View from the board: just say no… but nicely

‘Finance come in and act like the Monday morning quarterback. It’s easy to
say what went wrong after the event ­ it’s getting help beforehand that we

No. I haven’t had a break down, and I’m not writing this in the small hours
of Sunday morning. I’m just repeating a couple of the quotes that I have heard
recently from some of the operational management with whom I deal. And they make
an important point. Not necessarily that what they are saying is true ­ they
could be talking rubbish for all I know.

Finance people the world over could be reading this saying that it isn’t
fair. In this market, of course someone in finance has to say no more often than

But that doesn’t, sadly, matter very much. Because, as Jordan and Peter Andre
are proving so wonderfully, right now, it’s not the truth that matters but the
perception of the truth.

Are finance departments saying no more often than before? I hope so. If they
aren’t then I should be even busier than I am replacing many of them. We are in
the middle of what’s being recognised as the worst recession of the last 30 or
40 years. If finance isn’t saying no a lot more than during a ten year growth
phase, then we’ve got bigger problems coming.

But ­ and this is the critical point ­ marketing managers, salespeople, R
&D Directors or whoever don’t care about that, not when they are talking to
you to try to get the money for their favourite project. They want to get
sign-off on this one thing ­ and you are the gatekeeper.

And that’s when perception matters ­ because you are going to say no, and
deep down, they probably know that. The important thing, though, is how you do
it. Right at that moment, you have the ability to make ‘no’ seem like a good

Right now, when all they are hearing is no, you have a vital role to play in
making them feel positive about the business, the product, the market, and most
importantly, about the finance function. If they walk away from you unde
rstanding the reasoning, they will defend you and the function to anyone that
complains. But if they walk away and all they have heard is no, the perception
of finance will conform to the old stereotype, and the carousel will start
turning again.

Having spent ten years fighting our way off that particular merry-go-round,
please let’s not turn straight back onto it.

Mark Freebairn is a partner at Odgers Ray &

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