What does it take to become a successful Business Partner?

Business partners
Alan McFarlane, Operations Director at Hays Project Solutions By Alan McFarlane, Operations Director at Hays Project Solutions

31 May 2016

In this article, Alan McFarlane, Operations Director at Hays Project Solutions, explores the Business Partner (BP) role and how it impacts on technology, recruitment and talent management.

Knowing the role

The skill base is one of analysis, stakeholder management, story-telling and influence.

The role of the Business Partner (BP) should be a pure one – to identify, support and influence decision making.

By definition, therefore, there are certain tasks which are not performed within the Business Partner role. Notably this includes production of standard reports, accounting adjustments and other financial accounting processes. These may be performed within a “commercial finance” or “manufacturing finance” team (as examples), or these may form part of a broader role of an individual, but the role of the partner themselves should not be focused on this.

This is not to say that the BP is not part of finance, but experience suggests that those who are most capable of performing a BP role are not necessarily those best suited to daily “accounting” activities. The BP is the finance voice in decision making processes and the skill base is therefore one of analysis, stakeholder management, story-telling and influence.

Making the most out of existing tools

Technologically, the BP should have readily available data and reporting tools in order to maximise the opportunity. This can be a challenge within both small and large organisations. SMEs may not have the investment capacity for this, whilst the challenge of multiple sources of data and consistency hits larger business hard.

However, the investment in technology does not have to be significant. Excel remains the most used analysis and reporting tool amongst finance professionals and is capable of manipulating most data in the right hands. I encourage investment in the collation and reconciliation of data as a first step, rather than complex reporting suites.

Have you got the skills required?

The role is an attractive one, but it is not an “easy” one.

When it comes to recruitment, the focus must be on commercial, analytical and influencing skills. Fundamentally, a BP must have a deep interest in the business, and a strong desire to improve business performance. The role is an attractive one, but it is not an “easy” one. Let’s face it, not all accountants are cut out to play an active role in parts of the business led by “big personalities” or take part in the company politics which inevitably go with the territory.

Some may argue that finance BPs do not need to be qualified accountants and a marketing or sales background is sufficient. However, unless there are suitably qualified staff within the team this does not work. The role is to provide a financial input to decisions – not just to support the decision process. A blend may work for some businesses but the risk of losing a finance perspective must be closely monitored.

I have alluded to the skill base many times and this not only impacts on recruitment, but on talent management inside the organisation. Training will need to cover both technical and soft skills. If recruitment into the team has been effective, then this should be a coaching environment to refine the skills already present, but where the team lacks these basics the training challenge is greater and requires significant investment of time to ensure the function becomes effective.

Training by itself will not retain the best talent, however, and a clear path to progression should be available. “The best” may see themselves progressing outside of finance and discussing their career path openly can only assist in the “retention” challenge in today’s job rich environment.

Bringing it all together

Training will need to cover both technical and soft skills.

Business Partners, therefore, must have a strong working knowledge of both how business works commercially and operationally, the ability to “translate” finance information into these languages, and tools to assist. The most influential Business Partners have often spent a portion of their career working outside finance. This may mean that they are further into their career and slightly more expensive – but the return will be much greater than placing an inexperienced person in the bear pit of business decision making.

About the author

Alan is the Director responsible for Hays Project Solutions (HPS). He works with clients and staff in the UK and globally to develop optimal solutions for addressing their business concerns.

Alan is an experienced business leader, finance and change professional focused on the delivery of change and on the strengths of teams and individuals. He has managed small and large teams both in industry and in consulting. His general management credentials mean that he has been able to contribute successfully to business development, day to day running of operations, and the delivery of projects ranging from operating model design, implementation of major ERP projects, back office efficiency, to internal control improvement and regulatory compliance.

This article was first published on the Hays website.

This blog is one of a series of articles from our commercial partners.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ICAS.


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