more value to the business lines, which required changes in technology and expectations.

Though these organizations were fundamentally different in size, scope and culture, my mission at both was the same – I knew that I had to be a strategic business partner at all levels of each organization to prove value. After joining Prevedere, and helping many FP&A leaders with this same challenge, here are 5 lessons I learned along the way.

Lesson #1 – Build trusting, real partnerships.

Forget the organizational chart. No matter how many hours YOU put in, collaboration is what will help your company win. To build trust and valuable relationships, view your peers, executives, direct mangers and indirect managers ALL as business partners. Propose alternative views, provide insightful feedback – and even push back when required – but do so from a place that helps the company and the teams you work with collectively win. When you can add value at every turn, you will stand apart from the crowd, earn that seat at the table and become indispensable.

Lesson #2 – Own the numbers and execute.

I know what you may be thinking. Finance does not “own” the numbers; that’s the role of operations. We are there to interpret, evaluate and give feedback for sound decision making. While that’s all true, these aren’t the elements that make a strategic business partner. I quickly learned that I needed to view myself as an owner, regardless of what project I was on or role I had.  To think like a CFO or CEO, act as if it’s your own investment money on the line, ask specific, pointed questions, and seek the understand and offer context on the business issues the same way they would.

Lesson #3 – Start small and just listen.

Skepticism regarding “letting new people in” is a common occurrence at many organizations. I took this personally, at first, but my CFO at Masonite told me to “just beat the drum Scott.” It was his way of saying “be consistent.” By starting small, being consistent and executing well, I did start to earn the trust of other teams. To properly assess how I could start to be a strategic business partner, I set up time with as many of my colleagues as I could, beginning with my own divisional finance teams and then extending into the rest of the business. I listened – to what folks had been through, how they got to where are, and most importantly, what was holding them back. Then, I created a detailed 3, 6 and 12-month roadmap that not only looked at the long-term, but also broke it into the short-term (small) steps that needed to be taken along the way.

Lesson #4 – Don’t be afraid to hire people with superior skills.

As a leader, you will not be successful without a great team. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. In my 15-year career, I have seen many very smart, capable financial experts fail as leaders. A successful team should have a unique set of skills that together are more powerful than they would be on their own. Don’t be afraid to hire smart people who are better than you in certain areas. Learn from them! Prioritize the development of people over the development of your own interests. Ultimately, this scaling of knowledge helps the whole company win.

Lesson # 5 – Use technology to empower your team.

A year into my new role at Masonite, we had built some good relationships, hired exceptional team members, and worked tirelessly to “beat the drum.”  As a result, we made great inroads with some of the operational teams as business partners and were getting more requests from the product, innovation and investor relations teams. At the same time, we were working to continually improve company forecasting. All of this required significant time gathering data, prepping data, slicing, dicing, etc. It wasn’t the best use of our time or that of the highly technical team we hired. So, we turned to technology. There were lots of options for the finance suite: consolidation, reporting, planning, visualization, predictive, etc. We filtered these options through a series of questions:

  • Does it add value and help us do our jobs better?
  • Does it enable our teams by unlocking the potential to do more of the “right stuff?”
  • Would we have to reshape heaven and earth to install the solution?
  • Is there a tangible impact to the business?

Based on this criteria, we ultimately chose predictive analytics. We could create market-based forecasts based on real-time changes in what was happening outside of our 4 walls- such as macroeconomic data, consumers, commercial markets, weather, internet trending, etc.   We could create executive reporting to discuss these drivers of our market forecasts (and answer those “what ifs” that plagued my first major assignment). Most importantly, we could use all of the above to quickly work with our business partners to ask and answer specific questions instead of building data sets. This approach enabled new conversations both at the executive level and within our planning and forecasting around inventory planning, market share, marketing investment, capital expenditures and strategic initiatives.  Ultimately, this set a new foundation for business partnerships, setting the stage for continuous improvement across the board and establishing FP&A as a key part of the business, one I am proud to say has grown further to this day.

Now, I have the pleasure of instituting much of these exact same learnings and processes as Prevedere helps companies grow, restructure and leverage their finance teams as strategic business partners. If you are in a finance or accounting role today, I’m sure there is lots of buzz from your CFO, peers and within the industry regarding the concept of being a strategic business partner. I can tell you first-hand that this mindset has given me purpose as a finance leader and has led to some of the most rewarding work in my career.

Are you being challenged to become a strategic business partner? Have you achieved success? I’d love to hear your story.