The changing role of the business partner

(deep breath): My name is Jonathan Humphreys and I am an accountant. It feels good to be able to finally say that. I think that for a while I’ve not even really admitted it to myself. Of course the signs were probably always there. The aversion to risk. The cautious clothes. The genuine appreciation of a solid Excel model (“conditional self-referencing formula? Sweet”). And can you blame me? For as long as I can remember, being an accountant has always carried fairly negative connotations.  But you know what? It’s ok because it’s gradually changing.

For years finance functions and professionals have been pressured to do more for less. We’ve been asked to provide cheaper, but more effective, more reliable and more timely transaction processing capability, with more timely reporting delivered through a faster close process, all while incorporating ongoing finance process improvement (i.e. and please try to cost less while doing all of that, thank you very much). The latest development (and the good news for us) is that finance is increasingly expected to have a seat at the commercial table, to drive thinking around strategy and any required amendments to operations. So, even more from less? In these times of austerity it’s a common ambition but is it achievable?

The first step on this path to the ultimate accountant was the creation of finance business partners, businesses’ first attempt to squeeze more out of us poor downtrodden accountants. They’ve become an increasingly common trend over the past few years, spurred on by the outsourcing, shared services and technology implementations introduced to save costs. Centralising finance functions or even moving them off-shore has meant that the gap between them and the business needed to be bridged. Business partners are often brought in to act as ‘interpreters’ between the murky, mysterious and exciting world of finance and the ‘real world’ – i.e. the rest of the business. Sounds good in theory but the problem is that this hasn’t always worked as well as it could have. Too often Business Partners are having to pick up admin work that the Shared Services centres should be doing, their focus is still on Finance processes rather than business needs or they are simply still not talking the business language meaning they are relegated to the sidelines.

The increasing expectation of what finance should deliver to the business has led to the creation of a need for what we have coined the Finance Business Catalyst, the final step in the evolution from scorekeeping, pen-pushing, rule-setting killjoys, to analysts and Business Partners, to all-singing and dancing Business Catalysts (an evolution already mooted in independent studies).

So what is a Business Catalyst?

The diagram below summarises the evolution over time of the accountant through three major roles:

A Business Catalyst not only identifies the issues to be brought to the attention to senior management, but devises plans to get the business back on course, reacting to issues and forseeing them. It’s a much more influential role and the Business Catalyst will work across functions to re-plan and take corrective action. It’s moved from being reactive to proactive.

I want one. How can I get one?

Before businesses can even think about introducing Business Catalysts to their organisation structure, some key enablers need to be in place, such as system-generated timely and accurate information, a mature core finance function, the right processes and practices and, perhaps most importantly, a clear mandate for them to operate, with transparency on the value provided.

The biggest enabler, however, is finding the right person, with the right blend of skills., Making the step from traditional accounting to business leadership will require breaking the preconceptions I mentioned earlier if it’s going to be successful and the traditional finance and accounting career path does not necessarily guarantee the skills and behaviours you require of Business Catalysts. Skills such as having a commercial focus, leadership and team building skills, big picture thinking, and ability to have an impact on the most senior leaders in the business are not typically associated with accountants, even senior ones. Finance and accounting capability is a given in business partnering roles; credibility with the business requires the attributes listed previously.


So this is difficult, but nothing easy is really worth it. This is an opportunity for accountants to come out of the shadows and into the light. Too often finance is seen as a necessary evil, something you just have to do at the lowest possible cost, but the value that it can bring to a business is not really understood. No longer confined to the ‘back-office’ (a gently derogatory term…), accountants can finally spread their grey and beige wings and fly to the top…