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Tackling the unexpected

By Robert Outram

Colin McLellan CA, Chief Financial Officer at travellers’ price comparison website Skyscanner and a finalist in this year’s 35 CAs Under 35, is one of the speakers at the ICAS Conference on 20 September. 

The theme of the conference is ‘Expect the Unexpected’ and we asked him how his CA training and experience have helped him to deal with the unexpected in his role at Skyscanner.

In your current role, what kind of factors can present unexpected challenges?

Anything at all, and not just surprises that relate to finance. It can be anything across the business. ‘Expect the unexpected’ is really appropriate; to be prepared for the unexpected is more to do with the mindset of knowing how you will react to the unexpected when it does occur, rather than trying to ensure that everything will always go to plan.

In a fast moving business you want the unexpected to happen – to some extent anyway – as if everything always goes to plan, it’s usually a sign that assets and people aren’t being stretched enough. There’s probably the assumption that the ‘unexpected’ is always a bad thing – systems breaking, people leaving and so on, but it can also be a good surprise, such as the business growing faster than had been forecast.

That’s a nice thing to happen, but one which brings with it the challenge of scaling every part of the business quickly to cope with higher demand.

How are the nature of challenges, and responsibilities, different once one reaches the ‘C-suite’ level?

The technical finance and tax knowledge and expertise across the whole spectrum is expected. That is, fundamentally, the discipline that you represent at the ‘C-suite’ table.

What you focus on is less the day to day or week to week, and more on positioning the business for where it needs to be from six months’ time to the next five years. The real value-add is in relation to evaluating the medium to long-term trade-offs. It is as much about the discipline of what the business is not going to do, given that resources are often the largest constraint.

Can you give an example of how you dealt with an unexpected challenge? How did your experience and CA training help you to deal with it?

Being asked to help set up our joint venture in Tokyo was an unexpected challenge. My role there was as interim Chief Executive Officer and it was the first time I’d had to really immerse myself in every aspect of our business, from product, engineering and growth to recruitment and strategy – even down to arranging for a water cooler in the office!

My CA training helped in two ways:

  1. Discipline: prioritising what was important and just getting my head down and working through the list bit by bit.
  2. Being inquisitive: I wanted to understand everything and constructively challenge what I was being told; assume nothing. There’s a great Japanese saying, genchi genbutsu, which translates as “go and see for yourself”. That doesn’t mean I don’t trust people when they tell me things, but there’s a need a validate it.

Do you think the environment for business is more uncertain and unpredictable these days, or are we just more aware of it?

We’re just more aware of it because it’s happening right now: things always appear in more sharp relief in the present, compared to the increasingly soft focus of the past.

Take control over the outcomes that can be controlled, plan for how to respond to events that are outwith your control (but could plausibly occur) and be ready to react quickly and constructively to the unexpected.

This article was originally published in CA magazine.