23rd May 2024

3 communication strategies every finance leader needs

My 3 interesting things for you this month…

1. Exploratory vs explanatory analysis

After last month’s bumper edition, let’s get back to a few simple principles.

First up, I went on an excellent training course recently (yes I’m still learning too!) on storytelling with data.

It was great – they codified lots of complex data visualisation influencing topics into simple principles that you can apply to many situations.

The principle that really jumped out for me was that of exploratory vs explanatory analysis.

Exploratory analysis is…

Where we’re using charts, visuals, tables and data to explore and understand what’s happening in our data – trends, opportunities, errors, etc. – and even maybe why something is happening.

As finance professionals, it helps us do the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ bit of our job.

Explanatory analysis is…

Where we use charts and visuals (and VERY occasionally tables ☺️) to explain to an audience what we’ve found out, and most importantly why they should care and what it means to them.

As finance professionals, it helps us do the ‘so what?’ part of our job.

These 2 types of analysis are very different. However, early in our career, we often confuse them. We serve up the data analysis we did to business partners as an explanation – likely confusing and overwhelming them. This is also how we usually approach month end.

Here’s a perfect example of this:

Last Thursday, I heard a CEO address his 160 person finance team. After a business update, he answered the question “What could finance do better to help you?”.

His answer: “Just tell me what matters most and help me think through what action we need to take. Please stop putting that into slide 74 of the 78 page month end presentation!”

A great way of using our exploratory analysis (the full month end pack) to attempt explanatory analysis (helping the CEO focus on what’s most important each month).

So how do you do this in practice?

3 tips from me:

  • Do the 2 types of analysis separately. If time allows, take a break between doing the exploratory and the explanatory (I understand hard at month end).
  • Learn what the differences are in the types of analysis. Check out Cole Knaflic’s Storytelling with Data books for practical examples of how different charts, graphs and visualisations vary and can be used for explanatory purposes.
  • Attend our finance business partnering course – we take the key principles of talking about the most important parts of our analysis, and demonstrate how to apply them to any of your reports or presentations. Check out the next run of the course here.

2. Make the most of your performance review

Many of us are coming up on our mid-year or full year performance reviews. We talk about what’s been going on, and try to convince our boss to give us a good grade / bonus / promotion.

Here are 3 things to really make the most of the process.

1. Give your boss soundbites to repeat about you

When you are writing about all the great things you’ve done in the ‘what went well’ section, include a summary sentence that they can repeat to someone else.

For example: “My work on this project cut the time to production by 40%” or “The team’s satisfaction score has risen by 20pts to 78% since I took over 12 months ago”.

Try to include this as early on as you can, and ideally bold it.

Why does this matter?

Your boss has someone else they have to check with before they give you whatever you’re looking for. This helps them. Even if they don’t, it’s a great habit to get into.

2. Think about ‘things you could’ve done better’ through the lens of what you learnt

We all hate talking about ‘What we didn’t do well’, often trying to find ways to spin it into a positive.

But our managers need us to reflect on what we can improve, so what’s a more comfortable way to approach this?

Start with anything you learnt this year through a painful lesson. Then back into what went wrong to teach you that lesson.

When you write it, you can flip the order around – this is what went wrong, I learnt X and Y. You’ll still end up with what your manager needs to know, but hopefully you’ll find it much easier to write.

3. Use the development section for something useful!

Most of us don’t like writing in the development section for our reviews. We know we’ll forget about it until our next review, or we’ll write really bland stuff like: go on a course, or use more PowerQuery.Instead, use this section to generate accountability with your manager.

Accountability has been shown to be the number 1 way to make progress with a goal.

So in that section, ask your manager to hold you to account on a couple of things that would actually be useful.

For example: I need to build my network, will you ask me how I’m getting on with meeting new people in the business?

Or, I need to improve my influence, will you keep asking me how many decisions have I influenced since we last spoke.

It turns an often bureaucratic HR exercise into a powerful personal development tool. Or, into what it’s meant to do 😊.

3. Control what you can control

A friend shared this article on happiness recently by the author Scott Young. It’s good, you can read it here, and there are plenty of other useful personal effectiveness articles on his website.

I want to focus on its final point on being happier, “Remember everything is a choice”, and how we can apply this professionally.

“Within every constraint is a choice. Every forced option contains a range of possibilities. Behind everything that must be done is a decision about how to think about it.

This is similar to Steven Covey’s Circle of Influence concept from his first habit of ‘Be Proactive’ (from his book ‘7 habits of highly effective people’). Maximise your focus on things that you can control to make more progress in life.

Why does this matter?

Humans can deal with difficult situations more easily when they feel there’s an element of control.

So as bad things happen at work, we can bring an element of control back by choosing how we feel about it and respond to it – even if we can’t control the situation itself.

It makes us significantly better managers and leaders if we have the emotional intelligence to do this.

This is where communication comes in – if we can outwardly show that we’re applying this mindset to bad situations, we can teach others to do the same.

Our teams can be negatively impacted by a leader’s bad reaction to events. Instead, if we choose our reaction – and actively communicate that this is what we’re doing – we can both instil more confidence in our teams, and make ourselves feel better in the situation.

Next time something bad happens that triggers you, see if you can take a few moments to examine why you feel that way, and if there is any other option for you on how you could respond – especially if it impacts your team.

If all else fails and you have the time, remember the tried and tested – sleep on it and see how you respond tomorrow

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Oliver Deacon

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