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Home > Business Ethics Best Practice > Financial Reporting: Conveying the Message Down the Line

Business Ethics Best Practice

Financial Reporting: Conveying the Message Down the Line

by Leslie L. Kossoff

Executive Summary

  • Finance department participation must be cross-organizational to ensure the financial health and welfare of the enterprise.

  • Financial data should be better shared, and finance personnel become more involved, at all levels of the organization.

  • Middle management presents the greatest barrier to finance messaging. To overcome this, finance must present data sharing as a verifiable win to them.

  • Integrating into ad-hoc or lean-team initiatives provides finance personnel with the opportunity to become friendly advisers to the organization as a whole.

Introduction

Of all the functions in an enterprise that cannot, indeed must not, be the province of the function itself is finance. In fact, the more finance is separated from the rest of the organization’s thinking and operations, the greater the risk for the enterprise and its stakeholders.

Finance people not only know the numbers behind what’s going on, they also know why those numbers exist. From greasing the wheels to get things done, to putting the brake on projects that carry too high a financial risk, finance knows the answers—and acts on them.

The problem is that when you ask those in other parts of the organization what finance does, what you’ll hear will likely be either resounding silence from a lack of knowledge, a description of some of its most basic tasks, or a stream of complaints about the problems and obstacles that finance causes.

Yet, in best of breed organizations, finance is there as much to help the body of the organization as it is to ensure the strategic and tactical financial health and welfare of the enterprise. The beauty of the function is that it can be as overarching and as specific as necessary—simultaneously and serially. The data are there to be used to help, not hurt, or obstruct. So are the people.

Until that word gets out, however, finance will be at best a boring function left to others or, at worst, seen as an enemy within the enterprise.

That’s why finance has to change its image across all divisions, directorates, departments, and levels. Finance has to become an organizational player.

Redefining the Role of Finance

The problem with becoming a player is that, first, you have to want to play. That is very often the prime difficulty for the people who work in finance. Starting at the highest level and systematically working down through the enterprise, finance people must become some of the most familiar—and welcome—faces in the organization.

And so, as with every other successful organizational initiative, it starts at the top. The CEO and CFO have to agree that more financial information will be shared throughout the enterprise. They have to discuss with the senior executive team which information should be shared, when, and with whom. That means safety checks and limits on what information is given to whom—because the given is that someone, somehow, is going to give the game away outside the enterprise. As a result, damage control measures must be put in place before information is shared.

The chances are that these measures and limits are already in place. The chances are even higher that comparatively few executives or managers have accessed the information available to them. Even if they have, it probably hasn’t been adequately communicated (if it was communicated at all), or they didn’t know what to do with it once it was in their hands.

That is where finance’s role changes from a service that is perceived to be “outside” and auditing in nature (for which read obstructive), to the organization’s most involved, friendly adviser.

The goal, of course, is to turn every employee into a mini-CFO in their own job within their own department. From senior manager to frontline employee, everyone needs to understand where the organization stands financially, why, and, most importantly, how their particular job or functional area is contributing to that state of affairs. Good or bad.

Building Support Among Middle Management

The biggest challenge is to involve middle management positively in the process—and it’s a big challenge.

Executives understand the need for financial data. The senior team will be onside as you look at how you are going to inculcate financial thinking into the larger organization.

Middle management, on the other hand, will either see the offer of financial advice and guidance as a potential threat, or as a weapon they can use at some later date against some other part of the organization. Even though they never touch a banknote, the more they see in their spreadsheet coffers, the more they believe they can manipulate the rest of the organization into doing things the way they want. Budgeting, to middle management, is empire building. It’s fiefdoms. It’s silos.

Enter finance. With all the good intentions in the world, your people will be facing an audience who, at least in part, are frightened that seeing your faces means the end of the world as they’ve known it. Fear will be the prevailing—if hidden—emotion.

It gets worse. As you bring financial knowledge to the lower levels of the enterprise, middle management will become even more frightened at the prospect of their power base being dissolved.

This means that finance has to develop a strategy to make not just knowing, but also sharing, financial information a benefit to the middle management group as well as to their employees. The good news is that, because they believe information is power, if you position what you’re offering as something that will enable them to improve their position in the organization, you will achieve at least a first-level sell. They’ll be open to what you have to offer.

From there, use what you’re providing to make them shine. To help them succeed. To make them open to your next step—bringing finance to the front line in every department.

Because the real goal—the thing that will make the biggest change, both in the way that finance is seen and in the extent to which smart financial thinking becomes standard operating procedure in the organization—is when you start working with the lower levels. Then, just watch what happens. Even the middle managers will join in and see the win at that point.

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Further reading

Books:

  • Creelman, James. Creating a World-Class Finance Function: Five Core Capabilities That Generate Added Business Value. London: Business Intelligence, 2005.
  • Donegan, Michael C. Growth and Profitability: Optimizing the Finance Function for Small and Emerging Businesses. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2002.

Articles:

  • Desai, Mihir A. “The finance function in a global corporation.” Harvard Business Review 86:7/8 (2008).
  • Pohl, Herbert. “Building a competitive finance function: An executive roundtable.” McKinsey Quarterly (December, 2007). Online at: www.nemrod-partners.com/Building.pdf

Report:

Website:

  • CFO.com news and insight for financial executives: www.cfo.com

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