Profile photo of Colin Smith CFO at Sky

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Dane Dwyer (Weekend MBA 2019) Senior Finance Manager, spoke to Colin Smith (pictured) CFO, both Sky UK&I, about leadership, Sky’s vision for the future and delivering great customer service.

Tell us about your leadership journey and how this has shaped your leadership style

Leadership is an interesting topic. Your ‘leadership journey’ isn’t something you think you’re on until you reach a certain point in your career. I’ve been CFO at Sky UK&I for over three years now and I never think my journey is complete. It’s important to stay humble and open in terms of always wanting to learn how to become a better leader. What I’ve done throughout my career is focus on three things:

  1. Have a solid understanding of the basics and the details of the business you operate in. To have impact and be able to engage your team you need to understand the role they play and the challenges they face. That allows leaders to be able to pass on good advice that’s based on experience.
  2. Build strong, good quality relationships with the business. In a company like Sky that’s 30 years old turning over $14bn we still depend on networks and relationships. We remain entrepreneurial and dynamic to our core, collaboration is critical and what that needs to make it work is good, high quality relationships within the business.
  3. Strong leaders need to show real commitment; a commitment to excellence, a commitment to doing the best for the business, a commitment to not turning away from things that you know could be improved.  That ethos drives me each day to try and make Sky just a little bit better.

These are my key drivers and I try and build my leadership style around those three things. And bring the +250 members of my team along with me.

How has the experience been navigating the team through such a tough period of time? What are you most proud of and what do you feel contributed to Sky’s delivery?

I’m proud of how we responded to COVID, and I’m happy with how we’ve bounced back with no real lasting impacts on our business. We did this by quickly setting out response criteria based on three goals; first for our people, then for our customers and thirdly the business; measuring every decision on those three criteria. First we focused on keeping our people safe while managing the ambiguity of an unprecedented crisis. The safety of our engineers was paramount, so we immediately stopped installations and customer home visits. We didn’t furlough anyone, we let people react in the way that best worked for them and that is something I am incredibly proud of. We invested heavily in the safety and cleanliness of all our sites around the UK, and equipped people to be able to work effectively and in comfort from home.

Always try to be supportive and work collaboratively to solve issues together. Be open, approachable and collegiate.

Regarding customers I think we got the balance, not perfect but in the main, right. We made sure we were doing the right thing, a good example was in our pubs and clubs division where we quickly decided once Premier League announced a temporary postponement to zero rate all our venues, whether they were in contract or not. For our Sky Sports customers we enabled them to easily suspend their sports billing, almost 50% of our base took that up. These decisions cost the business money, but ultimately customers appreciated the clarity and that we were being proactive.

Finally, we made sure that the business impact was closely managed, trying to minimise wherever we could. I think on balance we came through well and the business has come back to full power quickly. Last year was a good year for growth and profitability.

You managed to do the right thing for the relevant stakeholders, but how did you get buy-in during difficult conversations?

They were live ‘in the moment’ conversations that were moving literally by the hour, as a UK Exec team we formed our response over a two week period, aligning on how best to react. We quickly wrote out a ‘customer promise’ designed to protect the vulnerable. That included not turning anyone off for non-payment whether it be broadband or TV, giving customers extra mobile data free of cost, ensuring we did everything possible to support customers in these unusual times. I would never say we got everything right, however, in the main having the ability to be a close team to discuss, react and come to quick decisions served us brilliantly in the moment.

What advice would you give young professionals?

Always try to be supportive and work collaboratively to solve issues together. Be open, approachable and collegiate. I don’t think there is any place in modern business for point scoring or aggression, it just doesn’t work, we need to be more empathetic and ultimately I think the business does better as a result.

It’s about approachability, being empathetic and working collaboratively, follow those ideals and you will be on the right track.

What does high performance mean to you? And do you think that this has changed since COVID-19 or needs to be different given the new environment?

I don’t think it has changed, the values are the same. For me I always look for great delivery and strong behaviours. As a high performing Commercial Finance group we’re here to drive and optimise performance at Sky. We need to be totally across our numbers, and we need to be delivering the best we can. At the same time we need to do it in the right way. I aim for everything to be done as well as it can be, I want everyone to be given an opportunity to develop, I want people to collaborate and enjoy what they do and enjoy working with people around them. So, for me delivery and behaviours: equal 50/50, I don’t think that has changed since COVID.

Over the last 30 years Sky has transitioned into more of a corporate behemoth. How do you find managing that transition moving from the days of the Murdochs to adopting to the Comcast culture? 

Innovation is in our DNA! I joined Sky in 1997 when we were about to launch digital TV (in 1998). This was a decade before the iPhone and before subsidies in return for a subscription existed. Sky is built that way, on the basis that we will be bold, innovate and disrupt. We’ll always be a growth business, and the way we intend to do this is by constant innovation, we look to simplify and we aim to broaden. We are about to move into business broadband, launching Sky Connect, we’re evaluating a move into smart insurance. These are brilliant examples of Sky constantly building on our customer offer. I think this is complemented by our strength in execution, which is something that Sky is uniquely placed to do well.

Tell us about Sky’s focus on diversity and inclusion and what are some of the biggest challenges in creating that diverse end state that reflects its ambitions?

It’s a balance! I want to balance delivery and behaviours alongside meeting our objectives on D&I. We won’t get there overnight, and we need to preserve what’s brilliant about our business; making everyone feel included as you pursue that goal. The way that I often think about it is “aggressive patience”. What Sky has done really well over the years is setting bold targets and then going after them purposefully. I look forward to continuing to make progress, working with our externally sourced Diversity Advisory Council.

Sky is a frontrunner when it comes on to carbon neutrality, how do you see the company’s contribution over the mid- to long-term?

It is something that we focus on. From Team Sky getting 2m people in the UK back on bikes, the work we did on rainforest rescue over the course of the last 10 years or the recent focus on plastics in our oceans. Sky is not only focused on ensuring that we put money aside to support these causes but also that we invest the right level of time and attention, which is often harder. The work that we have done on Sky Glass for example, making it the first carbon neutral TV – it increases our costs and creates extra complexity in the supply chain but this is something that is really core to what we are trying to achieve. I think it’s not just a platitude, it is something that we believe in and it runs through the entirety of what we are as a business.

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