How Slack's Finance & BizOps Team Earned Their "Seat at the Table"
Chris Burgner | | 7 min read
Operator’s Dilemma Series
Every company leverages a shortlist of models and frameworks to run their business but the stories behind their development are often the best kept secrets in the industry.
We're excited to continue our Operator’s Dilemma series where we go behind the scenes to share insights from the best builders and operators in tech.
The Partnership Mentality
Operators are in the partnership business. We’re meant to be in the trenches with frontline teams, providing insights and challenging assumptions to help those teams achieve their goals and build alignment across company initiatives. This ideal end-state is commonly referred to as “earning a seat at the table” but making it a reality is easier said than done.
We sat down with Matt Heist to learn from his experience successfully leading and scaling the Finance and Business Operations (“BizOps”) teams at Slack from two to 70+ in his seven years with the company.
In this post, he shares his framework for building a team of trusted thought partners throughout the company.
"The Finance and BizOps team’s approach to building relationships with stakeholders at Slack was critical in our ability to connect the dots from insights to action. Matt’s framework of starting with the basics coupled with taking a long-term view earned the team a seat at the table. Finance was a critical partner in helping teams meet and exceed their goals across the company."
Why the Basics Come First
In pursuit of their seat at the table, most operators make the mistake of thinking the path to success begins by quickly building revolutionary analyses, complex financial models or detailed presentations on strategic positioning. This is especially true at earlier stage companies. They eagerly await the chance to showcase their brilliant work to C-suite but are surprised when that day never comes, or worse, dejected when their findings fall on deaf ears.
Matt’s seen this approach crash and burn many times in his career. The problem is simple, too few operators take the time to focus on the basics. They’re under a false illusion that complexity equates to quality when it comes to insights.
Instead, Matt recommends a strategy that starts by focusing intently on the building blocks required to run the day-to-day business like tracking budgets, headcount and top-line KPIs like conversion rates, coupled with building the muscle of tracking those metrics on a regular cadence. By doing this, operators can provide critical insights to their stakeholders and start the process of earning the trust required to grow into more complex, strategic analysis.
In Matt’s time at Slack, treating partnership as a journey, rather than a sprint, proved invaluable in the Finance and BizOps teams becoming critical thought-partners throughout the company.
The Path to Earning a Seat at the Table
In 2015, Matt joined Slack as employee ~120 to lead Corporate Finance and Business Operations. By the time left in 2022, his org had grown to 70+ and helped support Slack raise multiple private funding rounds, go public via direct-listing and eventually sell to Salesforce for $28 billion in 2021.
Reflecting on this experience, Matt compares the success of his approach to building the team, and earning the trust of cross functional partners, to that of Maslow’s hierarchy where the path to “self actualization” (i.e. earning a seat at the table) can only be achieved by tending to fundamental needs before venturing into more complex areas.
The below graphic provides a translation between each stage.
In addition to charting the course to self actualization, the framework is an important reminder that each stage in the pyramid requires continuous attention. Even when moving to more advanced needs, you can’t survive without the fundamentals of food, shelter and clothing.
In the real world, the lines between these stages are blurred and teams can move between them at different velocities. However, studying the framework and taking a long-term, partnership approach to earning trust will help to navigate the uncertainty.
The Fundamentals (food, shelter and clothing)
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” - Richard Covey
Start by putting yourself in the shoes of the leader you’re partnering with and focus on what they need visibility into today that the team can quickly deliver. Resist the temptation to offer opinions, instead arm them with facts to achieve their goals.
Scope of Work
While examples can differ by functional team, and your remit within Finance and BizOps, the goal is to identify the building blocks to success that require constant attention like nailing budgets and headcount tracking.
Budgets will help leaders quickly understand where they’re over or under investing and if those investments are focused in the right areas. Headcount is crucial as falling behind in hiring is the surest way to miss KPIs: how can a team achieve ambitious goals when not at full capacity?
This is also an important time to plant the seed on investing in a company-level data strategy. Oftentimes, Finance and BizOps teams can interpret the data needs of functional leaders but lack the technical skills required to build the backend data models to power analysis at scale.
Addressing this early is essential for setting expectations and addressing data quality and accessibility concerns before they become a constraint on company growth. Managing these expectations can be especially critical for stakeholders coming from larger, more established, companies who tend to be accustomed to more sophisticated reporting.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach but other “Fundamentals” examples across the Finance and BizOps landscape include:
Getting to a repeatable cadence on measuring these metrics can take six months to two years to really nail, depending on the complexity of the design. However, even after reaching that point the work is never done but you will become more efficient at assimilating the information. What used to take 10 hours might only take 2. This increased efficiency is the first sign that the team is getting ready for the next stage.
The external sign comes when business partners start asking for opinions vs. just the numbers. Questions like “what do you think about [x], or what would happen if [y]” start to emerge, followed by invitations to more staff meetings and decision making conversations.
At this point, the team is ready to move into Trust & Partnership.
Trust & Partnership (relationship building)
While the Fundamentals stage covers more tangible facts and figures, Trust & Partnership transitions into the art form of Finance and BizOps: forecasting, planning and relationship building.
Scope of Work
As the team succeeds in delivering here-and-now insights, they will inevitably be asked what the future might look like through forecasting. This presents an opportunity to demonstrate a holistic understanding of the business, a key step in earning trust with stakeholders.
It’s important to understand that forecasting is more art than science. The accuracy of any forecast depends on the quality of the assumptions behind it and nailing those assumptions requires an ability to synthesize diverse sets of information and identify patterns and dependencies across the business.
Being able to bring that information together, synthesize it into actionable insights and clearly communicate those insights back to leaders is how trust is earned. Matt described this process as “connecting the dots” and it quickly became one of the most important skill sets he looked for in building out the team.
Another important role in this stage is driving cross functional projects. A great example of this is setting up regular go-to-market metrics meetings that require input across Product/Growth, Sales, Marketing and Executive Leadership teams. When done right, Finance and BizOps teams can shape these meetings to deliver critical updates on company-level goals and facilitate discussions to remove blockers across teams.
Hopefully, a centralized Data Team has formed at this point, along with a partnership between them and Finance and BizOps to help drive other “Trust & Partnership” projects forward including:
Similar to the Fundamentals stage, the effort required to succeed here will take a few years to get right, even as the team scales.
As they succeed in leading cross functional projects and deepening trust with stakeholders, they will become so embedded in the orgs they support that lines of reporting will start to blur.
At this point, the team will have earned a seat at the table.
A Seat at the Table (self actualization)
Once the team has earned a seat at the table, they are able to offer opinions, challenge assumptions and play a role in decision-making support from first principles.
Scope of Work
As the team becomes proficient in connecting the dots within their functional teams and across the organization, they can provide insights and perspectives to help leaders consistently meet and exceed targets.
From there, a domino effect kicks off across the company. R&D has the resources needed to build and ship product on schedule, Marketing has optimized their ToF strategy to build the pipeline needed for Sales to meet and exceed bookings targets. Also, Support and Solutions teams have the bandwidth to address customer needs and set them up for success, leading to better retention.
While there’s no such thing as perfection, this approach to partnership can help solidify Finance and BizOps as a critical, and even irreplaceable, component to the success of the teams they support.
Leading up to this point, you may want to consider creating a dedicated data insights team within Finance and BizOps. This can significantly uplevel insights and autonomy across other exemplary “Seat at the Table” projects including:
It’s important to celebrate making it this far but don’t lose sight of what got the team here: a constant focus on the fundamentals and a deliberate, thoughtful approach to building trust through a partnership mentality.
Matt's framework is a great reminder that becoming a true partner to stakeholders, and earning their trust, doesn’t happen overnight. The first step is to embrace the basics and invest the time in laying a solid foundation that will eventually earn you a seat at the table: the self actualization moment for any operator.
By Chris Burgner
Head of Finance & Analytics at Equals