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Know your business

Josie Gowler offers some top tips on how you can hit the ground running when you start a new job

November 2017

Getting ready for job interviews, we’ve all done the same things: reading the accounts, mugging up on the industry, reviewing the website, scouring the internet for news and views on what it’s hoped will soon become a new employer. But I’m a great advocate of continuing this process after landing that new position, and I’ve always been surprised that keen candidates who study the business intently don’t consistently apply the same rigour once they’ve landed the role.
Since joining the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology as Head of Finance and Research Contracts in early 2017, I’ve made sure that I’ve really got under the skin of this fascinating organisation, and this has enhanced the day job and enabled me to add significant value to the role already. It’s an approach that’s done me well in every role I’ve had since qualifying as a chartered accountant back in 1998. Hopefully, following these steps will help you to get off to as fine a start with any new sector or employer as I have.
• Keep up with the homework: Landing the job is just the beginning. While working out my notice period at my previous employer, I made sure I kept revisiting the MRC website in the evenings, reading more about the industry and flicking through trade publications such as New Scientist. I also downloaded the sector’s Financial Reporting Manual (FReM) and started to absorb the subtle differences in reporting requirements in this new area. Naturally, I’ve kept up this continuous learning after joining.
• Informal meetings: Before my start date, I followed up with a couple of informal meetings with my new boss and colleagues – outside of the interview setting it was helpful to have a more casual discussion to understand issues, challenges and expectations and begin to think about how I’d go about tackling them.
• Arrange the first fortnight: Sorting this out before actually joining enabled me to figure out the colleagues I really needed to meet in my first couple of weeks and get time in their diaries – always useful to set this up early if possible in today’s busy workplace, especially with senior management.
• Get the ‘grand tour’: I found it useful to get an overview of the organisation via a proper look-round, especially important for an organisation such as the MRC which is spread over several sites. This will also help you to get to know the capital and real estate, vital for planning. Once in role, I’ve kept up my interactions with departments. Both at the MRC and at PA Consulting earlier in my career, I found there was nothing like a laboratory visit for really appreciating key projects and new developments.
• Get to know other departments: Get behind the numbers, meet with the department heads and find out what they really need and want. What are their main concerns? Their big projects? By really going out into the divisions I’ve been able to see the numbers in context and add more value as a result.
• Talk to people: Not just department heads but end-users – in my case scientists and students. They’ve brought me a helpful coalface perspective.
• It’s not just continuous professional development (CPD): Going on the right courses doesn’t simply mean the accountancy and management CPD – I’ve made sure I’ve gone to relevant lectures and seminars too. The MRC runs excellent ‘science for non-scientists’ briefings and I have attended every one.
• Consider the wider world: In my case this means getting a grasp of external factors and funders, such as universities and charities, and wider initiatives such as the forthcoming creation of UK Research & Innovation, which will be bringing together the seven research councils into one combined body.
• Understand the IT side: This could be a whole article in itself, but finding out before I joined which accounting and software packages the MRC uses enabled me to brush up on any slightly jaded skills and get off to a much swifter, easier start.
Hopefully sharing my experiences will help anyone thinking of making the move to a new sector or new role to take the leap with extra confidence.
• Josie Gowler is Head of Finance and Research Contracts at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) and formerly Chief Finance Officer at the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire

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