Tim Willcox is currently RVP at global AdTech business, PubMatic. Before transitioning across to general management, Tim had built a career in finance which included seven years as Group Financial Controller at ZenithOptimedia, he then joined Aegis Group (now dentsu) as a Commercial Finance Director for global clients before moving on to become CFO and finally Managing Director for four years at Dentsu’s programmatic division Amnet. He is now Regional MD at PubMatic, a Nasdaq independent Adtech company delivering digital advertising’s supply chain of the future.
A CFO role is a strategic role helping to drive the direction of the business. What do you see the main difference between being a finance lead and being the MD/ CEO?
CFOs historically were reporting the past, but this has changed dramatically over recent years and is a much more forward-looking role. In general, the CEO defines the overall strategy and the CFO identifies the business implications. The MD has moved from being the manager into a coaching role, fulfilling the direction the overall company wants to take under a CEO, motivating and managing the team.
When you started your career in finance, was there a long-term game plan? At what point did you realise you wanted a more general management role?
I went into finance because I didn’t know what else to do but knew that I wanted a business grounding and felt that finance was a route to this. I built a career step by step and moved my career goals as I moved through my career – never looking too far ahead. I believe you have to work above your station and get promoted. It’s not just about doing your job really well, you have to go beyond that. I have always focussed on overachieving in my current role. Some people have a goal at the start to be a Finance Director but I never did, I was only focussed on learning, doing my job well and the next step.
What experience on your journey was critical to enabling you to become an MD?
I was CFO for a subsidiary start up with Dentsu (Amnet), and this gave me a breadth of experience including operational exposure. From there I was offered a commercial role which was a sideways move that later enabled me to move forward. I worked on a pitch with a senior colleague and provided a level of support that they didn’t know they needed. Four months later I was offered a commercial role in that specific business unit ( I had previously worked in a group role across the business). Six months later the MD role came up, so I was in the right place at the right time, but I engineered being in that right place!
What particular skills does a CFO/ finance person bring to the CEO role? What advantage do you think a finance background gives you as an MD?
As a divisional MD, one of the key reasons for my success within Dentsu was the relationship I had with the CFO. I could speak the right language and knew what the CFO wanted. For example if I wanted to make an extra hire, I knew to provide a business case around what extra income they would generate or protect. My finance background means I make business decisions based on data and facts rather than gut feel. I can use analytical and commercial thinking to make sensible business decisions e.g proactively looking at client profitability/making sure every account was profitable/resigning from unprofitable accounts and ensuring clients weren’t being over-serviced. People in finance don’t do opinions, they do facts which also filters into people management. If you bring opinions in, you won’t manage people well. You can still be empathetic, but managing people based on facts is more effective for them and the business. Delivery of decisions should be factual not emotional – reacting to mistakes is emotional and not productive. If you go down an emotional route, you have a fact to back it up. This is the way you are educated in the professional environment.
Where were the potential skill / mindset gaps?
Auditors don’t always try to understand the business before auditing but some industries, such as advertising, are complicated. You really do need to understand the industry, the big picture and the specific company and there are no shortcuts. It’s up to the individual desire of the person to learn and gain that knowledge. If you want to move into general management, you need to make a decision to understand the wider business – and put yourself in situations that will allow you to do that.
What are the main challenges in moving from a finance to general management role and how do you overcome them?
You need to be trained in people management and coaching – this is a skill that shouldn’t be underestimated and should be invested in. People management abilities – as a fault or a strength – get exaggerated as a CEO and there is a big opportunity cost for not spending in this area.
Would you ever go back to finance role?
No, I’m not good enough at it !
Would you still go down the finance route if you had your time again? What are the advantages/ disadvantages to taking this route?
I would take the same route, the only thing I would change is the length of time I spent in finance. But equally I recognise that the opportunities that presented themselves might not have come up if I hadn’t.
What advice would you give to someone early in their finance career who has an aspiration to be an MD?
Finance is a great grounding if you want to work in a leadership role, but it is only a grounding. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and to be honest about them. Accept feedback, good and bad – the negative feedback can accelerate your growth much more than the positive. Learn how to manage people early in your career. Difficult conversations are the hardest part of the role!
What would you do differently?
If I had my time again, I would invest in myself to make myself better at the job. I actually did this by putting myself on a coaching course.