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Do You Speak the Same Language as Your Budget Owners?

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I recently visited a client in Tokyo which was an interesting and exciting experience.  I have traveled extensively through Asia in the past and have worked abroad in my career, but had never been to Japan.  I was visiting Wacom, the world’s leading manufacturer of pen tablets, interactive pen displays and digital interface solutions.  Before I continue, I would like to express my gratitude to my hosts, Usuda-san, Okino-san, and Hattori-san, who made the trip both memorable and productive.

Traveling internationally has its challenges – different currencies, cultures, and most importantly, languages.  These challenges make travel a thrilling experience, but can also make it daunting.  I consider myself a seasoned traveler but every time I set foot in a new country, I’m presented with a new test of my cross-cultural capabilities.  I had a lot of time on the flight home (14 hours to be exact) to reflect on this and think there are some applicable lessons from this trip that can be applied to the budget process, particularly around the topic of language and communication.

To set the stage, I can speak exactly two phrases in Japanese (hello and thank you) so throughout my visit I had to figure out how to communicate effectively.  It got me thinking about how many of the business leaders we in finance interact with on a regular basis regarding budgets, projections, and analyses. Do they feel excluded when we talk in purely financial terms?  We perceive these concepts as obvious, but then again we speak the language of finance.  For us, the concepts and jargon are second nature.  But it raises the question, “Do we speak the same language as our budget owners?”

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So You Want to Be a Finance Leader?

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Jack Sweeney, CFO Thought Leader

I recently spoke at length with Jack Sweeney, the founder and editor of Middle-Market Executive and CFO Thought Leader, two of the leading online publications addressing the top finance role in middle market firms. Jack has interviewed many CFOs and has come to some conclusions on what distinguishes finance leaders from the rest of the pack. Since we, at Carlson Management Consulting, work with CFOs primarily at emerging and middle-market firms, it was not surprising to hear that his opinions aligned with many of our own. lndeed, one of our services is to assist CFOs with developing leadership skills. Based on our conversation, I’ve put together some priority action points for CFOs who aspire to become successful leaders:

Get on the frontlines:  Have you ever worked at a company where you never heard a peep out of the CFO unless there was some kind of special budget request or HR issue? I’m sure most of us have. Well, if you are that kind of CFO, then you need to get out of your comfort zone. Today’s successful CFO spends less time in his office and more time interacting with folks in ALL areas of the business, not to mention customers, partners, media and others. So get in the trenches and cultivate the relationships and trust that are so critical to leadership.

Become a storyteller:  As a marketer, I recognize that communication is extremely important and that you should keep it as simple and coherent as possible. The same holds true for CFOs. You should be able to simply and clearly convey the narrative of your company. What does your company do? What are your values? What makes you different from everyone else? Why will you continue to be successful in the future? Once you have your core story nailed, then you can tailor that message to your various audiences. If you attend finance conferences, you probably have seen great CFO storytellers in action. They naturally inspire admiration and respect – hallmarks of leadership.

Focus on strategy:  You don’t need to read The Art of War by Sun Tzu to be a successful strategist. You most likely need to liberate yourself from some of your more mundane tasks and spend some time thinking about the “what ifs” of your business. The ability to guide or contribute to company strategy is a key leadership responsibility, so you should spend more time gazing into your data-driven crystal ball, come up with a cogent plan, and then communicate your strategic vision (as part of your narrative) to your peers to create consensus.

Always the marketer, I would also offer one of my own suggestions:

Get social media savvy: You should seriously consider using LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, and other social media channels to demonstrate your thought leadership and the overall excellence of your company. Granted, if you work at a publicly traded company, you need to be very careful with what you say. On LinkedIn and blogs in particular, I see many top executives sharing their expertise and lessons learned on a variety of topics that are relevant to their role and industry. These folks are not only doing a great service to their companies, they are also building their own personal brand. If you aren’t sure how to get started, talk with the marketing folks in your company.  Alternatively, shoot me an email at dphillips@carlsonmc.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.  As part of the Carlson team, I’m happy to help!