30th January 2023

Finance Senior Leadership: Moving from Execution-First to Strategy-First

If you’re in a finance role, you may wonder what it takes to be a senior leader. The behaviours that get you to manager level often don’t get you beyond that.

The change that enables you to progress up the ranks is moving from an execution-first mindset to a strategy-first mindset.

But what does that mean?

Well, it’s how it sounds. When approaching a piece of work, you look at it through the lens of strategy first, before thinking about the tactics. This is a powerful skill to have as a senior leader because it allows you to scale your impact.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying execution doesn’t matter – of course it does. But the difference is where the focus starts.

The limitations of execution-first

From an execution standpoint, you’re limited by hours in the week. But as a leader, it’s your job to think big to scale your ideas, your vision, and what you and your teams want to achieve. It’s not enough to think about “how I’m going to get X Y or Z done”, it needs to be much broader than that. What we’re encouraging here is strategic thinking.

What is strategy?

Let’s work with an example. Imagine you have a business partner or a client that comes to you and says, “you know that deadline that we’ve got for next week, I want to throw a bunch of additional stuff into it”.

Approaching it from an execution perspective, you would usually start by thinking:

  • How am I going to deliver that?
  • What am I going to get done?
  • What’s going to happen when?
  • Who’s going to do what?

Thinking about it strategically, the type of questions you would ask are:

  • Are we the right people to do that?
  • Is this change in scope reasonable?
  • How do we think about that more broadly – context and impact?
  • Is this something we need to address in our relationships at a broader level?
  • Do we need a different level of resourcing on our team?
  • How do I think about the wellbeing and health of my team on an ongoing basis?

There are three things you can do in order to move to a more strategic way of thinking. A model of prioritisation, a model of empowerment, and a model of risk-taking.

A model of prioritisation

A clear way to prioritise, and more importantly, set boundaries are critical to success for most of us. What is your model of prioritisation?

I don’t mean just writing a to-do list and prioritising the tasks, it should be much broader than that. For example, ask yourself ‘how do I choose where and how to spend my time?’ And then, ‘how can I appropriately set boundaries against that?’

Setting boundaries is all about having the right conversations with the right people. You can start by saying ‘this is what I am going to do, and this is what I’m not going to do’. As a leader, we all need to think about what the most impactful use of our time and our team’s time is, and how we make that happen.

So at a macro level, you’re more broadly deciding what you will be doing. At the micro level, it’s thinking about what we are going to do this month, this week and today. In general, as a leader, you shouldn’t allocate more than 60 percent of your time to your priorities because unexpected tasks come in and steal your time.

A model for empowerment

As a senior finance leader, you need to empower and engage your team in the right way. Whether you’re a manager or not, it’s all about enabling others.

Many of us make sure others get high-quality work done by focusing on the ‘how’. We get specific about the things that we want, and how we want them to do that. The problem with this is that it doesn’t scale. People will come back when they can’t do the ‘how’ and won’t feel empowered to try and solve issues themselves.

Enter… the empowerment model!

This shifts the focus from the how to the outcomes we’re looking for and what we want from those outcomes.

What’s hard about outcomes is that often we aren’t practised at setting them. They also require you to put more trust in your team to achieve those outcomes. You can build this trust by following this simple model.

  1. Set clear outcomes at the beginning of a piece of work. This is a very important step if you’re to delegate effectively.
  2. Schedule check-in points to see how the team are doing. In these catch ups, you’re not checking in on the progress of what’s done, instead, focus on what is still to go: ask about any challenges, blockers and barriers, so you can help to remove them.
  3. Be sure to ask if the person is still ok with the deadline and if they need anything from you to achieve it.

This builds a situation where your teams can get what they need from you, rather than you telling them what you think they should do.

When teams are empowered, in the short term you see a performance dip, but it has the opportunity for increased performance from both the team and individuals later on.

A model for risk-taking

Setting boundaries, trusting people more to achieve things, and enabling them to grow and be empowered requires you to take increased risks.

The truth is, we do everything on our to-do lists and micromanage our teams because it ensures consistently high quality and reduces risk.

For most of us in finance jobs, there’s a range of risks we can take. But we often apply the same amount of risk analysis regardless of the situation. To combat this, build a personal risk map.

On this personal risk map, you have ‘we can’t take any risk’ on one side and ‘we can take lots of risks’ on the other. You can use this to identify where you can afford to take more risks with a task and where you can’t take risks.

For example, when producing the year-end numbers, you can’t take any risk. But, when working with business partners, you can take more risks than you think. You have options if they say they want something done by next Wednesday. You can negotiate deadlines and if something else comes in, you think about what you are going to push back on. And how you’re going to do that.

Figuring out where the boundaries lie with your teams and your business partners enables you to scale the impact of your work. This exercise really helps if you’re a perfectionist, as senior leaders can’t afford to be perfectionists because their roles are too broad and it’s a sure-fire way to lead to burnout.

Need help turning your execution-first mindset to strategy-first?

I coach great finance leaders to become even better versions of themselves. If you want to demonstrate your strengths and work on the skills that will help you climb the career ladder in finance, I can help.

Get in touch with me to book a free 30-minute discovery session. Together, we can lay out an action plan and help you understand what finance coaching can do for you and your team.

Oliver Deacon

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