After surviving a bomb blast while working in Saudi Arabia, David Spong developed a clear view of what’s really essential in life and business – people.
As well as being CFO and looking after many of the organisation’s support functions, I am heavily involved in our customer engagements. The Australian annual turnover is about A$800 million, and as all but two of my team sit offshore, I’m constantly video-conferencing. It requires a different style of management and cultural awareness – I have to listen more.
Saudi was a fantastic learning experience. It was a tumultuous time (2002–05). The Americans went back into Iraq and Saudi was unsettled. In 2003, a bomb exploded in our compound, killing many people. It was a massive car bomb. When you’re in the middle of ?it ?you don’t know whether these could be your last seconds of life. That gave me a broader perspective of what’s important in life. I went to Saudi for professional growth, but the personal growth far outweighed the professional.
You spend your twenties and thirties doing the stuff no one else wants to do; your forties and fifties doing what no one else has the experience to do. Throwing caution to the wind and jumping in when no one else was prepared to go to Saudi was a calculated risk. I expected a challenge that would push me, but I got so much more on a personal level. I feel that now I am benefiting from taking that calculated risk.
One of the worst things you can do as a senior leader is not be approachable. You become like the emperor with no clothes – no one tells you what the problems are, they only tell you the good news or what they think you want to hear. I learn more about what’s going on with the business chatting at the coffee machine with people from across the organisation than I do going to meetings.
I’ve been with Ericsson for 18 years. Initially I was in Melbourne, then I had about seven years in Saudi Arabia and Sweden, before moving into this role in 2008. I’d like to say I had altruistic ambitions for getting into finance, but in fact it was prompted by a friend of a friend who had a nice car. At university I did a double major in accounting and HR, which I like to think gives me a more balanced outlook.
I want to ensure the quality of the CFO who succeeds me. Ericsson is a company run in a very consensus-driven manner, so a lot of decision-making is collegiate and informal. The challenge is finding the right candidate with the right personality, skills and experience to manage in a highly influence-based environment. But now that we rely so heavily on an offshore model, the traditional path of selection from within is more problematic. My biggest concern is how do you teach judgement, and then how do you calibrate it?
This article is from the July issue of INTHEBLACK
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