A broader set of skills
Technical finance skills used to be perceived as the only requirement to performing a finance and accounting job, whereas interpersonal skills were deemed optional. Now, with the rise of business partnering, soft skills have become a must-have. As business partners, finance professionals now need a commercial appreciation of the business, as well as leadership, team-building, interpersonal, presentation and other such ‘soft’ skills.
The survey shows that a key capability – and one of the biggest challenges – required from business partners is a deep understanding of both the business and its industry. So it is not just about industry knowledge. Both are cited as the most important capabilities within business partnering in all surveyed countries, including the Netherlands with respectively 30% and 29%. In the Netherlands, the number one capability is strong analytical skills with 39%.
Finance leaders also say that good communication skills are vital, with an emphasis on advocacy. The ability to persuade is particularly important when business partners challenge senior management. “You need people who can strategically influence the business segments they support. They need honed communication skills so they can provide insights in a concise, impactful manner, and they need to be able to communicate in a way that translates to non-finance people,” says AstraZeneca’s Mr Rourke.
Another significant attribute is leadership, as cited by 28% of the European respondents (29% of the Dutch respondents). Dassault Systémes’ Mr De Tersant points out: “Someone who’s just sitting back and preparing analyses is not that useful. Finance partners need to be willing to step up and survey the problem and propose solutions in order to deal with it. They need to show initiative and leadership.” Antoine Bayon de Noyer, Deputy Group CFO at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, echoes this. “Business partners need to show initiative – come up with ways of presenting information, new ways of looking at questions, to identify and highlight possible solutions, weigh up different alternatives. Leadership is crucial to be successful as a business partner.”
Filling the talent pipeline
Commercially savvy, keen to learn, with strong communication and leadership skills, the business partner profile is sharply different from the traditional financial employee of yesteryear. Unsurprisingly, finding people with these skills can be very challenging. Dutch executives, however, experience greater challenges in retaining traditional finance employees to take on a business partnering role compared with most of their European counterparts. 36% say that they experience difficulties with retention, compared with 57% for the UK, 56% for France, 53% for Germany and 42% for Belgium. When asked what capabilities they would prioritise in their training and development programmes, all European respondents, including those from the Netherlands (48%), pointed to technical financial skills first.
To meet the needs of the finance function and to understand what kind of people are required, HR has to develop a longerterm, talent development plan with the right curriculum and delivery mechanism. They also need to create the right mix between the development of internal talent, and the recruitment of both interim and permanent business partners. According to the executives surveyed for this report, the finance department needs to increase its influence within the HR function, ahead of other departments like supply chain, information technology, executive management and procurement, in order to help shape this development.
One way to develop these skills – while also improving relations between finance and the rest of the business – is by rotating finance staff into other jobs. “The perspectives you get working in different roles within the business is invaluable,” says Mr Rader, who has worked at Microsoft headquarters in a chief-of-staff role, a traditional finance role, a venture acquisition and integration role, and also in the field in France and Sweden. “On-the-job training through job shadowing is a very effective way to develop good business partners.”