It may be slightly ironic that my first contribution to Financial Director is just after relinquishing the role of UK and Asia finance director for Incisive Media (the company that publishes Financial Director), but I do get why. I recently asked the business to take a leap of faith (and frankly, took one myself) and give me a commercial role, running our consumer magazine portfolio.
I was asked to write a blog on how this came to be and some early perceptions on my brave new world. Firstly and importantly, there is nothing wrong with a career in finance: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the often varied, usually frantic, always fun 15 years in this game as I’ve worked my way through Incisive. But for me the financial path was always a fantastic grounding which would provide the opportunity to go in any direction I choose.
If you want to make the bold (so people keep telling me) transition out of finance, I think you need an absolute ambition and desire, a plan and a little bit of luck. And lucky for me, I work for an entrepreneurial business that encourages people to step up to new challenges. I have reinvented myself and written my own job description more than once! I think that is a vital skill to facilitate a leap in to a more commercial role – ambition and desire alone may not be enough. And convincing someone who does not know you and what you are capable of that you can run their business is a big ask.
So an opportunity came up internally, I proposed a daft idea to our group MD and I suddenly find myself responsible for generating the revenue, rather than reporting it, which is, if I am honest, a little bit OMG! A month ago, I would dismiss people complaining about recharges as irritating; I’d accuse people bringing their numbers back of being girly-men (to use Arnold Schwarzennegger’s term to describe those in the state legislature of California who disagreed with his budget) and I had the luxury of seeing all the effort that goes into running a business distilled into mere numbers, then squashed again into one number at the bottom of the page. That’s not to say that I didn’t practice what we all call being a business partner or a commercial FD – I believe I did – but honestly, this is a whole new ball game.
In finance I had a team of 60 people spread over three continents. Pretty responsible stuff, but not in the least bit daunting because I got it – I knew what they all did, how it worked, what was right or not and how we could improve it, because I had done all their jobs at some point in my career.
Now I have sales, marketing, circulation, production, design and editorial teams reporting to me. I have not done any of these jobs before. I am completely, totally and utterly outside of my comfort zone. And I am completely, totally and utterly loving it.
I am probably approaching this role very differently than the guys around me are used to and I am quite sure there was a perception issue around a finance man taking an operational role on that can probably only be fully resolved in time. It’s all very well for me to say that I am coming to this because I want to, I have no agenda and so on. But if I was on the team, I would want to know what on earth the beancounter was doing in charge of my brand. For them to make the same leap of faith our management has in employing me in this job, it is going to take time, honesty and for me to walk the walk. Some have made that journey in their head and understand me already; others I can see are part of the way there; and one or two I am sure will remain cynical for some time. Don’t do this if you are into short-term popularity.
The other thing is that while finance is always going to play a part in this role, I am being very specific in spending time getting under the skin of all other aspects of the business; I’m probably irritating the living daylights out of everyone by questioning everything and insisting on sitting open-plan on a different bank of desks every day. But being exposed to all of these new things is incredible. And I find that, yes, I can (for the most part) talk intelligently, have valid ideas, and have all of a sudden unleashed a level of creativity and variety in thinking that is surprising and exciting me.
It’s not all plain sailing. I sat in my first magazine cover sign-off meeting the other day; I was presented with the options and asked my opinion, which frankly was “I haven’t got a clue”. Some things can only come from experience and learning from the people who know best – the team already knew which cover would sell the most magazines, so I asked them to teach me. The most important leadership lesson I have learned is to have the right team around you, and I am lucky enough to have inherited a bunch of people who know exactly what they are doing.
I am on the biggest learning curve of my career so far, and I need to get up to speed fast. But one month in, the most surprising lesson for me so far is that this is a lot less scary than I thought it was going to be. The interaction throughout the organisation you have as FD, the unique view you get of absolutely everything, the multitude of things you are involved with and have influence over, and the relationships you forge within the business are not to be underestimated when moving onto an operational role.
Being an FD is a great job in itself but if you want to make the transition into a more commercially-facing role, you already have most of what you need to do it. So take the leap of faith – but do be careful what you wish for.
Marc Hartog is group publishing director for Incisive Media’s personal technology group, publisher of The British Journal of Photography and ComputerActive magazine. Until December he was finance director for the UK and Asia for Incisive Media.
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