‘The best changes are ones which present new opportunities, not ones that look back’, Matt Bourn, Director of Communications for the Advertising Association
Matt Bourn credits his love of the media to his first job, as a paperboy. From that early start he went on to study media and business at Manchester University, before working his way up in PR. He spent 12 years as the Managing Director of the UK’s leading specialist PR company, Braben, which was bought by a US PR network and recently moved to his current role as Director of Communications for the Advertising Association, which represents the roles, rights and responsibilities of advertising on behalf of the UK industry. We asked him to talk to us about how he faces change.
What is the biggest change you have made in your working life so far?
Making the decision to go in-house, about 18 months ago, after working consultancy-side for twenty years. It was driven by changes in my industry (advertising) where I felt the power shifting towards the client but also because the in-house opportunity provided me with a platform to truly capitalise on my experience as a specialist consultant.
You could say its timing was fortuitous but also that it was (from my point of view, at least) an inspired piece of head-hunting by an executive search consultant I hold in high regard, Amanda Pitt, who has just joined Korn Ferry. She identified exactly what was missing from my previous role and knew the perfect place for me to go and fulfil much more of what I was looking for. In the process, she also gave me an invaluable piece of extra advice and that was to request the role be four days a week, encouraging me to maintain my consultancy portfolio on a flexible basis with the spare days each month. This, she suggested, would provide me (and my employer) with the best of both worlds, and it turns out she was very, very right.
What have I learned from this? That there are people out there who know better than I do about how to get the most out of me, my talents and the world of work and that those people are invaluable to have in your contacts book. They aren’t people driven by the fee they make on your appointment but people who take an active, professional interest in you and your career and match you with businesses with both your long-term ambitions at heart.
What provoked that change?
Being in a job that I really wasn’t enjoying and that was having a detrimental impact on how I felt about my talents and my ability to do a job effectively. That’s not a nice place to be and there’s a danger of allowing the feeling to grow that you’re ‘trapped’ when that is really not the case. I think I have now learned the lesson of what that feels like and will move more quickly should that happen again in my career.
You started your own business a few years ago, and now run it alongside working for the Advertising Association. What inspired you to start that business and what inspired you to combine it with a corporate role?
The autonomy. To be in control of what I was doing, always, and to have that say over what I do with my time and my skills. That said, there were occasions when the business had control over me in that I was given no option but to do unrewarding client work (because we needed the revenue) or deal with people issues (because the consultancy I ran had the wrong people in the wrong roles). Now, because of the blend of corporate and consultancy, I don’t have the same direct revenue pressure and I also don’t need to employ people for my own business. My time and energy goes either into creating a brilliant team that shares my passion to make a real difference in our industry or to working on exciting, challenging briefs that make the most of the skills I have built up during my career.
When you think about making a change, what is the process for you? Do you weigh up pros and cons, talk to friends and colleagues, seek professional support? And how is that process different, if you compare self-generated and externally motivated changes?
Well, I like to be in control of things and you can never control change, can you? So, in many ways, change is my worst nightmare. On the flip-side, I always want to be learning and developing and that doesn’t happen if you stick with the status quo, so change is a constant in that sense.
Generally, I tend to map out change – the best-case and the worse-case scenarios and everything in-between. This can be exhausting sometimes, but I think it is also what makes me really enjoy my job as much of my work involves considering how best to communicate in any kind of scenario. So, scenario-planning is key in change and, during the big moments of change, I take advice from the people I trust and view myself as a client, ultimately helping them (me) to make the right decision and equipping them with what they need if it turns out to be the worst one, despite best efforts.
I’m not sure the process is that dissimilar for self-generated and externally motivated changes. The thing that makes the difference is the time-frame involved and that good old ‘gut’ feeling. I know (and can look back on moments) when my ‘gut’ was telling me not to do something, but I did it anyway. I also think there’s a truth in the statement that the worst motivation for change is unhappiness i.e. jumping out of a bad role because you want to escape won’t necessarily mean the next one will be perfect.
How do you manage the change, once you have made a decision, or been forced to make one?
Hmmm… I get on with it? There’s no point going back. The change has been made, for good reason, no doubt, at the time of making it, so you crack on, make the best of it and if, for whatever reason it isn’t shaping up the way you thought, you make sure you have time planned in to review, check and adapt.
Taking stock regularly is an important part of any change management: being aware of the process of change, before in terms of its potential impact and then during/after, and asking have things turned out the way I expected and what now?
Have you ever regretted a change that you have made and why?
Yes. I was in a job I didn’t like or enjoy and I jumped at an opportunity to take up a job which promised a chance to return to what I used to do successfully. On reflection, it was about trying to obtain past glories, as opposed to going after new ones, and it was all driven by a desire to get out of the present. I should have stuck it out and worked harder to find the new challenge, but I didn’t and learned a valuable lesson on the way: the best changes are ones which present new opportunities, not ones that look back.
Have you ever regretted not making a change and why?
Yes, and pretty much it has always been linked to team members where my gut told me that a change was needed, for them, for me, for us as a business and I didn’t move quickly enough. I move quicker now. Sometimes the immediate impact of change is not a nice experience for people, but it usually ends up with everyone in a better place.