Finance has always been a numbers game.
The traditional role of finance, after all, was largely an accounting role: budgeting, cash flow, profits and losses and so on. Jobs were done in a silo, and finance professionals spent much of their time poring over manual spreadsheets.
But that’s not what finance is today.
While those accounting duties are just as important as they always have been, technology, automation and more collaborative processes have left finance with more time to spend on other things. And the rest of the business has learned they can rely on finance for analysis, advice and strategy.
As a result, financial planning and analysis (FP&A) has become integral to finance teams—and critical for their organizations. And finance leaders have become important strategic business partners—leading their organizations to successfully meet their business goals.
But to thrive in this new role, finance leaders require a fresh set of skills. “Softer” skills than the data analysis and number crunching that might come more naturally to finance-oriented professionals. And that means building those skills can be critical to future financial leadership success.
"I think that if somebody aspires to be a leader or thinks maybe they will but doesn't know, ask for those opportunities to have those experiences,”Vena CFO Melissa Howatson suggests.
Because in the end, those experiences can help hone your leadership style and build soft skills such as communication, listening and empathy. And by showing you excel in your interactions with others, you can get yourself noticed—putting you on the leadership track.
So what exactly are those skills and how do finance leaders develop them? We're diving deeper into the skills that make finance professionals better business partners, starting with communication and storytelling.
- As finance embraces its role as a strategic business partner, communication has become a more critical skill to master. Good communication skills help finance leaders get their message across and build consensus throughout their organization.
- Storytelling is an effective communication device that can help finance leaders get others engaged in the message they’re conveying.
- To master good communication and storytelling, don’t be afraid to write out a script, but keep your communication authentic and customized to your audience. Use precise and well-placed data to drive your point home.
Mastering the Art of Communication and Storytelling: The Key To Excelling as a Finance Business Partner
Enhancing your communication and storytelling abilities is crucial to “shine” as a finance business partner. By developing these skills, you'll be able to effectively convey your findings and recommendations to your stakeholders, build trust and make a meaningful impact on your organization's success. Here’s how.
From Small Talk to Big Impact: How Effective Communication Can Transform Your Financial Career
Effective communication is a key proficiency in life and in business. And it’s critical for modern finance professionals today.
Not convinced? Just look at the results of our 2022 benchmark survey, where 48% of respondents were prioritizing communication in their finance team—making it the single most prioritized non-technical skill listed.
And no wonder: from investor calls and leadership meetings to team planning conversations and cross-departmental strategy sessions, communication is a critical skill to have as a modern financial leader interacting with teams across the organization. As a strategic business partner, you’re responsible for communicating your findings and strategic goals and building consensus over future plans.
The Power of Narrative: How Storytelling Can Help Drive Better Business Decisions in Finance
Storytelling techniques can level up the way you communicate, giving you the tools you need to create a more impactful message. As such, storytelling—especially when backed by strong data—can be a way to build support for your decision making and get your message across more effectively. After all, there’s a reason 23% of respondents prioritized storytelling skills in our 2022 Vena benchmark survey.
“Stories add value. If you think of any great achievement or anything that has value to you, there’s probably a great story attached. A story of overcoming challenges and reaching your final goal,” Vern Redwood, CPA and Senior Consultant with Vena, said in his Change Management Playbook session at Vena’s Excelerate =SUM(it) 2022 virtual conference.
By using the tried-and-tested tools of storytelling—establishing a complication, for example, and ending with a resolution—you’re adding drama to your message. In doing so, you’re keeping your audience engaged.
“A story has an arc,” Paul Lima, Managing Partner of Lima Consulting Group, said in our 2022 livestream, CFO Confidential: The Art of Impactful Communication. “Sometimes there’s even a villain. Sometimes the villain’s the problem, not the person.”
Say It Like You Mean It: Proven Tips for More Impactful Communication and Storytelling
If you’re the type of finance professional who finds interacting with numbers easier than interacting with people, effective communication and storytelling can be a challenge. Like any skill, though, it can be learned.
So up your communication and storytelling game today with these tried-and-tested tips from the pros:
1. Write a Script
You may need to be a good communicator to thrive in a finance leadership role today, but there’s nothing saying you can’t “cheat” a little to get there.
Whether you’re on an investor call or meeting with your executive team, following a set script takes the pressure off. It lets you communicate your message effectively without forcing you to ad lib if that’s not your strength. After all, if communication doesn’t come naturally, missteps can be made if you try to force it on the fly.
For instance, Paul uses the Balanced Scorecard to structure many of his communications with clients. “It starts off with the financials,” he said. “And then from there, it goes into the customer-centric objectives and the internal operations. Then it’s what you need to do to innovate and learn and grow. It's a waterfall.”
By putting together a script ahead of time or following a prescribed framework, you’ll go in knowing exactly what points you need to make and how you want to make them. That helps you communicate more effectively and concisely, without missing any of your talking points along the way.
2. Know Your Audience
Whether you’re relying on a script or not, your communication style—not to mention the story you tell—should keep in mind your audience. How you communicate with your closest teammates, for instance, isn’t going to be the same as how you communicate with your Board of Directors. Nor should it be.
If you want to get your message across effectively, you need to customize that message, including the level of detail you offer, to the audience in question. You may be more formal with your Board of Directors, for instance, and offer only top-level details you think they need to make the decision on hand. With your teammates, on the other hand, you’ll probably have a more casual rapport and may need to delve into more depth to dig into the situation you’re discussing.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be authentic in both situations. In fact, authenticity is a key ingredient in all communication.
3. The Art of Authenticity in Communication
Authentic communication is honest and empathetic. And those are attributes that go a long way in getting others to embrace the message you’re trying to convey.
When you’re communicating authentically, you’re not hiding behind corporate jargon, but rather showing your passion for the conversation at hand, inviting others to have their say and actively listening and trying to understand their viewpoint. That’s why authenticity in communication goes a long way in building trust and creating a safe space for everyone—which makes it a critical tool if you want to be a valuable business partner.
So how do you integrate authenticity into your communication style? Being open and transparent regarding your goals is a good start, as is being respectful to those around you. That means recognizing the challenges and obstacles in their way, taking the opinions of others into consideration and empathizing with different points of view.
In doing so, you’ll help create an environment where communication thrives and everybody’s ideas are welcome.
4. Choose the Best Data To Make Your Point
“As a finance professional and somebody that's used to getting into the details and the numbers, you can get caught up in what I sometimes refer to as inside baseball. You need to step back,” Amy Schwalm, Vice President of Investor Relations for Canada Goose, said in our 2022 CFO Confidential: The Art of Impactful Communication livestream.
You can lose your audience if you get too caught up in the details—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any detail at all. Don’t be afraid to choose the best or most relevant data points to drive your message home. With data to back you up, your talking points will hit harder and remain top of mind for your audience.
By applying data to the story you’re telling, you’re adding weight to your message and backing it up in a way that will resonate with the people around you. But make sure you use that data wisely … which brings us to tip number five.
5. Precision Is Paramount
This is finance, after all. The numbers still matter—as they should.
So don’t just force fit the data that best fits your narrative, even if it’s imprecise or misleading. And don’t throw out a number without checking its veracity first. Your stakeholders want to know they can rely on you as a finance leader to stick to the facts—so if you don’t do exactly that in your communications, they’ll start to doubt everything you do.
“If the culture is aspiring to be data driven, then there has to be an acknowledgement that we can trust the numbers,” Paul said.
The Bottom Line: How Effective Communication and Storytelling Help Drive Financial Success
As a finance leader and strategic partner to the rest of your business, you play a pivotal role in advocating for your business goals and gaining consensus and support throughout the organization and beyond. But to do so effectively requires strong communication skills—and powerful stories.
So start developing your communication and storytelling skills now—and get ready to be the best finance leader you can be.
Looking to elevate your skills as a strategic business partner even further? Learn how you can master the art (and science) of influence and negotiation to rally stakeholders around a common goal.