As the role of finance changes and become more focused on business partnering, the responsibility of the finance professional is no longer purely crunching numbers.
Our State of Skills research reviewed over 900 data points from the O*Net skills database and found that communication skills are more important than technical skills for a host of finance roles. Finance roles increasingly require strong communication skills that help reveal the message hidden within the numbers to support better decision making throughout an organisation.
Mathematical and accounting skills form just one part of what senior finance professionals need to help drive corporate strategy and inform critical business decisions. They must present facts, some of which may well be unpopular, and bring together different business units around common goals. Doing so requires the ability to present financial information in a way that is at once understandable, interesting and persuasive. Nevertheless, the first step in communicating the story behind financial data is to fully understand the information, so qualifications are of paramount importance.
"It is a relevant debate about whether a ‘qualified by experience' person can do the same role as someone who is a qualified accountant," says Raj Tozar, head of commercial finance at REED. "I find that there are some less skilled roles within accountancy where somebody who is not qualified could do the job, but as you get into a managerial role you have to be able to piece everything together. That is where qualifications come into play."
He adds: "I found that people who had studied CIMA were more commercially focused and I went down that route myself because that is what really interested me. My advice would be to get through as many exams as quickly as possible. That is the initial barrier and once you get over that you can progress your career a lot quicker."
2. Commercial focus
It is increasingly important for the finance team to have a commercial focus. Today, successful candidates are both business-minded and technically skilled because that allows them to ask the right questions of the financial information they are reviewing. A keen understanding of the wider business is essential for finance in order to play a role in developing strategy and to serve as a business partner to many different departments.
Building commercial awareness comes from experience. This may come through working in other parts of the business, or perhaps through simply staying informed about key trends not only inside the business, but also in the wider world in which it operates.
"General knowledge of the world is always useful, especially when you're budgeting and forecasting, and to have meaningful conversations with people about their business," says Tozar.
3. Interpersonal skills
As recruiters, we are often asked to find people who are not only commercially savvy and technically astute, but also have excellent interpersonal skills. This may come more naturally to some people, but can be developed if a candidate is willing to actively engage with other parts of the business and learn from them. The key is to be adaptable and willing to develop yourself.
Learning from others is vital if finance professionals are to succeed in bringing the figures to life, which they must now do in senior roles. They may be more accustomed to working with numbers and details but they must step back from the page, slow down and take the time to make sure that the message conveyed by the figures has been understood. Non-finance people's ways of thinking may be subtly, or radically, different because their purpose within the organisation requires it to be. So, view your message from their point of view.
Explain what you are trying to communicate in a realistic way. Best of all, use real life examples that illustrate your point so that it is relevant to the work of the people to whom you are talking. Put the message in their context in order to show people how finance is relevant to – and supports – their part of the business.
4. Avoid jargon
It pays to be both clear and direct, so always avoid accounting terms and jargon. Convey your message succinctly but with enough detail for it to be relevant. Have a clear goal in terms of what you are trying to communicate.
Find the right balance so that you are neither lost in the detail, nor drawn away from the key messages.
This clarity of message helps the voice of finance professionals to be clearer and more persuasive in the boardroom – a place where finance finds itself increasingly prominent.
The final tip, which is perhaps the most important, is to listen. Communication is a two-way street. Understanding how the activities of the finance team impact other parts of an organisation is just part of the conversation.
Let other teams help you to better understand how their activities impact on your work in finance. Managing the relationship between finance and the other parts of an enterprise requires people who can adapt and embrace continuous learning.
Five quick and simple ways to improve your communication:
- Get your qualifications so that you have the knowledge to understand the full meaning of the financial data you are presenting
- Stay informed about a broad range of issues beyond finance that might affect the business to give context and relevance to the messages you want to convey
- Be clear and concise in your language, and avoid using technical terms and jargon when talking to people who are not trained in finance
- Use real life examples to bring to life the story told by financial data
- Listening is an essential part of communication, so always be receptive and prepared to learn from others.