Formerly Strategy Director - Domain Group
Interview by Tim Carroll
Graeme Plowman is the Strategy Director at Domain Group, a leading real estate media & services business. Graeme oversees strategy and corporate development across the group, including its rapidly-growing consumer portal domain.com.au.
Prior to Domain Group, Graeme worked in Deloitte London’s Strategy Consulting practice, where he advised some of the leading media & telecoms businesses in the UK. Graeme started his career at UK telecoms company BT Group, where he performed a number of strategy roles.
Graeme has an MBA from London Business School and a degree in Economics from the University of Durham.
Career Related Questions
What is the best thing about your job?
I really enjoy that there is a mixture of strategy and corporate development work in my role. Earlier in my career I pretty much exclusively did organic strategy work. The past few years I have done more M&A work and I think it helps you to become a better strategist by improving your understanding of industry structure and dynamics, which is the foundation for much strategic analysis.
Without a doubt the best thing about my job, though, is that Domain is going through a rapid growth phase. Unless you’re lucky, you don’t experience this kind of growth trajectory many times in your career. Our challenges are almost entirely about choosing which opportunity we go after next, which is refreshing having worked in the media industry for many years! Rapid growth is exciting and invigorating – and it creates opportunities for people to flourish.
What is the most challenging project/problem you have worked on either as an external consultant or an internal strategist?
Relatively early in my career I led the analysis that underpinned a major transformation programme. One of the conclusions was that we needed to take out over 30% of the cost base. It’s almost impossible to take that amount of cost out of a business without a large number of people being made redundant. At times I found the implications of the analysis very confronting. Very few of the people affected were poor performers. They just happened to be on the wrong side of structural change within an industry. You try to be rational – if that sort of change
What advice would you give someone transitioning from a consulting firm to a role in industry?
My career started in industry, before a few years in consulting and then returning to industry again. So I have seen both sides of the transition. Moving from consulting to industry does present some challenges. The two main challenges I see are adjusting how you work and ensuring what you do drives actual change.
On adjusting the style of work, I think it’s important to recognise that there will usually be greater variance in the experiences and skill sets of the people you work with than in consulting. Therefore you have to think carefully about how you construct project teams and how various roles are performed. It’s incredibly important to work collaboratively within the organisation – that’s also true in consulting, but even more so in industry.
A collaborative approach is key when seeking to drive change, which is usually the conclusion of a piece of strategy work – some form of change is almost always required. Often when I see people struggle to make the transition it is because they have not successfully made that link from delivery of a report into implementation. The report is the end of the beginning, so to speak, and often the easiest part. Ensuring buy-in from the organisation and that people are actually implementing it are usually much harder. However I think this is also one of the main attractions of moving from consulting to industry – that you get to stay around, help implement things and see the results.
Who has influenced your career the most and why?
The first strategy director I worked for has influenced me the most in my career. He influenced me not only because I was impressed by his intelligence, his ability to think calmly and rationally, and a healthy sense of humour that I think you need to get through those tough periods that inevitably happen in business, but also because he was incredibly astute at navigating his way through the politics in an organisation. He didn’t play politics, but he always made sure he knew what they were so that important changes he believed in were not derailed by them.
What is the favourite piece of advice you have received and from whom?
There are heaps I’d love to list but if I have to choose one it would be this: there’s only ever three things you can do in any situation – love it, leave it, or change it. I’m not sure who said it first but I learnt it from a management professor at business school. It’s an incredibly simple yet powerful statement. Often in business situations I mentally reference it to make sure I’ve explored all the options. It also helps you to be pragmatic about your options, especially if the only realistic answer is leave it.
As a child what did you want to be when you were older?
Perhaps predictably – being English – I wanted to be a footballer (as in soccer player) or a cricketer. I was pretty good at both, but unfortunately not quite good enough to do either as a career. The talent and dedication it takes to get to the 0.01% who actually make it are enormous – and often not fully appreciated by people who have not played sport to a high level.
What are your three favourite books and what are you currently reading?
I have to profess to not being an avid reader of business management or strategy books anymore. It may be a hangover from doing an MBA when you get through an enormous amount of books in a short space of time. Although I have a theory that very few people read as many of these books as they say they do – they’re just worried that admitting it will make it appear like they’re not dedicated!
One business book I do really like is Simply Better by Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan. It’s a great reminder of the basic importance of identifying key customer needs and serving them better than the competition. As strategists I think we’re sometimes a little too obsessed with sustainable competitive advantage, which is very hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. I think Barwise and Meehan argue that, in relative terms, many companies are spending too much time trying to be different or building things that competitors cannot copy, such that they are no longer delivering better than their competitors on key customer needs.
Having done Economics as a degree I really liked the first Freakonomics book. I know there is debate about whether some of their conclusions are correct, but it was great to see economic theories being applied to everyday situations.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is also a favourite of mine. It tells you a lot about where we have come from and human behaviour I think.
At the moment I’m reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I’m reading it for the second time because it contains a lot of fascinating information about things you were probably taught at school but have since forgotten (or were staring out of the window at the time!).
Who is your personal or business hero/heroine and what quality do you most admire in them?
Most of my personal heroes are English sportsmen, which probably will not resonate that well with many people reading this. So I’ll choose a business person instead.
It’s not a very original choice but it’s hard to look past Steve Jobs in the modern era. His vision, passion for the business he founded and commitment to building great products were hugely admirable. That he came back when Apple was on its knees and is now worth around US$600b has to be the greatest turnaround in corporate history.
Who would you like sitting next to you at a dinner party and why?
Assuming that’s living people only, I find it quite a difficult question to answer right now. It feels to me like there is a bit of a void at the moment, particularly since the passing of Nelson Mandela, whereas previously you could easily name one or two figures that will long be remembered in history. I suspect Barack Obama will go down in history as a good president and he would be interesting to sit next to at a dinner party.
What is your favourite quote or motto?
One thing I remind myself regularly is ‘take care of your body, you only get one’.
Strategy roles by their nature tend to be very demanding and often involve long hours. It’s very easy to put work before your health in our role, especially for temporary periods. When I can feel work/life balance getting out of kilter I try to make sure I find time to head to the gym, cycle home from work, or even just go for a walk to break things up. The work will still be there when you get back but your health can be a lot harder to recover if you let it go.