How to influence, even when we lack authority, is one of the finest arts a finance professional can learn.
If we are to be trusted advisors to our clients and management teams, we often must draw on inputs from key people outside of the finance organization. But unfortunately, since those individuals often do not report through finance, our repeated requests for information may go unheeded. These challenges can often leave young finance professionals frustrated and sensing a lack of engagement with their work — perhaps because they don’t feel their work is appreciated or respected.
I have always considered myself something of an operations person in an accountant’s body. And this subject of “influencing without authority” has continuously fascinated me.
The events of the past ten years have produced two very different business shifts. One is that innovation must occur more quickly as time to market becomes a differentiating point. The other: Innovation must produce tangible financial results. In many organizations, the days of engineers and marketing spending unlimited resources has ended — and finance departments are becoming key drivers.
Our young professionals are often on the front lines of key business initiatives, serving as financial analysts for product lines and engineering projects. I myself work with engineers and business development groups on a major contract with a large U.S. manufacturer, providing key financial information for a multi-year development project. And I share in this kind of frustration, as my requests for inputs and supporting information often fall on deaf years.
I have two key tips for driving a culture in which the finance organization has real influence.
* Help your finance staff understand the many forms of power and influence. While I have not read the classic organizational book Influence Without Authority, I have read a number of articles based on its concepts. In the article “Power and Influence in the 21st Century,” authors Allan Cohen and David Bradford highlight several key methods of exercising influence in the workplace. Allan and Bradford stress the importance of balancing overt power, which includes direct requests for information with potential consequences, with covert power, including reciprocity and accommodation. There are times when we want to team with the business to accomplish a task, and other times where we must wear the “black hat” in our relationship outside finance.
* Align the goals of other units to spending plans and financial results of the enterprise. What gets measured gets managed, and any department without financial goals is likely to spend money unwisely, and to work on projects with poor revenue potential. While I do not support performance management based on the annual budget process, organizations must adopt some sort of performance management against spending plans and hold others accountable for those results.
Finance people needn’t be the stereotypical “trolls” lampooned in Scott Adams’s “Dilbert” cartoons. By cultivating an attitude of partnership, coupled with well-designed performance goals, we can spend more time driving results and less time persistently bugging others for needed information.