View from the headhunters: disaster management

The alternative – dealing with disasters – may take time, cause worry and be
bad for your home life, but it can also be extremely useful for your
professional development.

It’s normally a good idea to enjoy success in the early stages of your
career. If you graduate into a role at a large, blue-chip corporation, it
becomes a mark of distinction on your CV. But as your career develops, so do the
demands placed upon you and your skill set. Experiencing a business problem is
part of that skill set. Apart from anything else, it helps you read the signals
next time round.

A CEO deliberating over which finance director to hire has to plan for every
eventuality, and that includes the possibility of major trauma. Thus, it is
often very useful and reassuring to consider appointing an FD who has worked
through something akin to a disaster, and knows firstly what it looks like, and
secondly how to manage a successful way out of it.

We have all heard people say: ‘I learnt more in those 12 months than I did in
the previous five years’. They’re normally talking about bad times, not good.
This is when the finance department can really make its mark. When you see
firsthand what part of a business is likely to creak under pressure, that
teaches you where to look first in any new business. This is also when you learn
the harsh lesson that you must cut once, and cut deep – but, often you have to
live through a death by a thousand cuts before you realise it.

One business I know had been successful for so long that the FD started
creating fake problems, simply to give the finance team the chance to experience
life in a crisis.

Of course, you can’t create a disaster out of thin air – heaven forbid – and
you won’t deliberately move to a business that is about to go bankrupt, just so
you can get the experience. However, you can make sure you don’t try to leave an
internal division just because it is facing a challenging year, or that you
don’t avoid joining one for the same reason.

Yes, it will give you a tough 12 months, and I’m not suggesting for one
second that you will enjoy it until it’s finished, but in ten years’ time, when
the last question you are asked in an interview is, ‘Tell me about your biggest
challenge,’ you’ll be glad you went through it.

Mark Freebairn is a partner at Odgers Ray & Berndtson

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