The secrets to business partner success

Dec 06, 2019
Chartered Accountant, John Morgan, explains his five steps to becoming a trusted finance business partner.

On 22 September 2002, I was in Croke Park to witness my home county, Armagh, win its first All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final. Two years into my Corporate Finance career with EY in London, it got me thinking: it’d be great to get home to witness Armagh’s inevitable decade of domination!

Having completed my Chartered Accountancy training with EY in Belfast, I was given the opportunity to join a newl y formed team in London that focused on pre-acquisition due diligence for private equity clients. I spent two years in that team, working with amazing people on fascinating deals. My favourite aspect of the role was getting underneath the forecasts in the information memo and working with operational management to understand and challenge revenue and cost forecast assumptions. Getting beyond the numbers and dealing with operational management was something I relished, but it was frustrating to never see whether forecast assumptions materialised. I wanted to not only review and challenge such assumptions, but also work with the management team on implementing the plan.

Lesson 1: understand the business

I then returned home to Northern Ireland to join BT as a Finance Business Partner, which gave me the opportunity to work with the Operational Director to manage a budget and drive business performance. I immediately got stuck into the detail and came up with money-saving opportunities. BT in the early noughties perhaps still had low hanging fruit, but I immersed myself in understanding the business – both from an operational and strategic perspective. In 2003, the Ireland CEO stood on stage at the company’s annual management conference and spoke about the difference broadband would make to both BT and the country. He seemed convinced that this was a game changer, so I took time out of my day job to spend some time with engineers understanding the network.

This taught me lesson number one – to be an effective business partner, you must understand the business from an operational and strategic perspective. This helps on two fronts: first, you gain credibility with the senior operational managers you are attempting to influence; and second, you can become more than a number-cruncher and begin to add value.

Lesson 2: build relationships

A key lesson for me in the early stages was how to manage key stakeholders with different priorities. Learning to balance conflicting interests is crucial, and this manifested itself with my Operational Director and Finance Director. My first Financial Director wrote on my annual performance report: “has a healthy disrespect for traditional views in BT”. However, my Operational Director did not consider my disrespect “healthy”. He felt that I was not working in partnership with him, so be conscious that your stakeholders may have different priorities and react to your recommendations in different ways. So, lesson number two taught me that unless you can constructively work in partnership with operational management, you won’t succeed. What helps in this respect is objective alignment – you should be on the same side; both striving to drive the business forward.

Lesson 3: simplify complex financial data

Perhaps one of my first successes was working with my operational Managing Director on driving a material improvement in the cost of installing telegraph poles. The key was being able to distil complex data in a user-friendly manner, which helped drive operational decision-making. My superior felt we were inefficient, so I armed him with some simple unitary analysis that articulated clearly these inefficiencies for both the trade unions and our procurement team. This was critical in negotiating better third-party rates and gaining union agreement to outsource the function. So, lesson number three was the importance of translating complex data into simple, operational language that supported decision-making. I’ve always found unitary analysis really useful in this respect.

Lesson 4: be relentless and resilient

The bigger the decisions you get involved in, the higher the stakes – and in the early noughties, I learned that you don’t always get it right. Mistakes happen and when they do, the best thing you can do is pick yourself up, brush yourself down and move on. So, lesson four centres around the need to be both relentless and resilient.


Lesson 5: do less, coach more

As the teens progressed, I started to manage bigger teams, and this leads me to my next key lesson: being an effective leader is the key to success in a senior business partner role. In the noughties, I had more of a solitary role. Now, leading teams of up to 30 people, the balance of time changes significantly as I have evolved from a ‘doer’ into a ‘leader’. It is perhaps my biggest challenge, but unquestionably the most rewarding experience of all. So, lesson number five is that, to excel in senior finance business partnering roles, you need to become an effective leader.


If you master these five points, you will become a trusted finance business partner. This is what separates a good business partner and a great business partner – moving from merely commentating and recommending, to leading and driving decisions, playing a leading role on some key commercial and strategic decisions, building the business case, and being part of the sign-off on big investment decisions. The line between being a finance business partner and an operational manager can get a bit blurred, which is perhaps when it works best – when you are being asked by the business to step in and do things that you feel is a bit over and above the day job.

In the mid-2000s, I led a significant acquisition in Northern Ireland. In the late 2000s, I led the fibre broadband investment business case. And over the last decade, I have signed off on BT’s largest public sector customer bids. When I joined BT in 2003, I never envisaged the fascinating work I would get involved in – from the broadband revolution to leading on some of BT’s largest public sector long-term contracts. But perhaps the most rewarding was building, and being a part of a high-performing team.
It all worked out perfectly. Well, almost. What ever happened to that second All-Ireland for Armagh?

John Morgan FCA is Local Government & Health Finance Director at BT Enterprise.