Deciding to be a strategic finance partner is one thing, but becoming one is another.
There are hidden financial analyst skills that the job descriptions don’t mention, and – surprise! – there’s no one-size-fits-all instruction manual to learn and apply them. As an analyst at an enterprise SaaS company, I worked to provide the baseline reporting, analysis, and planning that my business needed, but like you I saw that there were bigger opportunities for me to connect the dots operationally and drive faster, informed decision-making.
Just like you, I had moments of thinking, “Wait, I don’t want the spotlight,” or, “Wait, how and where do I start?” We’re so good at shining the spotlight on others that it can be hard to step out from behind our spreadsheets. Ultimately, embracing a bit of discomfort can lead to remarkable growth and opportunities, and this is no exception.
There are no set rules, directions, or best practices to become a strategic partner to your business. My journey started out slowly, I took a couple of steps forward and backward.
But I learned some big lessons from the times when I had to go out of my comfort zone and use my insights to solve a real-life problem my business partner was facing. It made me a better colleague, friend, and leader. The uncomfortable journey is more than worth it.
If you’re ready to start for yourself, here is some advice I often share with the clients I work with here at Stratify.
One of my top priorities when I start a new position is to spend the first 2-3 months building relationships with business partners. It’s an intentional onboarding approach, one of the most strategic investments I can make into the success of future projects. That’s because collaboration and connection are the keys to better financial plans. Your plans will be exponentially more valuable if they’re built with business intelligence right from the source.
I want genuine connections with my stakeholders, to get to know them on a personal level. The atmosphere in meetings changed when I learned that my VP of Operations spent 4 hours during the weekend supporting his son in a soccer game. I’m a mom myself, the unofficial cheerleader for my daughter’s tennis matches. Sharing the triumphs and disappointments of the sports season offered a great way to build a human connection with someone who used to feel a bit intimidating to interact with.
These are the top questions I generally ask to get a feel for their business unit:
Let’s face it: We have to have tough conversations on hard numbers, budgets, and decisions. If you have no real relationship and start dumping data on your recruiting or sales partner in the first 30 seconds of the meeting, the conversation will be much harder.
I need my business partner to think, “I know Quy. She knows me, but more importantly, she knows and cares about my business, my priorities, and my biggest frustrations. I know she’ll do what she can to help me solve the problems I’m facing” – whether that is too much/not enough capacity, fewer sales than expected, etc.
The right questions are simple but powerful. They will tell you everything you need to know about what’s really going on in their team and what is on their plate. Now you can be the initiator to connect the dots and orchestrate or propose a solution that everyone will benefit from.
We can take one look at the numbers and trends in front of us and that’s all we need for things to make sense. It’s our superpower. But how do we explain things to mere mortals? It boils down to sharing the context behind the numbers.
I want to help my management team visualize the practical outworkings of different scenarios for their plans and their everyday work. That’s why understanding business operations is so critical.
If you’re not actually familiar with their strengths, their weaknesses, and the metrics that drive their success, your analysis won’t ring true. Show your business partners that you understand and care about what they care about. That’s how you lay the groundwork to be a strategic finance business partner.
Here are some strategies you can explore for yourself:
Leverage every interaction
The shake-up in remote and hybrid work has been challenging. But, are you in the office 2 days a week? Use that time for all it’s worth to connect with your business partners. Go spend a few hours working at the desk next to them. Get that face-to-face time and develop the foundation of understanding and trust.
What if you’re fully remote? Don’t feel rushed to launch into business when a few minutes of connection are what you really need.
I know, I know, as introverted analysts we often want to rush into the business agenda and skip the small talk. Our palms get sweaty just seeing the meeting on our calendar. Diffuse the tension with a deep breath, and a smile, and don’t forget that it’s a two-way conversation – always ask the other person how they’re doing, and rely on open-ended questions to learn more and listen well.
Speaking of listening…it’s everything. You will gain so much more insight when you ask questions of your business partners and then practice active listening. This gives your brain time to make connections and gives space for follow-up questions to bubble up.
Turn your insights into action
Now you can start delivering strategic value to the business. Here are a couple of examples from my experience in the B2B technology sector:
There’s no doubt that this journey takes effort and time. Wondering if it’s worth it? Here’s one immediate benefit: you’ll have relationships and trust to leverage in a very stressful time of year – your annual planning process. It will be so much smoother when you secure timely inputs and collaboration across the business, and approach it as a strategic finance business partner.
I think it’s clear by now that this is not just a professional journey, it’s personal. It's about recognizing that we're not just soulless, data-driven analysts; we're also colleagues and friends who genuinely care and have insights worth sharing.
Our suggestions can help meet top-line revenue goals and take care of a huge headache for a business partner across the office. Put in the work to build your confidence, communication, relationships, and operational knowledge. You won’t regret it.