Beyond Bean Counting: How to Lead

Posted on January 25, 2017

This is the second installment of a four-part series on how local government finance officers can make a BIG impact when given a seat at the table! 

In a previous post, we looked at why finance professionals can help their organizations and themselves by assuming a leadership role in strategic planning. For those who want to build leadership skills and have more influence throughout the local government, here are some ideas for getting started:

  • Put down your to-do list for a moment and try to see yourself the way others see you. Colleagues will take their cues from your behavior: an accessible, approachable person will encourage others to do their best. But, they will actively avoid someone who appears aloof or only speaks up to say “No.”
  • Find out what people in other departments are working on and offer to help. Invite colleagues out for coffee to learn what they’re excited about and ask to help out in their big-picture planning and strategy sessions. Talk about how a partnership can make your organization run in a high-value way.
  • Set aside regular time to think about the big picture. Where do you want your own department to be six months from now? Five years? How does that fit with the community’s larger vision? Figure out what’s holding it back and brainstorm strategies to move it toward your vision.
  • Communicate your vision for the finance role in running local government. Make sure people understand you want to guarantee there are enough resources to fulfill the public’s priorities, and find different ways to spread your vision throughout the organization.

It’s also important to avoid the traps that can befall any local-government leader, but especially those with a finance background.

  • Embrace some risk, or at least be open to the possibility. Avoiding risk at all costs will mean avoiding opportunities.
  • Don’t ignore problems and hope they’ll go away. They won’t. Keep an eye out for potential problems, acknowledge them as they arise and develop strategies – with the help of others – to solve them.
  • Share information freely, especially information that affects others. Colleagues don’t like it when surprises pop up, and they will remember such incidents in future dealings.
  • Pay attention to everyone. When you only grease the squeaky wheel, you often lose everyone else.
  • Even as you’re fulfilling the traditional roles of a finance professional such as overseeing audits and paying the bills, keep an eye on the longer-term focus.
  • As you build relationships with colleagues, also help the manager and governing body meet their goals. Undermining leadership may be expedient, but it’s never a good strategy for moving the organization forward.

As you’re building your leadership qualities, don’t forget the management functions. It’s the combination of both skill sets that will best help your organization and you personally:

  • As you and others are generating great ideas, follow them with the business processes needed to bring them to life. Who’s taking responsibility for carrying out the innovation? Marry vision and execution by including everyone in both processes.
  • Find a few people on your team who are in a position to give you honest assessments. Some leaders tend to get carried away with their own enthusiasm and can benefit from a reality check. Avoid those who are consistently negative, but find colleagues w
    ho can give an honest appraisal so you’re sure to consider all angles.
  • Use flexible systems such as performance management, long-term financial planning and five-year forecasts or models to bring to life the vision that officials develop.                                                                                                                    

Whatever your instincts are, you’ll be most effective if you let them shine and also push yourself to develop the areas that don’t come naturally. This is especially true for finance professionals. Those skills, always central to the success of a local government, are needed more today than ever. By improving traditional skills and updating the role to include more strategy and vision, finance and budget directors will help their organizations and themselves to be successful.

Books to check out:


Check back next Wednesday for Beyond Bean Counting: Leader vs. Manager.

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