How to Build Strong Successful Work Relationships

Reflecting what has made my career successful, one of the most important things is building strong working relationships. Strong relationships sound like a good idea but are they essential? Well for me, difficulties always arose when I failed to forge a strong relationship with a key individual. For instance, picture working in the highly pressured environment of trying to secure a big new company deal. This is when a poor working relationship can fall apart. Just when you need to build a consensus quickly, you don’t want to waste time with political infighting. So how do you build a strong working relationship?

There are two main routes where a strong relationship can be forged, either through collaboration or adversity. Which sort of working relationship is stronger and has a longer life time? How much do you need to put into a relationship to keep it strong?

Adversity

There are two ways to view adversity as a crucible for forming relationships. Adversity is where you are joined together as a team to meet a challenging outcome or deadline. Or there is the adversarial approach where you pitch your wits against a colleague to gain the winning argument. Adversarial exchanges will deliver no long lasting bonds, just a healthy respect or unhealthy disrespect for your colleague which will be revisited every time you meet.

Common adverse situations include working to deliver a major project with a tight deadline. Working to a common goal, pitched against a difficult task, you work intensely with your colleagues.

I found myself in this situation many years ago when working into the early hours every night to win a multi-million pound tender with our number one customer. Working with my team mates, we got to understand each other’s strengths and pressure points. Needing to get the best result meant we made sure we gave someone space when they wanted it. But we also clearly communicated an expected output. Disagreement was healthy because it was backed by active listening and engagement. The outcome was, as well as winning the tender, we all gained a healthy respect for each other which we were able to draw on in future work together.

Collaboration

Collaboration is the most constructive route to building a strong successful work relationship. In collaborations, it’s key at first to know where your colleagues are coming from. Spending some time up front to know their agenda, ideas and way of working is vital to build a cohesive team. It’s very easy to think that you are all working to a common goal and subsequently find there are fundamental differences.

Once this basic understanding is established then focus can be moved to identifying the best way to constructively support your business partners. Relationships built on a basis of generosity and with genuine best intentions, are the most powerful. This generous way of acting towards your colleagues is reciprocated and strengthened.

It’s also important to attend to the relationship regularly, maintaining contact to keep the bonds strong. How regularly depends on proximity and situation. It’s easy to keep up a regular ad-hoc dialogue when you work in the same building. You need to plan more when it’s a long distance relationship. Making some time, out of formal meetings, helps to build connections.

Summary

The strongest relationships I have built have transcended role change and company moves. They give me, even now the most wonderful resources. I have relied on these relationships to help me out when things have got tough and to celebrate with me successes achieved.

How certain are you of the strength of your working relationships? How confident are you that colleagues seek to promote you advantageously to your senior management team? Is it worth you investing a little more of yourself to secure your working relationships before you really need to draw on them?

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Do You Know What’s Generating the Numbers?

I have read several articles recently in the press about Accountants in business taking leadership roles. The articles say that one of the important traits for CFO’s to possess is that they actually get to the grass-roots and understand what’s producing the numbers. That means taking time away from the office and spending it with other teams. This can be as simple as actually getting your sleeves rolled up and doing another job for the day.

As a FD I spent time with my company’s Field Sales team at Christmas. I worked with them on the Supermarket shop floor ensuring that stock was always available on the shelf whilst frantic shoppers filled their trolleys. It gave me a fantastic insight into the pressures, processes and workarounds the sales team did to get their job done. It was most illuminating to understand that the perfect desk top procedures or IT systems did not quite work as smoothly in the field. Nothing delivers the same knowledge as doing the work yourself.

So what is the role of a Finance professional in business? As an Accountant there is a lot of clarity around the role and its functions and responsibilities. But if all your time is spent buried in data or meetings where do you get the information to shape your thinking?

It is all too easy to criticise from the sidelines or ‘lay the law’ without appreciating the reality of the situation. Spending time visiting a difficult customer or relocating to a European business unit to understand industry differences have rounded my thinking in the past. I highly recommend making opportunities to spend time away from your desk and in the broader business environment.

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What’s Your Personal Risk Profile?

According to a recent report by Grant Thornton and the Director Bank Group on ‘What Makes An Outstanding Finance Director?’, one of the key skills that differentiates a good FD to an outstanding one is how prepared they are to take risks. Risk is a subjective term that can mean different things to different people. Perception of risk could be relative to your business, economic environment, your nationality, your function or your individual personality.

Is it important that you understand your personal risk profile, especially in relation to your current business?

The report gives a good indication that this is an important area for current and future Finance Directors:

  • On one hand, when the survey of Directors asked whether they thought the drive for growth had made FD’s take too many risks, 60% said no to this. The report quoted FD’s as saying ‘the biggest risk of all would be to do nothing.’ FD’s saw planning for growth their number one key strategic priority at the moment.
  • On the other hand, some FD’s interviewed identified that ‘too many FD’s failed to say no to their CEO’s.’

So what can you do to identify your personal risk profile?

  • Where would you place yourself in order of appetite for risk in your organisation when considering individuals in your Senior Management team? How far up or down the scale are you relative to them?
  • How often are you pushed across your risk comfort boundary? On what occasions?
  • How prepared are you to take a risk if it affects:
    – Only you?
    – Your direct team?
    – Your Business Unit or Division?
    – The whole company?
  • Can you identify a time when the business has taken a risk that you were not comfortable with? Why were you not comfortable?
  • Consider when you have been intellectually in agreement with a risk, but physically you have felt uncomfortable. How could you best manage yourself in this situation?
  • Consider when intellectually and physically you have not been in agreement with a risk. Identify an effective way of how you could have influenced an alternative plan of action.

Understanding your own risk profile gives you clearer insights as to where your personal limits are and how you could potentially react when faced with risk. Take this opportunity to identify some strategies for dealing with risk.

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Get Comfortable Dealing with Ambiguity and Making Decisions

Years of training and work experience has reinforced the need for absolute accuracy in analysis and reporting. This habitual way of working informs the way all Financial Accounting processes are designed and implemented. Controls and checks are mandatory. Manager and peer review are vital to the decision process.

With this experience of working, what happens when you are asked to make a decision? I have seen colleagues end up crippled with indecisiveness or have a compulsion to analyse and re-analyse the data to ensure absolute certainty. They refuse to offer immediate thoughts and end up requiring hours or days of additional analysis and review.

Some business situations do not allow the luxury of time or the information to be able to ensure that a decision will have guaranteed success. It’s important that as the Financial expert that you give advice and also direction. How comfortable are you in doing this?

Think of 3 examples where you have been required to supply some data or analysis to support a business decision. Did you take the opportunity to put forward clearly your recommendation? Or did you stand back and let the information speak for itself? If pressed for a decision, did you do so with confidence?

I worked with a brilliant Managing Director who made it a policy to ask the opinion of everyone round the table when we were putting together a commercial deal. Even the most junior Sales Manager and Finance Analyst were asked ‘what would they do if it were their money being invested’? The best responses were clear and had a concise rationale but were never over justified.

It’s important to get into the habit of making decisions regularly. As you progress in your career you will be called more frequently to do so. As a Finance Director your decision will carry significant weight. Frequently you will be deferred to as the final authority on the correct course of action.

Think of decision-making as a muscle that has to be regularly exercised. Without frequent use the ability will wither and die.

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Develop your Ideal Career Image

During the holiday season it’s amazing how even a few days break away from the office environment gives you time to think. A few days into the New Year, have you been reflecting on how happy you are with your career right now and plan’s ahead? Have you got a clear vision of where you want to be?

If you are at all unclear when answering these questions, it’s worth spending a little time focusing. Develop the image like a photographic negative in a dark room and watch as the image appears and becomes clearer as your focus on it.

I have been training recently with Wendy Sullivan who co-authored: Clean Language Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds based on the work by counselling psychologist David Grove. Using clean questions helps develop your own images and brings your desires into a clearer focus. Exploring metaphors allow us to access the hidden unconscious mind.

In the following exercise you will be ask to think about a metaphor for the career you would like to experience. This could be for example ‘an exciting rollercoaster ride’ or ‘building a house with strong foundations’. Go with whatever metaphor comes to mind.

With a clean sheet of paper, write out the answers to the following questions. Fill in the blanks in the questions below with your answers.

What is your metaphor for the career you’d like to experience?

Then focusing on part of your answer that gives you the most interest, ask any one of the following questions and keep asking them to explore your metaphor:

What kind of _ is that _?

Is there anything else about _?

And where is _? Or whereabouts is _?

And does _ have a size or shape?

Keep exploring different parts of your metaphor. Don’t forget to focus on where you are within the metaphor.

Shaping and spending some time on your goals is important. Do not worry immediately about how you are going to get there. When you are clear on your goals the steps appear because your mind is focused.

How do you feel now you have created such a vivid image? I am sure you will have a new feeling and energy that you were not aware of before. What does it want to make you do? Keep developing your image over the next few days and get to know which bits excite and inspire you most.

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How do I get listened to in Business Meetings?

In my last blog I talked about how to find your confident voice in meetings. But the next goal is to get heard and listened to in meetings. This is more difficult and can be very dependent on the group of people you are meeting with.

In an ideal world everyone would listen with patience, consideration and respect during meetings. However, its equally likely people are half listening with impatience and a personal agenda.

So how do you break through the invisible barriers to get your voice heard?

Keeping it simple there are three main factors to consider: delivery, content and pre-alignment.

Delivery

  • Quality of voice – the aim is to achieve an authentic gravitas. Men have an advantage over women as they have deeper voices. But everyone can create a voice that demands to be heard.
  • Body positioning – sitting or standing tall both allows greater voice control but also much more of an authoritative presence.
  • Intonation and emphasis – add colour to your speech by emphasising key phrases or accenting key words. If you sound animated and passionate you will be more interesting to listen to.
  • Speed of delivery – be careful of talking too quickly or too slowly! Pauses however, do provide an opportunity to underline the importance of what has just been or about to be said.
  • Emotion – just one note of caution, whilst passion is useful, being emotional or using emotive phrases can backfire and get the audience more annoyed than enthralled.

 Exercise: Either standing or sitting elevate your head and torso. Breathe deeply into your stomach (rest your hand on your stomach and feel it being pushed out). Now breathe out through your mouth in a long slow continuous movement. Breathe in deeply again, but this time, say out loud what you did to get ready this morning. You should notice that your voice has extra strength and resonance.

Content

  • Focus and simplicity of message – be really clear on what you want to communicate. Does what you are saying add or distract to this message?
  • Validation – do you have any evidence or insights to support what you are saying? Add a rationale to improve conviction.
  • Authenticity – whatever your contribution is to the meeting, express yourself in a way that is completely authentic to you. Do not adopt a style of speech or words that you would not normally use. Otherwise, you come across as unauthentic and this devalues what you have to say.
  • Relevance – sometimes you will come to a meeting with a prepared agenda. There is a risk that when you chose to add your contribution it completely misses the flow of the meeting. Wait until a relevant time or make sure you work with the Chair to bring in your points at the end of the meeting.

Pre-alignment

  • Know colleagues opinions – the old saying ‘being forewarned is to be forearmed’ is very relevant if you are trying to introduce and win an argument. Think through all dimensions of your position and think it through from the perspective of those that will disagree. Can you come up with any actions or rationales that can neutralise counter arguments? Who will put forward counter arguments and in what way? Can you have a pre-meeting discussion to get them aligned before hand?
  • Getting commitment for support – it’s always a good idea to have a few strong allies in a meeting who will back you up and reinforce your argument. This could be the chair or another influential meeting member.
  • Understand personal agendas – even with pre-alignment and commitment there will be some individuals who will still resist your arguments. They may have a vested interest in no change or taking an alternative decision. This is usually because they have a personal position that could be undermined. Or it could require them to put a lot of effort into implementing a course of action that they are not convinced by. This is really difficult to get around so the pre-alignment of the key decision makers becomes vital.

Some of the above points may be obvious and some may be new to you. Working with them all together will make you more powerful and influential during meetings.

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How do I find my confident voice in business meetings?

Picture yourself in a meeting with your peers and senior management. You are sitting round and the discussion is flowing and you are following every nuance and opinion. You clearly identify and agree with some and disagree with others. The discussion sparks off ideas and questions in your mind. Your mind is working very hard as you are thinking and listening deeply. The meeting comes to an end and you find it very interesting and stimulating. You turn to your nearest colleague and say ‘that was great, I really liked X but I would have wanted to challenge Y more’.

What has been your contribution to the meeting? Would anyone have noticed if you had not been there? Would anyone have gathered that you had agreed or disagreed with what had been said? Would they have known that you have a great idea about how to take things forwards? The answer is of course no.

This is a trap that I have seen many of my colleagues fall into. They are so used to working in their head space that they have lost the ability and confidence to articulate their thoughts and add to the sum of the group thinking.

So how do you find your voice in meetings, especially when there are more senior people in the organisation are present?

  • Change your perspective. Make speaking up in a meeting a generous act, seeking to add value to the group. Either by affirming, seeking to clarify or adding a new idea will help improve the thinking quality of all those attending.
  • Give everyone else time to think. People think 5 times faster than it takes to speak, so by speaking up you give a chance for others to think more deeply.
  • Be clear as to your aim before you speak. What do you want people to do with your contribution? Is it to change their thinking, to answer a point of clarity, to challenge a team to shape their thoughts?
  • Know your strategy. Think about what you want to get out of the meeting. Will it be to raise your profile, underline your expertise, to improve your understanding?
  • Have an opening phrase. If it makes it more comfortable, have a phrase ready to start any contribution. Phrases could include: ‘Can I just confirm my understanding of…; I would like to clarify the point made about …; I’ve been thinking about what X has said and I would like to…’
  • Practice. Contributing in meetings becomes easier with practice. Work your way up from small team meetings up to total company updates.

From the perspective of someone who has lead and chaired many busy meetings there is nothing more frustrating than hearing from the same voices repeatedly. This is especially true when you are sure there are different dimensions and perspectives that could be aired that would add great value to the discussion. So if you are someone who feels unsure about adding your voice to meetings, take the next opportunity to give it a go.

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Customer Intimacy is not just for Sales

Let me ask you a few questions:

Who are your internal customers?

What do they need from you?

What do they want from you?

Could you say what their key priority is right now?

How much time do they want you spend with them?

If you can only guess at the answers to the questions above you are not close enough to your key internal customers. And if you are not close enough to your customers, this is when urgent ‘fire fighting’ issues occur. This leads to you being distracted from your well thought through plans for the day or week ahead. Also if you are unfortunate, your irritated colleague can cause a lot of disturbance that reaches your management team and requires them to step in to calm things down.

But I don’t have time!

If this is your conundrum and you have a ‘to do’ list that seems to grow rather than shrink it is still worth making your investment of time with your key customers. There is an amazing amount of value to get out of just asking questions about what they are working on, their deadlines coming up, the information they need and the decisions they will need to take.

Remember to actually listen to their answers, not just to the words, but the way they are expressed. You will certainly be able to differentiate between what they need (facts; figures; analysis etc) and what they want (to get a decision made with little fuss; appropriate backing and reassurance for their plans; help positioning internally to gain buy-in etc). Their wants are a much more powerful motivator than their needs. Knowing their wants puts you in a better position to negotiate what work needs to be done and in time frames that work for you as well as them.

I have worked in many high pressure corporate environments. In one role, key business customers could make demands for significant commercial proposals with a 24 hour turnaround. In this situation it paid dividends for the sales manager and me to be already aligned. We were able to react quickly and coherently to get the best deal possible.

Spending time with your internal customers is an investment with a significant personal ROI for you. Building a rapport helps when you need to get their support. It’s also useful when you need them to hear your rationale as to why not to go ahead with a poor decision. They build their trust in your expertise and also know you will be there when they need you most.

Have a look at your diary and get some time in now, dedicated to getting close to your key customers. Commit to keeping the appointments and get ready to find out what was in store for you that you never knew about.

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What are the most important skills to make it to FD?

You’ve worked hard in gaining your qualifications and building your experience. How can you be sure to get that FD role you are aspiring to?

If you thought it was all about excellent technical skills and abilities of interpreting the numbers then you need to think more broadly. It is not enough to be able to understand the financial position and the processes of a business but expressing them in a way that facilitates real growth for the business is the key.

Managing and influencing people are the most crucial skills for an FD. It can be a lonely position to hold out for cost restraint when your Marketing Director demands investment or to push for more entrepreneurial approach when the existing business plans are not delivering. All this whilst maintaining composure and an autonomous perspective whilst everyone is under pressure to deliver. However, it’s also important that you and your team are included in all the organisation planning and that other functions don’t work to avoid you. It’s a difficult tight rope to walk, made even more difficult by a turbulent economic environment shaking the wire.

One of the first areas to focus is building a strong rapport with someone more senior in the organisation that you admire and want to model. Whilst potentially intimidating to instigate, building a mentoring relationship will bring opportunities for insights and growth. Being given regular feedback about how you are performing is invaluable and surprisingly uncommon even with regular appraisal processes. Kraft Foods Inc. has an unusual approach for review and works with a one over one system where employees meet directly with their bosses’ boss.

When identifying a potential mentor it’s as important to think about ‘fit’ as well as status. Mentoring requires a level of trust and confidence between mentor and mentee. Imagine being given some direct feedback and challenged on making a change in your behaviour or being told your focus is in the wrong area. You will resist following through on the advice if you don’t have regard and belief that this new approach will work.

It’s also worth identifying a mentor that has brilliant listening skills. We have all worked with individuals that have gained senior positions but lack any ability to empathise and adapt their advice dependant on the situation and character of the person they are working with. Modelling yourself on such a fixed style will not benefit you in the long run.

For the mentor there can also be significant benefits when establishing a relationship with someone establishing their career. I have always enjoyed the mentoring process and it is gratifying to see my knowledge giving growth to both an individual and the organisation. A mentor does not just to be in a Finance role but anyone senior who has developed effective people skills. Is there anyone within your current or previous organisation that can take this role? Approach them for a ‘chemistry’ chat to see if it’s worth taking things further.

Over the blogs to come I will explore the different facets of what it takes to make it to FD and bring some clarity as to how to employ ‘soft’ skills to build your career.

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