Strategy & Operations » Q&A: Ewan Dunbar, ex-group finance director at Virgin Media Ireland

Q&A: Ewan Dunbar, ex-group finance director at Virgin Media Ireland

Financial Director spoke with former group finance director of Virgin Media Ireland and now founder of xPotential.ie, Ewan Dunbar, on navigating the rebrand of Ireland’s largest commercial TV channel and what leadership looks like in 2022

In an ever-changing world, large-scale business transformations are becoming the norm. Whether it be laying new foundations for growth or pivoting towards an ESG mindset, it’s a crucial time for leadership in business.

Senior finance leaders are under mounting pressure to successfully execute growth strategies while facing a myriad of challenges. As such, finance leaders are asking themselves how they can level up their skills to suit the needs of the new normal.

This is something Ewan Dunbar, former group finance director of Virgin Media Ireland, knows a thing or two about as a leadership coach.

Speaking with Financial Director, Dunbar shares his experience on the rebrand of Ireland’s largest commercial TV channel – TV3 – and how to strike the right balance as a senior finance leader in 2022.

You’ve had an impressive, varied career, from an audit supervisor at EY and group finance director at Virgin Media Ireland to coaching fellow finance leaders. What has been your career highlight?

Yes, thanks, I have had a great career so far and have had some fantastic experiences along the way. Being selected for an inaugural global fast track management programme was special, as was my various trips to Denver and India, being named Irish Accountant of the Year and becoming Group FD for Virgin Media Ireland.

The thing that makes it all so special though has been the people that I shared these experiences with. Some of my best friends are from my days working in KPMG in Glasgow and EY in Dublin, not to mention all of my friends from Virgin and the fantastic leaders that I work with now.  It may sound cheesy, but I know that when I look back at my career, it will be the people that I have worked with that will be the biggest highlight for me.

The Irish Accountant of the Year Award was nice recognition for a culmination of multiple projects that we delivered, but when I received it, I was surrounded by the people who had earned it (they did most of the work) and the people from Virgin that I was closest to. Accolades like that are nice but it’s the people that made it so special!

While you were group finance director at Virgin Media Ireland, the company rebranded TV3, 3e and be3 to Virgin Media One, Virgin Media Two and Virgin Media Three. What were some of the key lessons you learnt in that process as a senior financial leader?

Well firstly, I can’t take any credit for the rebranding but it was a big move for us in Ireland. TV3 was one of the most recognisable brands in the Irish market being the largest commercial TV channel in the country (akin to I.T.V. in England, S.T.V. in Scotland and U.T.V. in N. Ireland). Replacing such a strong, household name was a bold move, but we had confidence in the strength of the Virgin Media brand, and we were keen to expand it in the Irish market. Many TV3 staff also had a close affinity with the brand.

The project was testimony to how effective teams can be when they are focused on one clear objective. The Irish team didn’t just rebrand three TV stations in three months, we launched a new sports channel (which included multiple sports channels on key sporting nights). It was a fantastic example of a multi-disciplined team working coherently together to achieve one goal in a very pressurised environment.

From a Finance perspective, we took a very project orientated approach and worked closely within the project team to prevent the potential for ‘scope creep’. There was a very clear budget apportioned across both the VMTV and Virgin Media businesses, so we had to ensure that this was closely controlled.  The key to success was co-operation, clear communication and embedding the financials firmly within the project plan (run by our Project Management Office).

Whilst there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre from an operating expense perspective, we ensured that we supported capital projects at VMTV to ensure that the new brand was supported by the appropriate investment in broadcasting infrastructure. Ultimately the rebrand was a great success with full credit to everyone at Virgin Media and VMTV who were involved for a fantastic team effort.

Most organisations these days are going through large-scale transformations whether it’s to build resilience, increase profitability, pivot for ESG purposes, or a combination of all three. What makes an effective and good leader in a period of a large-scale transition?

In my current role, I coach senior finance leaders, perform leadership talks and support growing businesses, so I see first-hand that the pressure on leaders is only growing, not diminishing. One of the key challenges for leaders is to be strategically effective in the midst of significant demands and an ‘always on’ culture. What do I mean by that? … well, it’s their leadership style that will allow them to be successful … if they are effective at building, developing and (so relevant in today’s market) retaining a team then they will have a great platform for success. The question then is how well they can build on that platform and how well they manage themselves.

If leaders can delegate effectively, grant autonomy, know the right questions to ask, motivate their team, support them and protect them from unnecessary demands (such as project, meeting and email overload) then they have the opportunity to create the space they need to be successful.

Creating space is the key challenge in the modern world but it requires you to be firm. As I often remind coaching clients, every time you say “yes” to something, you say “no” to something else (which in my case was probably my health and family time).

Senior financial leaders are often kept in the loop of employee wellbeing especially when it comes to burnout. How can finance leaders manage their own burnout and create a healthy work/ life balance?

Leader burnout is a significant issue which I believe is the underlying factor in the change of perspective that many leaders have had during the pandemic when we experienced a forced slowdown and change to working practices. The “always on” lifestyle that the majority of leaders live isn’t sustainable without consequences.

The first issue is diagnosis. For example, if you are waking up thinking about work, or checking your email incessantly on holidays or at the weekend then there is an issue that you need to address. Obviously, there are occasions when closing a big deal or during a project that you may have to be more switched on, but if it is a case that you are constantly mentally tuned into work then there is an issue.

With many coaching clients, I do an audit of their time, looking at how they are using their 168 hours each week. Is technology saving them time or costing it, are their teams working effectively, what is their meeting schedule like, are they prioritising effectively and pushing back where required.

It’s really about setting boundaries and creating the space that will allow them to be effective, not just in their diary but in their mind. For example, you are cognitively much more effective when you are exercising regularly, or near the sea/ countryside and much more creative when you have sufficient mental space.  Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline were designed for evading sabre tooth tigers and not for the board room!

In a new age of governance, following a period of crisis management in the pandemic, rapid technological changes and growing pressure around ESG, how will leadership change in 2022?

2020 was the year of the “pivot”, with businesses responding to the ever-changing circumstances from supply challenges to workforce changes to consumer habits (leaders were very reactive). In 2021, we moved into a phase of “perspective” where business leaders managed to ‘lift their heads’ to reassess their companies’ positions and reflect on lessons learned after surviving one of the most challenging years in corporate history.

For me, 2022 should be the year of “clarity” where business leaders re-establish and communicate their strategic vision as they start to look ahead with some degree of certainty. As you say, there are no shortage of challenges on leaders, so they need to be clear on which ones are most important to their business and their people.

There is no doubt that effective people leadership will continue to be at the forefront of corporate agendas and there is ever increasing pressure (both internally and externally) on businesses to adopt meaningful environmental strategies. Leaders will need to continue to focus on clear prioritisation, clear and effective communication, challenging ineffective work practices, supporting their teams with time, resources and empathy and most importantly, ‘putting their own oxygen mask on first before they attend to others’ (if leaders don’t look after themselves, they’ll be in no position to look after others).

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