Mel Sullivan is CEO of Framestore, a global visual effects company of over 3,000 people across eight locations. She has been with the business for 25 years during which time she has also held the COO and CFO roles. She is Big 4 trained and spent her early career in investment banking.
What do you think is the main difference between being an MD/CEO and being the CFO?
The first thing is that as CEO, a large part of your remit is setting the direction of travel for the business and having an overall vision. You set the business on that path and articulate it clearly so that everyone in the business understands where you’re heading and why. As a CFO, you would have input to that process, and you would always provide support to the CEO and you would be part of that discussion, but ultimately, the decision, and the drive has to come from the CEO. I think there’s actually quite a big difference between having to lead that and having to follow it. A lot of people will support that vision and be part of it but ultimately someone has to take the lead – and that is the CEO.
I think another big difference is that as a CEO, you have to be leader of leaders. You have to be the person who is giving guidance to people who are already leaders in your team, very senior people. And that’s a different kind of support and a different kind of interaction and it requires a very different insight. It still requires humility – and I’m a big believer that humility and empathy are important in leaders, in more ways, when you get to that top level. You might think that maybe that humility and empathy become less important but I really feel it gets more important.
And you have to get more in tune with that team around you. It’s absolutely vital because you need to get everyone on to the same page, all the people who are going to be leading in the business. And that’s a different skill.
I started in in finance and for many years, I held a joint CFO/ COO title and of course that helps, because I was intrinsically involved in the operations. And once you can see both sides of it, only then can you begin making the more nuanced decisions that businesses require. It’s the nuance and the grey areas that are so important and you never get that from a spreadsheet, you’ve always got to be involved in the actual business, in the dynamics of what’s going on and the wider implications of all aspects of the business.
When you when you started your career did you have a game plan?
I was absolutely hopeless as a teenager. I didn’t know what degree I wanted to do, and I stumbled into that and then had no idea what career I wanted to do. And I say this to people, because I think it’s really reassuring. Young people often think that older people had a vision or knew from a young age what they wanted to do and I really didn’t. I remember in my twenties saying to my dad, “Oh, God, my problem is I just don’t know what I want to do” and he said, “Oh, God, no, neither do I.” That conversation really stuck with me because he was saying to me, don’t worry about not knowing, just get on with it you’ve just got to try a few things and see what happens. So, no, I absolutely had no game plan whatsoever.
Then you got into finance and took with ACA route in Arthur Andersen, at what point in that journey did you think I want to go beyond finance?
I think I knew that really early on in the finance part of my career. I always had this sort of sadness when I was auditing companies or when I was advising them. I thought “I just really wish I could stay with that company. I just want to be involved here.”
I came to Framestore and I was working in finance to start with and I just was so fascinated by how the business ran, what made it tick. I was really lucky that the two people running the business then were amazing mentors to me because you need that early in your career. From quite early on I said to them I want to understand more about running the business, teach me that. I’d say, “I want to run this building project for you. I don’t just want to do just the finances of the refurbishment, I’ll run the whole thing for you. Let me get involved with that.” You’ve got to get your hands dirty because if you can show you can do something like that or any kind of project, then you certainly get trusted to do more and more.
So it’s about getting yourself visible to the right people?
It’s showing that you’re really enthusiastic about the business, and that you care. I remember Sharon Reed, who was joint CEO of Framestore at the time, saying, “You know, the reason that you’re good at what you do is because I can just tell that you care about it and you worry about it and it matters to you.” And it really did and it always has. You have to find opportunities to show that. It may not be that big strategic project to start with – you’re not going to get the big one. It might be small like it was for me, and suddenly you’re thinking What about this? What about that? and slowly, slowly you begin getting that exposure.
Were you doing that on top of the day job? or were you taken away from the day job to do that?
I can’t remember now, but I think I certainly worked long hours. I think as many people do in that part of their career and as huge numbers of people have done here, and yes because I wanted to get involved in that side of the business so I was willing to put in the hours to make sure that happened.
Coming from a CFO to CEO, what sort of experience do you think you particularly bring as opposed to someone who’s come from a different route. What does the CFO bring to the CEO role?
I believe that anyone can be a leader. I don’t think that it comes in one shape or size. That’s why diversity of leadership is so important, because actually I think you can come from any background and become a CEO.
Coming from the CFO background I think that you bring a certain discipline to the role. You know the numbers and you understand the financial constraints but you’ve just got to balance that out with everything else. Often as a CFO, you would have been exposed to the board. You’ll have done a lot of strategic presentations. You’ll already have quite a wide business understanding that you bring to the table. But do I think that you bring more to the table than someone from who’s managed an operating division or who would have come from maybe a sales background? No, I do not. It’s really about your mindset.
When you went into that CEO role, where were the gaps for you?
I had not really been involved in as much with clients directly so that was outside of my comfort zone and that takes time to get into. Some things are just always naturally in your comfort zone and some things aren’t and you’ve got to kind of push yourself to go to areas that aren’t. For every person it would be different – no one person is everything to everyone.
It’s very different leading a finance team as a CFO compared to leading, motivating and empathising with a set of people who have a very different a varied skill set to you, as CEO. How did you find that ?
I think that’s probably where the COO role helped me, as my relationship with those people was already in place in some ways. It wasn’t quite the same step as I think a CFO role to CEO role would be. I’d kind of done that interim step, which is really, really helpful in enabling that. I’d already worked within that team in a different way as COO.
Did you start off in that role, balancing it a bit more numbers and less on the business?
It’s a constant balancing act, and running a business is really finding that balance. I never felt an obligation to one or the other. I was just felt that you had to balance it and fight really, really hard and work hard. And if you did that, and you were honest and transparent about it, then people would understand and would come and support you and help you with that. I started off really caring about the business and that never really changed.
What advantages does having a finance background give you?
I would guess that if you didn’t have a finance background, the numbers side of running a business would be quite hard sometimes to pick up, and actually quite scary. Particularly when you’re having to deal with a board, you’ve got overall responsibility for delivering. I imagine that that would be quite a worrisome thing if you knew nothing about it, whereas that for me comes quite naturally, and I’m sure, for any CFO.
It’s a lot to try and understand if you’ve got no background in that. But then again, these days lot of people who are managing operating divisions would, if they’ve had the right support and training, have some knowledge of it.
You have to recognize your own weaknesses, put the right team in place around you to complement that; a team who are going to manage to address some of your weaknesses, offset some of those, and support your strengths.
Would you ever move back to finance?
No, no, I wouldn’t. I’ve spent a lot of years now in the operational side of the business and I don’t see myself going back. It’s a great responsibility, obviously, being the CEO and it can sometimes be a little bit lonely, which I’m sure a lot of people will say. But it’s also a great joy, the responsibility as well – it’s both. It’s like many things, there’s two sides to it and I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done at Framestore and incredibly proud to have the role. I love leading the business.
If you did it all again, would you go down the finance route?
I genuinely don’t know. I’m really happy with where I ended up, and starting my career in finance has given me amazing opportunities. I don’t have any regrets about that at all. I think it gives you a great grounding in business.
What advice would you give to someone earlier on in their finance career who has aspirations to move beyond finance?
Be curious. Ask questions. Show that you are passionate and interested in the business and offer to get involved in other areas, offer to help project manage something. Show your passion and show that you’re willing to get your hands dirty.
Run a project. You get to meet lots of other people in the business that you wouldn’t normally. That definitely happened to me. Managing a building project, suddenly I was involved with all the engineering team and you know, and all sorts of other teams in the business, and managers of divisions who had a view on how things should be and suddenly you’re interacting with people in a non-financial sense and that’s really important because you start developing relationships with people on a different type of level and that gets you into a different place in the business.
Get involved in operations. If people in finance have the opportunity to do that, they should. There is a really, really big difference between looking at the spreadsheets and understanding exactly what the impact of those spreadsheets are on the business.
Anything you would do differently if you had your time again?
Oh, probably. Everyone would, wouldn’t they? I often say to people, don’t be too hard on yourself, and I think there probably were times when I was and lost confidence as a result.
I think trying to be measured about things as you go through your career is really important. It’s a long career and what might seem like a big thing on the day or in that moment, isn’t over the course of a career. So, stay measured, keep perspective, and keep confident – those things are really important.