Kate Boulton is Managing Director of Unbound, a ground-breaking direct to consumer, crowd funded publishing house based in London. Kate began her career in finance, working in a wide variety of businesses including Motorola, News International, Penguin Random House and MLex. She joined Unbound as general manager in 2020 before stepping up to the MD position in 2022.
What do you see as the main difference between being a finance lead and an MD?
I think the key thing for me is that I’ve always seen finance very much as a support function. So, you are there to guide, to advise, to assist and to offer opinions and suggestions. But the final decision ends with the MD or the CEO, and that’s probably the biggest change. It’s being that end decision maker and taking all the information that the experts in their areas are telling you, putting it all together and then using your own expertise and your own opinions to make that final decision.
So when you started your career in finance, was there a long term game plan?
There really wasn’t, there wasn’t even a game plan to go in to finance! I think most accountants that I always speak to you would say you fall into it because you’re good with numbers or you like numbers and you have a bit of a geeky side that wants to interrogate things and that was completely me. I did a business studies degree and I really liked the finance areas of it, and what I liked about it is that I went straight into a business partnering role, so I was always working alongside the business to make decisions and to support the business leaders that I was working with and that was where I got the gratification from the work. I think that’s probably what led me on to a less finance role in the future. That interest in how all the pieces go together and what element finance brings to that decision making process and I think it’s such a good foundation for an MD in that you’ve always got that to rely back on, the stats and on the facts and the figures, while also then layering it on with “what other considerations are there?” But it still comes back to that at the end of the day – we’re a business, we’re trying to make profit and what makes sense from a financial and business perspective. So being able to marry those two things together.
I think the biggest compliment I was ever given during an interview for a Finance role was that “you’re the least finance person I’ve ever met” and I walked out with a bit of a swagger after that because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. Finance can sometimes have quite a negative connotation with people in business because they think you’re the blocker or you’re the ‘no’ person or you’re trying get in the way. But if you’re business partnering properly and doing that financial support role well, you have to try and get to understand your business and the constraints that the people you’re working with are working under because if you don’t do that, then you’re limiting your influence in that role.
Even my first job I loved trying to understand “how does this part work?” even if it didn’t have a direct impact on my day-to-day role, being able to understand the overall business, what are our overall goals? how are we trying to achieve things? how did we make sales? what is the production piece or the supply chain element?
You make your role more interesting by understanding the business as a whole and I think that’s how I’ve moved into that more (general) leadership type role rather than looking directly at the finance side of the business.
What experience on your journey was critical to enabling you to eventually become an MD?
I think it was that curiosity, and that’s what I always look for when I’m recruiting people into finance roles, someone who is curious about the business and doesn’t just take numbers at face value, will go and delve into it and find the root causes of things. It’s that curiosity that has probably led me here in that, like I say, I don’t see finance as a siloed department.
If you’re out there talking to the rest of the business and understanding how things work, you’re automatically gaining knowledge that will help you in a future operational management role. Also just being open to opportunities and putting your hand up when they come along. The first non-finance piece I did was taking on customers service at MLex. People were saying “oh, you know, the manager (of Customer Service) has left, where do we put it? And I said “Well, actually, I’d really like to give that a go” and I learned on the job. But also you need to make sure that you do learn and yes, you’ll make mistakes, but figure out what you did and try and correct it for next time, because you’re not going to do it brilliantly the first time and listen to the team around you as well – sit in meetings, listen, absorb and gain as much knowledge as you can from people that you’re working with because they’ve all got different experiences, different expertise have been through different industries.
I’m also very lucky in that I have moved industry quite a lot in my career and I think that’s also really helped because you learn different ways of doing things and you see different managerial styles. I’ve been in big corporates and I’ve been in small businesses, and there’s good and bad about both and nobody’s got it right. We’re all still trying to figure out how to lead and how to gain the best corporate strategy that we can for the industry that we’re in, but it’s about taking those learnings from other places and seeing how you can apply it.
What particular skills would you say a CFO brings to an MD role?
That’s an interesting one – I definitely think, going back to the numbers piece, it’s that rigor and that structure – at the end of the day a business succeeds or falls on its financials and being able to understand the numbers quickly, being able to figure out what that means for the long term planning and just being in that structure of looking at the forecast, looking at cash flows and being able to kind of move the pieces around on a board to get to where you need to. Obviously the higher up in an organization you go, you’re having to deal with shareholders and they’re expecting you to have that financial understanding of the business. They don’t want you always palming them off to the CFO. They want a communication with you. So being able to assure them that you’re in control, you know what’s going on and putting whatever their concerns or queries are to rest is also very important.
You never leave the numbers behind completely. You might not be in day-to-day control of what’s happening – processing the month end, looking at suppliers and all that kind of thing – but at the end of the day, you’re responsible for that and I put my signature on to the company accounts so it’s important that I know how that’s happening and having that finance background gives me the confidence to know that I can explain what’s happening with the company; I can stand up in front of a group of shareholders and confidently say what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. So it’s the foundation of how I do my role and then everything I’ve learnt since has come on top of that.
What would you say the main challenges are in moving from a finance to a general management role and how did you overcome them?
It is having the strategic vision and getting people to buy into it. The difference with a finance role is that usually you’re enacting someone else’s strategy and you’re leading into it and you’re supporting it, in the leadership role you’re the person at the front of the room telling people this is where we’re going and why, and making sure that people will come with you on that journey and being credible enough that people believe what you’re telling them. You do need to make sure that whatever plans you’ve got that you’re communicating it clearly and to the people that you’re wanting to essentially enact them.
That’s one of my biggest learnings, being really transparent with people, and making sure that they understand what their role is, how it plays into the bigger picture – because that motivates them to be part of the company vision rather than feeling like they’re just a cog being moved along.
There’s also the people management element – suddenly you’re responsible for an entire company of people, whereas previously you were in a finance role and you were talking to very like-minded people. Now I’ve got a lot of creative people (reporting into me) that think very differently from my own numbers focused, logical brain and I’m working out different ways of communicating with them so that they’re still feeling engaged with the business, that they’re still feeling valued and feel that I’m recognizing their input as well, while having that very different mindset. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of it. People get reward and engagement from different things and it’s finding that to be able to motivate people to all work towards the same goals.
Also, you’re responsible for areas that you potentially don’t understand as well as you understand the finance function. So being open to discussion and making sure that people are aware that they’re allowed to challenge, they’re allowed to put their point of view across and it’s not a dictatorship, it is a community and that we’re all trying to work towards the same thing. It’s quite a humbling experience, being in charge of people that have got completely different skill-set to you and being able to sit down and ask “What do you think?” or “How would you do this?” and “Is this the right direction that we’re going in?”.
One of my previous bosses always used to say his job was hiring people that could do his job better and smarter than he could and that’s a really good piece of advice – get the experts in and then listen to them, because otherwise, why have you got them?
You should always be open to opinions, yes at the end of the day the final decision comes down to you, but it doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t input and that’s what I love about working in a smaller company. I know every single member of staff, I’ll have a chat with all of them and we’ll talk about what they’re doing, they can raise things with me, they can pick up the phone and have a conversation.
I always used to joke that (in this job) I always get my work done when everyone else goes home and I think in some ways that’s true especially (with hybrid working) on office days. I know on an office day I’m going to get much less of my own work done, and that’s absolutely fine, because I can work around that, I see my office days as when I’m most accessible to everybody to ask questions. If you really need to get your head down and get something done, if you’ve got a shareholder report or other really big piece of work that you need to get done, then that’s what I do on my working from home days and you can kind of block out time to do that. It’s ‘people first’, making sure that the people in your organization are operating as best they can is definitely, definitely number one goal.
Also (you need to) not be afraid to make tough decisions because obviously that is (also) your role -unfortunately, we’ve just been through a period of redundancies which we needed to go through to restructure the company and that’s always hard because it’s a small company and you know everyone. But you know that for the longer-term health of the company, those are the decisions that you need to make.
Would you ever go back to finance?
I’d find that really difficult now (but) I suppose it would depend on the role and the industry, but I think for me, a lot of the enjoyment of my job comes out of the diversity of what I do, and that I’m still learning. That’s what I love about it. So every day I’m still learning something else about a different part of the organization, a different process.
I think I would find it quite hard to narrow that back down just to the financials again. But who knows, I guess I think I didn’t have a plan at the beginning and I still don’t really!
Would you still go down the finance route now if you had your time again?
I definitely would, I really enjoyed my early career and I learned so much from it. I mentioned I’ve switched industries a few times and I think finance is one of the rare skill-sets that actually enables you to do that. You don’t have to specialize in a certain industry, you can take your skill set and apply it to any industry. Every company needs finance. That broadened my horizons quite early on in my career and I’ve worked with sales teams, tech teams, with journalists and with editors. You can learn a lot by chopping and changing a little bit with finance. So personally, I would still go down finance because that’s what’s given me the foundation and the confidence, to be able to do this MD role.
I think it really depends on you as a person and what you want to do, but if you’ve got that natural interest in business and want to look outside of your prescribed remit just nurture it, talk to people and get involved, ask questions and see where you go from there because opportunities come up and just be prepared to jump at them.
Was your first role as an MD role, an external move?
In the role before this, I went in as the CFO and then I took on some of the operational roles while I was there. So that’s kind of what I mean about taking opportunities, really. There was a project that needed doing and I wanted to do it and it was looking at migrating off a very old CRM onto a new one and it (involved) sales, technology and customer service and that’s how I started moving into a more operational role and then I took on some of the marketing responsibility. When I came into this role, I originally came in as a kind of COO/CEO with the view that when our current CEO at the time moved on, I would move up into the role and that’s exactly what happened.
I would say it’s probably easier when you’re in an organization already to make that step because people know you, they trust you, they’re willing to give you that extra responsibility. That’s not to say it obviously doesn’t happen outside of that, but I think from my point of view, the reason that I’m here today is because I was given that opportunity, because I proved myself as the CFO and people knew I was a safe pair of hands but also knew that finance wasn’t the be all and end all of what I was looking to do and were prepared to give me those opportunities to develop in other areas.
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