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Finance business partners don’t grow wild – they need to be identified and cultivated – so leaders should get gardening, says KPMG’s Ian Lithgow

This article was first published in April 2011 in Accountancy Futures.

The war for finance talent is raging. Around the world and across all industries, CFOs are joining the battle to attract, retain and develop finance talent. It will be a protracted war, pitting companies against each other on a global scale and forcing finance leaders to constantly rethink their plan of attack. But to the victor will go the spoils: a more valuable, business-focused and efficient finance department and greater corporate competitive advantage.

The current situation was inevitable. More and more, finance departments have been elevating their role to evolve from being ‘number-historians’ – collecting, consolidating and reporting numbers – to become strategic drivers of the business. As a result, the core skills of the finance department have also been evolving.

Today, one of the most critical roles in the finance department is that of the finance business partner (FBP). As a primarily business-facing financial role, FBPs deliver a valuable mix of business insight and financial analysis to support the wider strategic decision-making needs of the organisation. FBPs take a forward-looking and commercial view of finance and, supported by a rich consulting toolkit and high emotional intelligence, work to articulate different strategic options and influence decisions.


But FBPs don’t grow in the wild. They must be identified, developed and cultivated in order to align the skills required to successfully work between finance and the business.

The capabilities required are varied and numerous: the ability to act like a business entrepreneur to work proactively; the ability to use technology effectively to support advanced data analysis; influencing and conflict resolution skills to win the support of internal stakeholders; communication skills to explain financial analysis in simple terms to business leaders; initiative to identify issues where finance can provide added value; the list goes on.

Securing talent with these skills will not be easy. Indeed, according to research by KPMG International, more than 50% of senior finance leaders (from a sample of 500) cited difficulty in finding and retaining skilled finance professionals as one of their greatest barriers to improving performance.

And since these skills may not necessarily be readily available in the organisation – or even in the wider recruitment market – finance leaders will need to put a renewed focus on securing their talent pipeline. This requires more than simply implementing a new operating model and hoping for behavioural competencies and cultural change to follow.

The development of FBP skills and capabilities can be supported in a number of ways, including job rotation programmes giving finance professionals the opportunity to experience life at the ‘coal face’ in other areas of the organisation, such as marketing or any other primarily commercial role.

Future FBPs could also be encouraged through coaching or mentoring programmes or temporary secondments. Bringing non-finance professionals into finance also helps the transfer of broader business knowledge.

Successful business partnering requires a long-term talent management approach. In part, this means that when recruiting new finance trainees, candidates should be assessed for their potential to become FBPs. It also requires a significant realignment of existing development approaches to reflect the changing career expectations of most finance professionals.

The youngest accountants in the profession, Generation Y, place high value on development opportunities and career progression – but not necessarily along traditional paths. According to recent ACCA research, many wish to gain broad experience, initially following a horizontal career path and gaining experience in a range of roles within finance, before potentially moving on to a more traditional, vertical career trajectory.

And while managing the aspirations of the youngest generation in finance will be a big challenge for organisations in the next decade, so, too, will be the ongoing management of the generation above them. In a corporate world where finance careers are becoming less uniform, Generation X tends to look for career paths based on a corporate ‘lattice’ rather than a ladder.


There will be a need to keep high-performing individuals motivated and committed, particularly as more opportunities become available in the external market. But the astute CFO will recognise that the benefits of great talent practices extend beyond engagement and motivation. It must also support the development of high-performing individuals in key roles, with clear opportunities to progress careers in structured ways.

Effective talent management also serves to ensure better succession planning, and has a positive impact on the bottom line through negating or reducing ‘staff replacement’ costs. Above all else, it helps cultivate the skills that finance professionals need to improve the performance of their organisations and drive long-term sustainable value.

To meet the changing and challenging demands that now face the finance department, CFOs and finance leaders must ensure they have appropriate professionals with the right skills and competencies available in the right place at the right time. Clearly, adopting an integrated approach offers a tremendous opportunity to add value and build the influence of the finance function within organisations.

Our experience shows that the organisations that put talent management at the heart of their finance function will be the ones that will build capability that gives both the function and the organisation a competitive advantage and – ultimately – win the war for talent.

Ian Lithgow is a partner within KPMG’s People and Change practice. His experience has particular focus on oil and gas, retail, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and public sector, and he was co-author of Maximising People Power: Effective Talent Management in Finance.


In a recent report by KPMG and ACCA, Maximising People Power: Effective Talent Management in Finance, we identify a number of key components to creating a clear and effective integrated talent management programme. These include:

  • Defining ‘talent’: clearly identifying the key skills and behaviours that the finance department requires to deliver the organisational strategy.
  • Recruitment: taking into account short- and long-term needs and looking outside of the existing team to identify candidates.
  • Creating competency frameworks: defining the technical, business and behavioural competencies required in every role at every level.
  • Targeted development: focusing on developing those roles that are most critical to the success of the organisation, regardless of seniority.
  • Comprehensive learning: going beyond the traditional, course-led training approaches to incorporate collaborative e-learning, experiential learning and even virtual finance academies.
  • Structured career paths: developing and articulating a clear pathway to help individuals develop the skills, competencies and experience necessary to achieve senior positions and progress within the finance department.
  • Performance measurement and reward: aligning the objectives of finance personnel against the overall organisational strategy with links to individual achievements.

Maximising People Power: Effective Talent Management in Finance can be found in the related documents area.

Last updated: 7 Apr 2014

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