Beyond Bean Counting: Leading from the Finance Department

This is the first installment of a four-part series written by ELGL member organization Management Partners on how local government finance officers can make a BIG impact when given a seat at the table.


credit: Merriam-Webster Dictionary


Be honest: do you sometimes see finance officers as giant buzzkills who come in at the end of all the hard planning work just to tell you your local government can’t afford your terrific idea?

And if you’re a finance professional, do you see the uncomfortable look colleagues get when you walk into the room where they’re discussing their favorite projects? Are you frustrated to see them put a lot of work in on an idea, only to find at the end there were never enough resources to pay for it?

There’s a problem here. Many finance officers act as managers, rather than leaders. Those management skills are important – somebody needs to be watching the books! But they have much more to offer. If finance officers work on developing leadership skills, and are involved in planning and strategy, everyone wins: finance professionals learn skills that will help them enjoy their jobs more and advance their careers; their colleagues and organizations will benefit from having their perspective included throughout the lifecycle of projects.

Well-run local governments are most effective when their finance people are involved long before the bills are due. It’s not enough for finance folks to support “how” things get done; they need to be involved when the “why” is figured out too.

Budget and finance directors who are involved across the organization can shape expectations and identify opportunities early on, when there is plenty of time to make a difference. They can set the foundation for strategic planning process through fiscal analysis and long-term financial planning and become a trusted advisor to the elected officials, chief executive officer, and other leaders. But doing that effectively requires different skills, including creative thinking, long-range planning and solid communication skills.

Mastering those skills can be hard for people who are more comfortable as gate-keeper than guide. It requires:

  • a focus on priorities rather than constraints;
  • promoting innovation instead of rewarding conformity;
  • becoming a trusted advisor rather than a regulator; and
  • an emphasis on coaching instead of criticizing.

It’s hard to change organizational culture. If finance professionals in your local government have always played the role of figuring out whether everyone can afford what they want, it may take some work to convince your colleagues to involve finance folks as they make plans and develop strategies for their initiatives. Finance folks…you’ll need to earn their trust and your place at the planning table.

Books to check out:


Check back next Saturday morning for the next installment –
Beyond Bean Counting: How to Lead.