It’s always worth looking at the specific motivations for someone’s leadership journey. “I don’t know whether I planned my career exactly,” says Anita Rajdev, until recently COO at creative agency TH_NK and Commercial Officer for Europe at parent company EPAM. “But the more I saw in business, the more I worked on interesting problems, the more I wanted to control things.”

Like many people, the roots of that drive lie in Anita’s formative years. Her father arrived in the UK aged 19, and after working for a glass manufacturer, set up shop on his own. A family business is a demanding proposition, and the young Anita had to pull her weight.

“I’ve always known work,” she says. “We had two shops open seven days a week, and it was long hours. That taught me a lot about the value of hard work. There was conflict – of course – but my parents instilled the challenge to drive for what we wanted.” 

They were ambitious for their kids, too, and one of the fruits of their labour was a place at an independent convent school for Anita; then onto university to study accountancy. But the work ethic remained, and each summer she would do jobs to gain experience in major finance functions.

Andersen Consulting Calling

One of those summer jobs was at Andersen Consulting – temping in the business process management division. “After a month I was invited to join the graduate rotation,” she recalls. “I didn’t go to a Russell Group university, so joining the firm probably wouldn’t have been an obvious option without that temping job. Seeing graduates who’d come in via the milk round had made me a little envious, so when the opportunity appeared, I jumped at it.”

Andersen Consulting in the late 1990s was a perfect career start. “It was definitely a ‘work hard, play hard’ kind of place,” says Anita. “And there was real competition to get on the best trajectory, whatever the role. I started studying for my professional qualifications straight away – I was used to doubling up work and study from a young age!”

Working in client financial management (she ended up managing the accounts for UBS Warburg Dillon Read) also gave her insights into the consulting business model – and what clients were looking for from their consultants. “But a turning point was when I was working on a team evaluating the firm’s purchase of an office building,” says Anita. “A new partner questioned the decision, so we were a secret team set up to look at the business’s requirements and how property fit into them.

“It was a great feeling to be attending confidential meetings,” she continues. “We used to gather at the Waldorf hotel! In the end we recommended some pretty sweeping changes, including selling that new property. The promotions and bonuses were great – but I wanted to feel that purpose and personal responsibility again. It was all about the adrenaline.”

Marking Marks

After qualifying, Anita felt the best way to find that buzz was a fresh challenge. Initially, T-Mobile looked like a good candidate. In the early 2000s, mobile telephony and data were blowing up, but her stint in their Hatfield office was a disappointment. “It was almost like going into the civil service,” she says. “The office was quiet, it was all 9-to-5 with no social dimension, and it just made me realise how lucky I’d been at Andersen Consulting.”

After less than year, she jumped ship to Marks & Spencer – which saw her return to the scene of her previous high, property. The role was in IT finance, but she reported to Executive Director for IT, Logistics and Property, Charles Wilson – right-hand man to CEO Stuart Rose. Working in his department gave Anita exposure to board-level decision-making.

“Report formats I produced there were standardised and applied across the whole business – and I developed a real taste for framing finance in ways relevant and approachable for non-financial managers,” she says. “The move paid off: I felt I was able to make a real difference, really fast. And in an organisation where the leadership was keen to cut out the dead wood, being a fresh finance face really helped.”

But she reckons the engagement with non-financial people is really what served her well on the leadership journey. “People love to pigeon-hole finance, but I found that projecting my personality and talking the language people in the business really built up new respect for the function,” she says. “You have to show finance is integral to the business.”

New Resolutions and a fresh identity

Her next role came about partly thanks to the M&S one, when a former CTO at the retailer recommended her for the group FD role at consultancy Leading Resolutions. They’d bought a business but had stumbled in the post-acquisition review and realised the due diligence hadn’t been thorough enough. Given that a sizeable stake in their business had been part of the deal, they needed someone to navigate the arbitration process.

“I’d had my first daughter by then and was looking for something more manageable, and a smaller company opportunity seemed perfect,” Anita says. “But it was a steep learning curve, and for the first four months, I was totally focused on that one project.” The arbitration went well, and the business grew nicely afterwards – but it didn’t satisfy Anita’s need for excitement.

The solution was the FD role for a fleet-footed software business. Serverside Group was run by brothers who’d secured patents for designing and producing personalised bank cards – with a number of big banking clients on their books. The role would test Anita’s skills in communicating with non-financial managers: the brothers were great engineers and negotiators but struggled with key issues such as revenue recognition.

“I asked to look through the accounts – and panicked,” she recalls. “I just didn’t know how we were going to meet the next payroll. We needed to raise finance, sort out an overdraft and then address DSO with our big banking clients. It was tough – I had known there would be challenges, but never that acute.”

After four years, with the ship stabilised and growing nicely, French digital ID-to-cards giant Gemalto acquired the business. And while the brothers left soon after, Anita stuck around. The experience wasn’t all positive – what job is? – but she gained promotion to divisional Chief Operating Officer (COO), eventually leaving in 2015.

You gotta TH_NK

Which brings us nearly up to date. Anita was approached to become CFO of digital transformation agency TH_NK. “The CEO made it clear in the fourth interview that it wouldn’t be easy,” she recalls. “But I jumped at the chance. I thought ‘how hard can it be?’ I’d been through tough situations, and looked forward to greater control. But in a creative business, your assets are people, and people are much harder to control!”
That partly explains why the CFO role evolved into a COO one. “A COO needs to be a good CFO with added extras,” Anita explains. “Originally, there had been a CEO, an MD and me. But I was doing stuff that traditionally might be seen as MD duties. And if it’s not obvious where the operations and finance boundaries are, it’s just easier to have a COO instead of two roles.”

Having that more commercial role – not just running the books, but managing margins, pricing and much more – meant that when TH_NK was acquired by global software group EPAM, Anita took on the role of Commercial Officer for Europe. “In the smaller businesses I’ve worked into, you get a taste of everything,” she says. “But when I’ve been involved in a sale, I always avoided joining the finance function of the acquirer. It’s just not the same in a big business, finance is a machine – and ops or commercial roles allow me to use my finance skills but do other work.

“I guess I’ve always sought out control,” Anita admits. “That’s one reason I shy away from the term ‘finance leader’. I always want to be just part of a team that runs a business – and often that means being open to being led by your team or your colleagues. I want to know everything there is to know about a business. As a leader, you have to be able to contribute anywhere”

“Lockdown has made me think much more about that part of the role – of team player, or co-ordinator. You have to ask, what happens if I can’t log on? What decision can and can’t be made without me? Leadership is about being able to answer those questions. If you can justify being on the payroll in the era of Covid-19, you’re doing something right.”

Anita Rajdev on…

…mentors: “I’ve always had people I look up to in different roles, and who believed in me. They’ve often been quite different personalities to me, but luck or karma or something else has meant I’ve had great matches.”
…finance outreach: “I’ve even been in organisations where finance was almost on the outside – divorced from the culture, almost tacked on as an afterthought – and that was largely thanks to an isolated CFO.”
…relishing work: “I really enjoy the roles I’ve done – and that wins people over. You have to embrace the idea of influencing people.”
…people management: “Leaders have to guard against measuring everyone against the most extreme yardsticks. You have to guide those who aren’t superstars.”
…being a rounded leader: “I want to know everything there is to know about a business – as a leader, you have to be able to contribute anywhere.”