Career Profile: James Harkness
Commercial Executive and CFO, James Harkness, talks about diverse career choices, following his entrepreneurial spirit and why he keeps coming back to Marshall McAdam.
What motivates your career choices?
I’m entrepreneurial by nature, so I’m drawn to mid-market companies or discreet corporate divisions where I can make an impact and enjoy autonomy and independence. Commercial leadership and navigating companies through periods of rapid growth, I believe, are my strengths, so I’ve always been offered interesting roles, even in challenging times.
There’s an element of risk in this entrepreneurial approach so it’s not for everyone. You are more vulnerable to economic cycles and don’t have the security of an established balance sheet to fund growth, but I embrace the change and opportunities it presents.
Tell us about the big turning points in your career?
The first was when I left one of my favourite roles at global renewables company, Acciona in 2009. During my five years there the business grew rapidly and I worked on some major wind farm projects. Then the GFC hit and the government wavered on renewable energy policy. I had to decide whether to wait it out or move into a more progressive space.
I was uncertain at the time, but moving on turned out to be the right decision despite my initial hesitation. Taking on the role as Head of Finance at Jetstar in 2011 was another turning point, as I was drawn to the exciting opportunity to work for the entrepreneurial off-shoot of one of world’s best known airline brands and learn from a fantastic leader and mentor. It was fast paced, exciting and challenging and I did learn a lot.
How long have you worked with Marshall McAdam?
Hamish Sinclair introduced me to the Jetstar opportunity. Once I was in the role his team recruited several analysts for me. Now six years on, he is one of a select group of people I would talk to for general advice and as a sounding board before making a career move. He knows the market, I value his perspective and he’ll always help even if there’s no obvious benefit to him. I keep going back to Marshall McAdam because I have confidence in that integrity.
How does Marshall McAdam’s approach differ from other recruiters?
Some recruiters are your best friend when they’ve got something to potentially offer you, but you rarely hear from them in between. That’s not my idea of a relationship. With Marshall McAdam, there’s a noticeable difference in their relationship building, consistency in quality of candidates and roles they put forward, the attention you receive and the focus on getting the culture fit right during the recruitment process. They make sure they understand the brief, are quick to respond and are strong communicators as things unfold.
What do you value most in a recruiter when building a team?
I want the luxury of choice from a number of strong candidates and I get that with Marshall McAdam. It’s a good outcome when you’re weighing up a few people on a shortlist and it’s difficult to choose because they all have something to offer in the advertised role. Ben Cass and Christine Hubble recently recruited a new Head of IT for Capitol Health. They brought quality candidates to the table and the outcome has been a real success.
What are the biggest challenges facing commercial and finance leaders looking for talented people right now?
Finding people who have a mindset of growing and developing with an organisation can be a challenge. From what I’ve seen, many graduates or candidates with a few years’ experience are coming into the market with unrealistic expectations. Some expect to work 9-5 for a year and be handed a senior role. As a Gen Xer, things weren’t served up to us on a silver platter and we had to work hard to make it in our career.
It’s us Xers who are the main hiring managers now and we are attracted to candidates who strive for personal and professional growth. Disruption, cost leadership in times of scarce revenue growth and increased outsourcing also means companies are getting leaner, so there’s going to increased competition for those entry-level and mid-management roles. Expectations may need to adjust.
You’ve interviewed candidates for many roles, is there something that always impresses or turns you off?
What I’m looking for depends on the role and responsibilities, but an “all about me” attitude is always a turn-off. I ask questions about what a candidate has done in their career, not to pick holes in job history, but because I want to see a desire and a hunger to be stretched and to learn. I look for people who are ambitiously humble, who want to learn and grow and don’t expect to short-circuit their career development. I often ask the much maligned question around what they want to do in 5-10 years because I want to know if they’ve thought about it and how they’re going to get there. If an entry-level accountant tells you they want to be a CFO in five years, they don’t have a grasp on reality. And yes, that really happens.