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How to build a high-performance finance team

30 July: FDs and other leaders should think about their team’s purpose, and how all the individuals fit together, explains resilience and leadership coach Chris Paterson.

A good finance team is the lifeblood of any organisation. When the chips are down, it will be the finance team steering the business through difficult economic conditions. It also reflects heavily on the finance director, says Chris Paterson, a leadership coach and founder of Smile Be Curious. 

Paterson knows a thing or two about building high-performance teams, having led groups of 50 people in Czech Republic, Romania and the UK. “Leaders will be judged not on what they themselves produce, but what they get done through others,” he told ICAEW Insights.

Most leaders, in finance or otherwise, often find themselves with an inherited team. The real skill of leadership is to get people to do better work for you than they do for anyone else, Paterson explains. “Irrespective of whether you've inherited a team, or you are building one from scratch, and the most important thing is to identify: what are we here to do? What is the purpose of this team? What would happen if we weren't here?”

That then encourages deeper discussion about the sorts of teams you want to lead. Once you know why the team exists and its value to the organisation, the next question to ask is: what does the team need to look like?

“Part of the consideration there is designing a structure that gives people room to grow,” says Paterson. If you don't do that, you end up with a revolving door of people. That disrupts team dynamics.”

The final, critical thing is who’s in the team. Fill roles based on the attitude and traits of the individual, as well as skills and experience. “I can teach skills, but if someone hasn't got the right attitude, then that's much harder to deal with.”

The ideal team is made up of various traits and skillsets. The crucial thing is to find a way for those different skills, experiences and approaches can work together. The archetypical model for this high-performing team is a Formula One pitstop team, where people use their different backgrounds and skills in a complementary way, combining to make each pitstop as efficient as possible. 

“As a leader, you're looking for diverse points of view and diversity of thinking, because ultimately, that's what your customer base is going to have, whatever organisation you're in. The complexity and the pace of life and in business means that we need to be able to see situations from lots of different angles to come up with the optimum outcome.”

Leaders often recruit in their own image – we naturally have a bias towards people that we relate to the most. To recruit for the best team possible, you have to let that bias go. Be very deliberate and precise about what you’re looking for and try to get a mix of styles and preferences. (eg whilst an analytical social style can lend itself well to finance, there is also the need to relate to others which would come more naturally to someone with an amiable or expressive social style).

Paterson is the founder of a small charity. When recruiting the board of trustees, his existing team used six profile types as a way to check for diversity of thinking. “As existing trustees, we evaluated ourselves,” says Paterson. “We then invited the candidates to do that as well, which helped to paint a picture of how the team could work together...We've got a blend of different characters. It can make some of our conversations take longer and feel harder than they otherwise would. But because we've got all the different perspectives once we do get to a decision or a way forward, that we're on much more solid ground.”

It takes a lot of effort to create a high-performance team, and it also requires balance. “Ultimately, there's no shortcut to this. It's having conversations about how we need to be together rather than just what are we here to do. That's the step that lots of teams don't do. This is where the arena of things like team coaching comes into play, to really support people accelerate that journey.”

Chris Paterson will be running a course for ICAEW on the first steps in creating a high-performance team. Click here for more information.