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Brave new world part II: Feel the fear and do it anyway

If you read my first blog post you’ll recall that I had recently made what people keep telling me was a bold move from an FD role in to an operational role, running the part of our publishing business that houses our consumer brands, the British Journal of Photography (the oldest photography magazine in the world) and Computeractive (the UK’s best selling technology magazine). I said I’d report on my progress and what I’d learned a little later – and on ultimately, whether placing a finance man in to an operational job was a sensible move for me and for the business with the benefit of six months of hindsight.

The first thing to say is that the luck I talked about last time has followed me. I have taken on two incredible brands and a team of highly talented people, who have helped me climb a pretty steep learning curve. I now feel very much like a man with a plan, rather than staring up a big scary mountain. I now have six teams reporting to me including journalists and design people, whose jobs I will never know as well as they do. I realise now that, rhetoric aside, inheriting and building the right team is more important than ever if you are thinking of making a similar move.

Something we have to do as FDs is question everything, and bringing that to the table in an operational role I have found to be very powerful. We have identified a whole host of opportunities and I have made good use of knowing my way round the numbers to understand the history and trends, accept where things are structurally challenged and quickly identify where we need to reshape the business models. The finance team has been a great resource to me even after I’ve left the fold, and I have found that in this role I am actually better able to make good that golden concept of involving the management accounts team more as business partners, which means that I continue to develop and work with my old team but in a commercial environment. That said, I am quite sure that I am their biggest nightmare.

fear-jpgAs FD you get used to seeing the big picture through internal business cases, strategy and budget presentations and information memorandums. If you are like me, you probably also quite often find yourself saying, ‘why don’t they just…’ A health warning here – it is very, very different having to do it. It is also very different having personal responsibility for delivering a multi-million pound budget. I have dozens more of those irritating wiry white hairs on my head as a result.

The one thing I was probably most terrified of in taking this job on was sitting in front of a client and having to pitch our wares. Strange, because I am an extrovert by nature – the Myers-Briggs test would call me ENTJ – but the number one scary thing for me was sales. So I eased myself in by going along to a sales meeting with the team to pitch an early-stage idea, sponsoring the first edition of an upcoming iPad app launch. I went as an observer, but in the event I didn’t shut up; when they asked the inevitable ‘how much’ question, they were all looking at me. I braced myself, thought of a number, doubled it, and tried to keep a straight face as it came out of my mouth. They wrote it down and we carried on talking. My biggest fear was suddenly something I had now done.

I won’t pretend to have suddenly become the world’s greatest salesperson, but I have come to the realisation that as FD, two things happen often. First, you are selling all the time: granted, it is numbers, facts, figures and business cases rather than iPad apps, event sponsorship and online or magazine campaigns, but putting the same preparation and thought in to a sales presentation and media pack as you do to bank presentations, shareholders, the board or anyone else for that matter is not so different. Second, you are sold to all the time by suppliers, banks, landlords, recruitment consultants, staff, and so on – the point being that you are already accomplished at negotiating from the other side of the table, and you have seen literally every sales technique there is employed against you. Swapping sides is not as frightening a prospect as you may think.

Things I am loving: creativity – being part of the conversation and process for making something real out of an idea; learning – something new every day; mixing – with new people and people in different roles, and really understanding what they do and how they do it; using – my finance skill set to new and interesting uses; passion – for ‘my’ brands; and the variety.

Not so good stuff: Twittering – I am still not convinced it isn’t ’emperors new clothes’ syndrome, but I admit to now feeling the need to tweet random meanderings about our brands, media ponderings and the occasional ‘other’ thought at twitter.com/marchartog; I miss my old team (but they never visit! perhaps punishment for going native); I miss that birds-eye view the FD enjoys. The days fly by and I need to find more time to engage with a lot of the people I used to enjoy knowing as FD; From time to time, I miss the comfort of knowing my job and my teams jobs inside out.

That said, would I change things? No. Have I made the right move? 100 percent yes. Do I ever see myself moving back to a pure finance role? At the moment I have to say no. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun and that I am not grateful for what an education and career in finance gave me. But this is an exciting new chapter in my career and I am fascinated to see where it takes me next.

Marc Hartog is group publishing director for a division of Incisive Media, the publisher of Financial Director magazine.

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