Finance myths: Stop challenging, start coaching

AccountingWEB’s FD columnist Andy Shambrook deconstructs ten myths that continue to dog the finance profession. For the second myth, Andy explains why challenging people is the wrong approach.

Every CFO or FD I ever worked for gave me some variation of the following advice: ‘challenge the business’ and ‘make recommendations’. And when I became an FD myself, I rehashed the very same wisdom.

But, on reflection, it’s some of the worst advice I ever got — and gave. 

It all became clear when I moved to a sales director job. In that role, I learned the psychology of influence and realised how wrong we had got it in finance. I now call these the myths of business partnering.

In my last column, I addressed the myth that it’s our job to ‘partner the business’. It creates an unhelpful ‘us and them’ situation, and we talked about what to do instead. Now for my second myth, we’ll move onto the concept of “challenging the business”.

Myth two: Our job is to challenge ‘the business’

Well, myth one already set up an ‘us and them’ situation. Us (finance), challenges them (sales, marketing and operations), and guess how they react? Yep, they get defensive, and that’s the problem at its core.

Sure, the intentions of a challenge are noble: to test ideas, improve outcomes and create change. Without challenge, we are passive and accepting. The problem is, however, that challenge creates almost immediate resistance.

The best way to move someone from not really caring about their latest idea to that same idea being the single best and most important idea of their entire life is to challenge it! So when we challenge marketing’s latest promotional campaign, they will reflexively defend their baby.

And when people are defensive, communication is shut down, influence is shut down and no matter how valid your challenge was, or how good your alternative is, they won’t hear you out. 

What did I learn when I became a sales director?

In sales, we want to influence and we tell each other not to challenge.
The last thing we want to do is challenge our customer, because we know it will create resistance. And we know that if the other person feels challenged, we won’t be able to influence them.

In finance, we want to influence and tell each other to challenge.

Who do we listen to, then? The advice from other finance people? Or the professionally-trained sales people?

So what do we do instead?

Rather than a challenging mindset, switch to a helping or coaching mindset. Start by finding something about their idea to agree on. You may not agree with the financial outcomes, but the intention behind the idea may well be sound.

Agreeing breaks down the ‘us and them’, and positions you firmly on their side. Now show them how you can help get a better financial outcome, so you can help them get their idea approved and over the line.

So let’s say marketing want to invest in a new TV ad. Rather than say, ”no the ROI doesn’t meet the hurdle rate”, go with something like: “great idea, how can we do it and hit the hurdle rate so we can get it signed off by the board?”

Final thought

Challenging creates resistance and closes people down. Your job as an FBP is not to point out all the problems in people’s ideas.

It is not to say no to people because their ideas aren’t in the budget or don’t meet a hurdle rate. Your job is to help sales, marketing and operations to mould their ideas to give a financial outcome that everyone can say yes to.

And if that’s not possible, your job is to coach sales, marketing and operations to say no to themselves.

If you want to be an FBP, stop challenging and saying no. Start finding legitimate and financially viable ways to say yes.



©2024 Sloane



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