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Self-confessed tech enthusiast and head of finance for channels at M&S, Baron Anyangwe shares his career path and the importance of creating space for different perspectives.

“You could say I haven’t had a conventional journey to get to my role,” says Baron Anyangwe, who has worked for M&S for two years in two different head of finance roles.

“But what makes me different to my other colleagues are the different experiences and perspectives I bring – either from work or lived experiences.”

Baron, who is originally from Cameroon, has lived and worked in eight different countries and in multiple specialisms across the private and public sector.

After studying mechanical engineering with business management at university, followed by a master’s in technology management, Baron began his career in a graduate programme at KPMG in tax advisory, where he became an accountant.

He then moved to IG Group to be an investment trader, after wanting to explore what he thought would be an “exciting journey into the world of stocks and shares”.

But after a gruelling two years, he left to spend a month in Burundi working with two NGOs on their finance systems.

“I got lots of fulfilment from using my finance skills to help build the financial management capability of small charities, which also really appealed to me in my next role,” says Baron, who then took a job as a management consultant with Accenture after working for a couple of years as a commercial finance business partner at the telecoms company EE.

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“I’d always wanted to be a management consultant to get a broader understanding of business,” he says. “But what was really exciting about Accenture was the work it did with NGOs through its Accenture Development Partnership arm.”

Following Accenture, Baron branched out to a management consultancy role in a boutique public sector consultancy, working directly with local authorities to set up alternative delivery models for the running of public services, before moving to another professional services firm where he worked on change transformation programmes for a number of large private sector clients.

“Being able to pivot is the one thing I hold on to very closely,” says Baron, who believes that different perspectives as a result of a range of experiences – be they professional or personal – should be valued within the finance function and wider business world.

“Embracing different perspectives can support the development of more innovative solutions and enable better problem-solving,” he says.

It’s this strive for innovation that originally attracted Baron to a role at M&S, where he joined as the head of finance operational excellence in M&S’s food arm.

“The team was looking to be the benchmark finance team in business, and that instantly appealed to me,” he says.

When he moved to the role, his first objectives were to lead the reinvigoration of the team towards a ‘transformation mindset’ and to improve the effectiveness of financial reporting by looking at what could be stopped, automated or changed to better address the needs of stakeholders.

Want to learn more? Check out ‘How to ensure the success of your transformation project’

Another objective was to develop a model that would be used to generate insights on profitability at a product level – something that had always been discussed in the team but never implemented.

“It was a prerequisite in my interview that if I were to join, I would have absolute senior stakeholder commitment that once we were on this journey, we were sticking to it – and also have the funds to get on with it,” says Baron.

“You get a lot of teams talking about the future, but it goes nowhere. At group level at M&S, progress was slow, given it required coordination across different business units, whereas within the food business we could be a lot nimbler. Almost like the difference between being in a speedboat compared to a submarine.”

The team set about shedding, automating, and consolidating and looked at improving the data available to enable better business decisions.

“From a finance team perspective, the key was also trying to paint a picture of what the future could look like for the team,” Baron says.

“In finance, we are moving from reporting numbers to actually generating insights and recommendations on the right course of action based on the numbers.

“That’s the value digital tools give us – they give us time to focus on the ‘why’ and the ‘so what’, rather than simply ‘here are the numbers’.”

Baron believes his role – and the future role of finance teams – is to provide those business insights based on data, trends and overall context using his own unique perspective.

“The more we embody different experiences within our teams, the more we can minimise the impact of our unconscious biases, and the more we’re able to appeal as a business to a wider pool of customers.

“Being able to see the same problem through different lenses, we’re likely to come up with a solution that’s much better than any one of us coming up with the solution through similar lenses,” he says.

At M&S, they’ve launched an initiative entitled ‘safe space conversations’ to try and encourage this diversity of thought and the humility to embrace it.

In this scheme, colleagues in small groups can chat through difficult topics of conversation, sharing opinions and experiences without judgement. Previous topics have included Black Lives Matter, privilege and gender discrimination.

“We’re trying to encourage people to be more open with each other. We’re hoping through the environment of psychological safety that is created, teams can become a lot more creative and collaborative as people bring their whole selves to work,” says Baron.

“Through the acceptance of difference, we’ll hopefully get solutions that leave us better off than if we ignored our differences.”

Want to hear more about Baron’s digital journey? Watch replay of Baron’s session at Generation CFO Live, here!