Communication skills have taken an increasingly important role in professional development for finance and treasury professionals. From CFOs to the board room, the message is consistent. We all need to be good communicators to do our job well. Fortunately, our profession is in tune with best practices and there are now more education and training opportunities than ever. By making these a part of your professional development, you increase your value to any organization and as an added bonus you can use many of the same skills to improve your communication outside of work.
Start with the why
In 2012, the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) summarized research findings focused specifically on the urgent need for new skills in financial planning and analysis (FP&A). Those figures show that a top focus for companies where finance is a partner in the business is investment in soft skills training, including communication and presentation skills. That same study showed that finance was considered a partner in the business in the majority of companies (79 percent). Despite these findings, many CFOs still complain that within their finance and accounting staff communication skills are among the most lacking.
What to focus on
Some of the key skills that will improve the effectiveness of your communication are understanding your audience, effective listening, and your ability to build consensus.
Understanding Your Audience
Finance and treasury professionals often interact with a wide variety of people across functional areas and varying levels within the organization. In the process of analyzing a capital project, you may interact with the CFO, vice president of sales, director of IT and a variety of mid-level managers. Each of these people has a different perspective and it is extremely helpful to understand how best to communicate with each of them. That may mean for the CFO you present a one page summary, while with the director of IT you go through each major line item comprising the project to understand all of the IT-related costs and the rationale for each.
The most effective listening is active listening which requires the proper mindset and rapport with the person speaking. It also involves feeding back what they said to ensure you have heard what they intended to communicate. This may take several iterations to ensure you have communicated effectively.
One way you can use the feedback loop to confirm your understanding and gather information is by asking open-ended questions. For example, asking the question, “The main reason for choosing this option for the project is that it provides the functionality your department needs and it is within your capital budget, is that right?” asks for confirmation of your understanding, but it could also elicit more information and/or clarification.
Good consensus building skills are particularly important in the budget process. Without getting buy-in on the budget you are going to have challenges with accountability. Part of effective consensus building is understanding that it does not mean you have to get unanimous agreement, note Maureen C. Orey and Jenni Prisk in “Communication Skills Training”. The key is to discuss options with your team and make them feel included and valued in the process.
Your role in building consensus is partly as a facilitator. That can include using tools that help you structure discussions to keep them from going in circles. It is also important to downplay the link between an idea and its "author" and discourage "gaming the system" behavior.
Open-ended questions can help you identify issue(s) around which you need to build consensus. When you use this strategy, the focus of your questions should be to avoid questions that raise people’s defenses. Just a few examples of questions you can ask are: “What can we… ?”, “How would we… ?”, “Is there a better way to… ?
If you start working on improving in the three areas we just covered, you will have a great start on your road to becoming a better communicator. There are many training opportunities now and more are being developed all the time. By making communication skills training a part of your professional development plan, you will distinguish yourself as someone who is representative of the best practices in the industry and that makes you a high value professional.