Successful businesses need a culture of making it happen, says James Owen, Kantar’s Profiles division Global CFO.
“Too often I’ve seen that people prefer to find excuses or historical reasons why something hasn’t happened.”
Instead, James suggests: “The real skill comes in when the team can reframe the question in the first place and ask ‘how can we make this happen together’ or look at what needs to be true to bring the idea to fruition.”
This aim is complemented by the values he wants to instil within his own team. He believes it will help them make better decisions in the first place. This includes ensuring non-negotiable transparency, prioritising consensus-based views and championing diversity.
“I can’t stand little empires, people holding money back and playing a negotiation game with budgets,” he explains. He believes goal congruence requires everybody to be totally transparent and pulling in the same directions so they can make informed decisions at the board level.
“Individual fiefdoms and sandbagging can only destroy shareholder value,” he says.
This transparency also helps build consensus-based scenario planning, where decisions can be explored and talked about before they’re enacted.
He suggests organisations need a safe space where the numbers will not be used as a stick to beat you with.
“It might even be a choice not to invest in a certain market, a brand, hire this person or that person, but everyone can see why that decision has been made, and consequently – even if they don’t agree in the room – they leave the room backing that decision because at least they feel like they were heard and they understand the logic,” he says.
Diversity is key
Another thing that helps ensure smarter decisions is diversity.
“As a global CFO, one of the best bits about my job is seeing across many different cultures as well as the different ways of working and thinking that can foster within a business,” says James.
“That’s been a huge benefit for me coming into this organisation, because it helps avoid groupthink and challenges the status quo further.”
These values have developed over a career in which James has frequently faced glass ceilings and where resilience has helped guide him through those challenges.
“I don’t think it is uncommon for imposter syndrome to be operating just under the surface during a lot of people’s careers and I’m not an outlier in that regard,” he says.
At school James was ultimately a shy mathematician who also happened to be quite good at football. Consequently, his original career ambition was in professional football.
However, when he didn’t secure a senior contract at Bradford City, he left that path behind and went on to study maths at University.
“Football was such an alpha male world and over time that became an adapted part of my DNA, but when I entered the accounting world I quickly realised I had to unlearn that behaviour once again in order to adapt,” says James.
By the time he was hired into larger organisations he felt he was a bit of an outsider.
“I hadn’t been to the right universities and I hadn’t been part of a graduate scheme. But I used that perspective as drive to out-perform my peers, which certainly was the case by the time I had qualified with CIMA.”
Life in the boardroom
A fast-track finance career can bring other challenges, which has further fuelled his desire for personal growth. James landed his first C suite role at just 29.
“In finance, the perceived wisdom is that you want an old head in your CFO role and a dynamic young buck as the MD.”
“It’s fair to say the first five years in the boardroom was a battle with that unspoken discrimination, at least until I had grown the required number of grey hairs.”
Instead of letting this intimidate him, James has used it to his advantage. Not least in becoming the youngest ever council member appointed to CIMA’s global board, effectively a NED position, for the last 6 years.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work across many sectors which gives you great breadth of understanding at how businesses fit together, both their commonalities and just as importantly, their differences,” he says.
A very non-specific sets of skills
James is a massive believer in cross-fertilisation of skills across sectors. Where it used to be the norm for people to spend 20 years in the same company, we now see a trend for more career movement and development.
“It’s too easy for leaders to throw mud at millennials,” says James. “With the argument centring around that we can’t concentrate, we don’t knuckle down and stick something out through tougher times.
“However, I think our ability to digest many things at once and bring new perspectives via a multitude and diverse set of experiences is a huge asset.”
Now he wants to use those different perspectives he has been exposed to in his global role at Kantar to help face the many challenges the sector is coming up against.
Dealing with changes and challenges
“I’m very energised by the fact that the accounting profession – in fact all professions – are facing a huge challenge with AI. The classical ‘input-formula-output’ methodical approach is in huge danger of becoming obsolete within 20 years’ time. What can’t be easily replicated is value creation and opinion, so that’s what I’m particularly passionate about” he says.
With all these obstacles ahead – not least including the continuing pandemic, the great resignation and the consequences of Brexit – James feels confident about the future and his ability to continue developing that culture of making it happen.
“I think most people are through that initial hump of the pandemic. Getting people excited about business growth gets a hell of a lot easier when you’ve got momentum in the first place,” says James.
“At Kantar we’ve had a phenomenal 2021, both financially and commercially, so everyone is excited. With that, it becomes easier to retain and attract talent. So, it’s an exciting time to be in the business.”
James’ Power Profile
What music empowers him?
“In my school life, everyone was divided between Oasis and Blur, and for me the Gallagher brothers won that hands down. One of the songs that empowered me at the time and still means a lot to me today is Live Forever.
Having said that, as a former footballer, there is truly no comparison to having won a competition and blasting out Queen’s We are the Champions in the dressing room.”
Who is his hero?
“Critical thinkers inspire me – especially those who think completely outside the box until the world catches up. So, historically Galileo or Nikola Tesla. But I think a modern equivalent would be Elon Musk – I don’t necessarily like the guy but my God, he inspires me in terms of the way he thinks, the stretching goals he sets and the way he goes about it.”