Just more than two years into my career at Procter & Gamble in 2010, I was selected to be the brand finance manager for the launch of Oral-B toothpaste and toothbrushes into Western Europe. This was the first time that I would be stepping outside my finance comfort zone and working cross-functionally with people from marketing, sales, operations, market research, and so on—I enjoyed it so much that I have continued to seek out these types of roles.
I firmly believe that it’s at the intersection of functions where the most value is created. This sort of work ensures that we solicit diverse opinions and challenge our assumptions. But I also learned that if finance professionals are to be true business partners, this work requires us to develop a different set of skills and behaviors than those specific to the finance function.
#1. Understand and manage expectations.
A starting point for any relationship is to understand the expectations that one side has of the other. Most conflict at work and in life comes from misunderstandings and misaligned expectations. To proactively avoid this, it’s helpful to sit down with your cross-functional partners and to understand what they expect from you as an individual and what they expect from finance as a function. This way, you can guide them on where you can be helpful and where it may be more difficult (due to internal constraints, lack of capacity, etc.). Having these conversations up front may help mitigate surprises later.
#2. Understand their motivators.
Not everyone sees the company in quite the same way. Even if everyone agrees on the fundamentals of an enterprise, i.e., they’re aligned to the mission statement and objectives of the company and they agree about the need to maximize shareholder value, it’s necessary to go a level deeper to understand the nuances behind these top-level assumptions. I recall long discussions with my marketing counterparts about the relative importance of brand and equity building and share growth vs. marginal contribution and profitability.
A lot of value comes from asking the questions such as “What does success look like for you?” “What would make this a great year for your function?” or “What sort of successes help a person in your function to get promoted?” This will help you understand how you can help them achieve their targets as well as discover any inherent biases that they may have. Understanding functions’ inherent biases is crucial to achieving the optimal results.
I recall an instance where I was involved with marketing and sales on capacity planning for our factories. I observed that marketing and sales would feel the repercussions of stock shortages, which would negatively affect their KPIs of volume and share. On the other hand, they wouldn’t be impacted by overcapacity situations, specifically poor capital utilization, since it’s rarely a sales or marketing KPI. As a result, my colleagues were biasing their forecasts upward. Being aware of their motivators and KPIs meant that I was quickly able to identify this bias and intervene in the process.
Of course, these sorts of conversations are a two-way street. You also will be expected to open up about your motivators, what you think a good year looks like for finance, and any inherent biases that you may have. This will allow you to understand and dispel any fears that your partners have about the finance function or your involvement in general. Maybe they see you as someone coming in to cut their budget and tell them what to do; you can address this. In instances when you must challenge your cross-functional partners—say, on their budget or a method of forecasting—help them understand your reasoning and what you aim to achieve. If they seek your alignment on a decision and you have to say “no” to something, make sure they understand the background for this decision and the conditions needed for you to be able to say “yes.”
#3. Nurture trust.
It’s important to develop trust with your cross-functional partners. You need to ensure that they see you as someone on whom they can rely, someone who will work with them rather than against them. The goal here is for each party to use the other as a sounding board to get the perspective from the other’s function without always having to go through the formal management reporting chain. Wherever possible, I have nurtured these relationships with cross-functional partners and have found them to be incredibly helpful.
Having this type of positive, trusting relationship with the individual also can help you to work through conflict. I firmly believe in the concept of “healthy tension” between colleagues and functions. We don’t always see things the same way, but if we work together, we can go a long way toward achieving the best result for the company. Being a good business partner doesn’t mean agreeing all the time. It simply means explaining your point of view, listening to the other side, working through disagreement, collaborating, and trying to find compromise wherever possible.
#4. Understand their level of financial expertise, and tailor your messaging to fit this.
While some marketers were very limited in their ability to work with finance numbers and understanding an income statement or net present value, others had studied (and even majored in) finance in school, so they could very easily keep an inexperienced finance manager on his or her toes. Know your audience. When working cross-functionally, a good finance manager will learn to balance the level of detail and finance terminology dependent on the experience level of the audience. This will mean that your explanations and analysis will be communicated differently to financial line management vs. business management. With some practice, this will become second nature.
By following these four ideas, you can maximize your chances for a positive, collaborative, and effective relationship with your cross-functional partners. This will help you grow your expertise, grow in your career, and achieve the best results for your company.
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