Addressing the skills gap

A broader set of skills

Technical finance skills used to be perceived as the only requirement to perform a finance and accounting job whereas interpersonal skills were deemed optional. Now, with the rise of business partnering, soft skills have become a must-have. As business partners, finance professionals now need a commercial appreciation of the business, as well as leadership, team-building, interpersonal, presentation and other such ‘soft’ skills.

The survey shows that a key capability – and one of the biggest challenges – required from business partners is a deep understanding of both the business and its industry. So it is not just about industry knowledge. Both are cited as the most important capabilities within business partnering in all surveyed countries, including Belgium with respectively 39% and 31%.

Finance leaders also say that good communication skills are vital, with an emphasis on advocacy. The ability to persuade is particularly important when business partners challenge senior management. “You need people who can strategically influence the business segments they support. They need honed communication skills so they can provide insights in a concise, impactful manner, and they need to be able to communicate in a way that translates to non-finance people,” says AstraZeneca’s Mr Rourke.

Another significant attribute is leadership, as cited by 28% of the European respondents. Dassault Systémes’ Mr De Tersant points out: “Someone who’s just sitting back and preparing analyses is not that useful. Finance partners need to be willing to step up and survey the problem and propose solutions in order to deal with it. They need to show initiative and leadership.” Antoine Bayon de Noyer, responsible for leading a global transformation programme at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a travel company, echoes this. “Business partners need to show initiative – come up with ways of presenting information, new ways of looking at questions, to identify and highlight possible solutions, weigh up different alternatives. Leadership is crucial to be successful as a business partner.”

Filling the talent pipeline

Commercially savvy, keen to learn, with strong communication and leadership skills, the business partner profile is sharply different from the traditional financial employee of yesteryear. Unsurprisingly, finding people with these skills can be very challenging. Belgian executives, however, experience fewer challenges in retraining traditional finance employees to take on a business partnering role compared with  most of their European counterparts. Forty-two per cent say that they experience difficulties with retraining, compared with 58% for the UK, 56% for France, and 53% for Germany. Only the Netherlands (36%) experience fewer difficulties. When asked what capabilities they would prioritise in their training and development programmes, all European respondents, including those from Belgium, pointed to technical financial skills first.


To meet the needs of the finance function and to understand what kind of people are required, HR has to develop a longer-term, talent development plan with the right curriculum and delivery mechanism. They also need to create the right mix between the development of internal talent, and the recruitment of both interim and permanent business partners. According to the executives surveyed for this report, the finance department needs to increase its influence within the HR function, ahead of other departments like supply chain, information technology, executive management and procurement, in order to help shape this development.

One way to build these skills – while also improving relations between finance and the rest of the business – is by rotating finance staff into other jobs. “The perspective you get working in different roles within the business is invaluable,” says Mr Rader, who has worked at Microsoft headquarters in a chief-of-staff role, a traditional finance role, a venture acquisition and integration role, and also in the field in France and Sweden. “On-the-job training through job shadowing is also a very effective way to develop good business partners.”

Staffing challenges

More than four out of ten (41%) Belgian executives agree that the shortage of talent is the most significant barrier to building an effective business partnering team within their organisation. Throughout the economic downturn, many companies/CFOs have been forced to make some changes to their strategies. This has increased the likelihood that organisations may experience shortages, because a different skill set is now required to develop effective business partnering. This highlights the importance of adopting a mix of strategies to ensure that the right skills are in place, including recruitment of temporary and permanent executives, and retraining. Overall, though, Belgian executives appear to prefer the external route, with more than seven in ten (73%) looking outside their companies to recruit business partnering professionals, and only 28% focusing on developing existing talent within their departments.

Respondents also re-affirm concerns about obtaining finance professionals with the right skill set. When asked which single skill is in shortest supply when recruiting, 27% of Belgian respondents indicated leadership abilities, while 22% referenced communication skills. Companies need to think differently about recruiting these skills. AstraZeneca’s Mr Rourke argues that recruitment should focus on leadership capabilities and potential, as well as the capacity to absorb and learn. He asks: “Have people demonstrated a degree of flexibility, and have they been prepared to take some personal risks to drive forward their particular business or career? The traditional interview process has not been that well geared towards really assessing how good their judgements are, their drive and their influence.”

Attracting finance personnel with the right profile may also require senior management to rethink traditional career paths. Aspiring finance professionals need to see clear and exciting opportunities within the finance function and the business generally. This helps attract people with the right kind of skills and aspirations to become business partners.

At the same time, companies are now recruiting executives from non-traditional backgrounds into finance. Lloyds, for example, has looked to the mobile phone industry. “Mobile phone company staff have a commercial sensibility that works well within a bank,” says Mr Rollings. “The kind of consumer behaviour we are seeing in the mobile arena today – changing accounts very quickly, upgrading, downgrading, adding more facilities to that mobile phone – is similar to what we’re beginning to see in financial services as change becomes paramount.”

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