The 8 C’s for professional FP&A. Part 2. Challenging and Compassionate.

Posted by  Amrish Shah

What is this article about?
I have previously written about 8 qualities which I believe characterize good FP&A performers. This article zooms in in more depth on two of these – Challenging and Compassionate. There is a strong amplifying but also tension between the two, which is why I have chosen to combine them. At a time when finance is being challenged to add more value, getting the right attitude, approach and mindset becomes more critical to attract finance talent that is fit for purpose.

What is Challenging in context of FP&A and how can it be cultivated?
From a team perspective, the heart of challenge lies in its external orientation. In other words, what effective challenge is NOT is about the person challenging. It is not about challenging for the sake of challenging. It is fundamentally not about “being right” which is all about “me” but it is about the intention to progress something on behalf of another.

There are three things that I believe are important in the ability to be seen as, not just a natural, but an effective challenger.

  • Being able to probe one’s own intention – what is it that I am challenging but also why?
  • The conscientiousness to have done some homework beforehand in order to back up the challenge
  • Depersonalising – ensuring the challenge is directed towards confronting content, whether it is bias, conclusions, interpretation and staying away from personal motives

One of the big reason why insufficient challenging happens is due to fear. Fear of either being marked as a “trouble maker” or being made to “look like a fool”. Therefore, it is important to underpin challenge based on a sufficient amount of validating evidence (to counter the second reason) and also to be able to sense the organisation politics and so choose the right environment to challenge. Sometimes it is better to challenge in a very private situation, other times it may be okay and even expected to challenge in a group setting. Building one’s awareness of how people from different cultures receive challenge is also a very useful knowledge to gain and practise. Choosing the right time to challenge – normally when it will have the highest chance of the desired impact – is also a skill worth cultivating.

What is Compassionate in context of FP&A and how can it be cultivated?
The core of compassion comes from a sense of care that is directed externally. In the case of FP&A this is their relevant part of the business. If there is no feeling of sufficient care, then it is unlikely that there will be any real effort made to work together to solve issues.

There are three elements that are relevant to being compassionate.

  • The ability and desire to empathise
  • To have a healthy dose of humility
  • The ability to pay real and close attention

To be able to empathise is not easy, it requires discipline. One good way to remain mindful of it is to deliberately build it into the interactions with the business. This means making sure to inquire about the relevant perspective that maybe important to that person in relation to the topic at hand. Learning and practising the art of appreciative inquiry can be a very good way of becoming better at this.

Similarly, being humble is easier said than done. In this context it is going with an open mind regarding the topic and being aware that there is likely to be always a reason why people do and think the way they do.

Lastly, paying close attention to people is critical. Some good, but not easy, ways are to work on better active listening skills and becoming more mindful of the balance between listening and talking. Another very easy way is to think about what medium one uses for communication. It is hard to pay attention when communicating virtually – i.e. through email or texting etc. It is far better to be forced into paying attention by being physically present.

SENSITIVITY - the key tension between Challenging and Compassionate?
The tension between challenge and compassion lies in SENSITIVITY. The impulse to challenge forces us to put sensitivity aside as less important. The practice of compassion puts sensitivity at the forefront. Therefore, the ability to balance these two forces by developing good judgement as to the right level of sensitivity to apply to the given situation becomes an important counter force. Compassion acts as a brake to being overly challenging but challenge forces us to acknowledge that remaining overly sympathetic to the needs of the business is also not going to cut it either.

I hope in this article I have shown why both being Challenging and Compassionate are much needed qualities for good Business Finance / FP&A professionals and what are some ways to continue to stimulate this.


Amrish Shah

Amrish Shah, of Indian origin, born in Africa, a British national and now residing in The Netherlands, is a seasoned and senior finance leader with over 20 years of financial management experience in international organizations. Some of the companies he has worked for include Unilever, O'Neill Group, Staples, Royal Wessanen, Kao and he is currently working in a senior FP&A transformation capacity at EndemolShine.

A qualified Management Accountant with CIMA, he has held regional finance leadership positions since 2001, based out of The Netherlands. He has held both staff and line roles, managing teams of up to 40 people. He has a clear belief in the value of finance at both strategic and operational levels to the organisation and is passionate about, amongst others, organisation decision making, organisation culture, high performing teams, leadership in general, organisation and finance transformation, change management and talent management.