How well aligned is your FP&A team with operational departments like sales and marketing? Let me guess. Not so much.
That’s a problem: Alignment between finance and other facets of your business is now more important than ever. With today’s quickening pace of business, the need for a more collaborative and strategic finance function is essential to remain competitive, both in terms of staying a step ahead in the market and being able to course-correct in the face of changing business conditions.
For me, gathering input from stakeholders in different areas of our business is the key to better planning accuracy. It’s also the ticket for me to function as true strategic business partner, as opposed to being seen as a back-office number cruncher wearing green eyeshades.
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The last thing I want to do is flood operating managers with measurements and metrics, many of which often deliver little value. Instead, I strive to provide effective decision support and performance insight that can truly help them improve their results.
And my reason for doing so is simple: I really and truly care about the business. When it comes to making finance a real partner rather than an adversary, sometimes qualitative measurements are equally important as quantitative measurements.
Solving problems, not just sending reports
High-functioning finance teams see their jobs less as generating reports than as helping internal clients solve business problems—they reach out to them regularly, not just at the end of the month or the quarter. They need to think not quarterly but weekly—and be prepared to respond as the results change. This requires that finance be deeply engaged with operational departments.
Indeed, some 70% of recently surveyed CFOs say collaboration with other business units is a top priority, and nearly half cite the inability to align with other departments on key metrics as a significant problem.
For example, consider the relationship between finance and sales. Finance wants to get past the pure transactional work and help departments deliver on strategic goals. Sales wants to maximize its pipeline, crush its targets, and drive business growth. But neither finance nor sales can get there alone. Alignment is often the missing ingredient.
If your teams are struggling to get in step, here are three ways to get them in sync:
Thread collaboration throughout the process
How often does it happen that the C-suite sets a growth target for the next year, and the FP&A team gets to work translating that high-level number into an actionable plan—without first getting the sales team involved? It’s frustratingly common. When the finance department operates in a vacuum, it creates all kinds of chaos: The plan isn’t as accurate or as actionable as it could be, and when the sales team misses the mark, their first line of defense is to say that they weren’t involved in picking those targets.
Real collaboration isn’t about involving other departments near the finish line of the financial planning process. It’s about engaging other teams and working together right from the start. As a business partner for the sales department, I’m embedded in their team. That means when the C-suite hands down a top-line growth target, I collaborate with sales leaders on every part of the financial plan—from managing and distributing quotas and handling attrition and related risks to ensuring that current market segment goals are appropriate and align with strategic objectives. It’s a lot of work to get to that final plan, but because FP&A and sales collaborate closely, the teams are well-aligned to then execute on a plan they’ve created together.
Help them speak the same language
Finance and sales can’t succeed if they’re pushing toward different definitions of success. But that’s essentially what happens when departments pick and define their own KPIs. If you find yourself in a board meeting or an executive meeting squabbling over how one department defines “ramping rep” or “market segment,” you know how misaligned those teams are.
Aligning finance and sales means agreeing on metrics that will measure the health of the business and then understanding exactly how those metrics are defined. Better alignment creates a sense of trust in the numbers: We know both sides are using the same metrics and the same definitions. We know that we won’t get to an executive meeting and spend half our time ticking and tying the numbers or squabbling. Instead, we can spend the time talking about strategy. What a concept, right?
Get them together early and often
Sales and finance may both have massive workloads, but if meetings between the departments are only slated around the reporting or planning periods, that’s a red flag for misalignment. It means FP&A doesn’t have a real-time picture of the challenges and opportunities facing the sales team, and it means when sales decides to chase an emerging business opportunity they’re moving without the full insights and analysis of the FP&A team at their back.
As the pace of business change accelerates, companies need to balance both speed and agility. That only happens if the finance and sales departments are in step, and you can’t do that by checking in once a quarter. As an FP&A professional, I can’t hand off the financial plan and then swoop in six months later for a check-in. Instead, alignment comes from involvement. If the sales team does weekly meetings, you might go every other week or have periodic one-on-one meetings with the sales directors.
Alignment isn’t only about monitoring progress toward the financial goals—it’s also asking: How are we tracking to the plan? What does your pipeline look like? What are the big hurdles this month? How can we turn challenges into opportunities? For example, if I notice high turnover on the team, that carries a financial risk that’s worth discussing. And those conversations can’t happen if you’re not getting together often enough to notice.
Theory versus reality
Too often, alignment gets talked about as some elusive concept that we should all be chasing in theory. The reality is that there are actionable, concrete steps companies can take to get finance and sales deeply aligned. Speaking the same language, making time on busy calendars for frequent contact, and knowing that collaboration isn’t a tack-on to business—all of these things must be baked in from the very start.
But for me, true alignment begins by really caring about the business—and not just the numbers. You have to have a deep understanding of what it takes for an operating manager to achieve his or her goals. That builds a path to trust and the ability to question or challenge a department head. When you earn the right to say “you’re wrong” to a business lead, you gain respect—and a seat at the table with your name on it.
The bottom line: By bridging the gap between finance and operations, your organization can gain a unified, crystal clear view of the business. And you might become the strategic finance star you always dreamed of being.