“Even if it’s down to you to sort things out, there’s usually someone who has been there before or who can help by taking off your shoulder some other burden” — Matt Fincham
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Fincham of Finch PR.
Matt is a Communications Consultant, from London, UK, working in industries including finance, technology, and aerospace. Matt served for over 9 years as a full-time officer in the British Army, including time in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. Since then Matt has been an army reservist officer for over 10 years, which he balances with his career helping organizations with their communications, a specialization he began during his military service.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was lucky enough to grow up in the countryside in Gloucestershire, which is a couple of hours drive West of London. I had one brother (with who I fought like crazy for much of my childhood) and my early memories are of running around, getting muddy, and playing on the farm we lived next door to. Sometimes we helped the farmer, but looking back I don’t think we were much help. After the local village school, we went to a private school in the nearby town of Cheltenham; it was there that I joined the school cadet force, which sparked my desire to join the British Army.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I work in corporate communications — running my consultancy Finch PR helping companies with their public relations. For example, I recently had a large aerospace client who was attending a trade conference in California. Working alongside their US agencies, we put together a plan with the aim of driving footfall to their booth at the event and creating buzz around their latest product. We drafted a news release about their product launch and an invitation to attending media to come to a social event that was planned for the evening. The media targets were divided between myself and the US team, then reached out to selected targets under embargo and to the rest when the news was live, setting up meetings with the team at the event where required. It all went off fine and we got the results we wanted as regards media coverage and footfall; my only regret is that I didn’t get to go with the event team to California!
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
My early military career involved five years in the cadet force at school and then three years in the Officer Training Corps at university. So, when I made it to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst (like West Point in the US) I already knew how to march and shine my shoes and could read a map. I commissioned into the Royal Logistic Corps and for my first job out of training was given a fleet of trucks and 40+ men and women to look after. I deployed with them on operations in Northern Ireland and then for me followed a mixture of logistics planning and leadership roles until I became the leader of a Combat Camera Team, with whom I deployed twice to Iraq. That was my last full-time military role and also the start of my communications career. Since then I have continued in the military communications specialization as a part-time reservist, after commissioning as an officer in the Royal Yeomanry.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
When I was serving in Iraq, I was involved in a mission to storm a police station in Basrah that had gone rogue and had started committing crimes rather than solving them, imprisoning local civilians to ransom them to their families. After we had secured the building the engineers packed it with explosives to ensure the perpetrators couldn’t set up shop there again. Looking at the building, I noticed that the Iraqi national flag was still flying from it. As a military public relations officer, I knew that if the building was blown sky-high while an Iraqi flag was still flying from it, a picture of that would be used for years to illustrate the concerns of the anti-war lobby and undermine what was otherwise a successful operation aimed at improving the lives of the city’s residents. I went up with my marine operator to the roof, which was exposed if anyone had wanted to take a shot at us, and took the flag down before the engineers blew the building up.
That was the morning of 25 December 2006; the only Christmas present I needed was the success of the operation and being a part of it. We made the Boxing Day newspapers for the right reasons, with the pictures taken by my team front and center.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
The best story of heroism in recent times that I have heard of, was about Sergeant Dipprasad Pun of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. He was on duty at an outpost, heard noises and saw two insurgents attempting to lay an IED in a nearby road. When he reacted by throwing a grenade at them, he was quickly surrounded and attacked by Taliban fighters.
Pun pulled his machine gun off its tripod and fired every round he had towards the oncoming fighters, before throwing grenades at the attackers. When he was out of grenades, he picked up his rifle and started using that. He even used a mine.
As Pun defended his position, one Taliban fighter climbed the side of the tower adjacent to the guardhouse, hopped on to the roof and rushed him. Pun turned to shoot him, but his weapon misfired so he grabbed the tripod of his machine gun and knocked the enemy fighter off of the roof of the building; he dropped a sandbag on another. Pun continued to fight off the assault until reinforcements arrived. In total, he fired off 250 general-purpose machine gun rounds, 180 rifle rounds, six phosphorous grenades, six normal grenades, five underslung grenade launcher rounds, and one Claymore mine.
Sergeant Pun was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and commented: “At that time I wasn’t worried, there wasn’t any choice but to fight. The Taliban were all around the checkpoint, I was alone. I had so many of them around me that I thought I was definitely going to die so I thought I’d kill as many of them as I could before they killed me.”
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Sergeant Pun didn’t stop, he didn’t give up. That’s a big part of being a hero; doing your duty and not stopping, not taking the easy way out. Pun kept going against the odds, alone and fought his way into legend. It reminds me of what my old Sandhurst Colour Sergeant Doug Beattie (who was himself later decorated in Afghanistan) said to me when he saw me flagging behind a squad run: “Don’t stop, sir! Your soldiers won’t stop, your NCOs won’t stop, they’ll keep going — so don’t stop sir!”
In fairness, I had a cold that day which made running with equipment hard on my lungs, but I still took his point.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
As an officer in the British Army, one is invariably put in charge of highly experienced soldiers; that can include people who have been serving for up to 18 years when one has only been serving for a year or so and that just in training. Yet one still has to lead them. You quickly realize that you have to understand their talents and how they contribute to making the machine work — and how you as a leader have to fit in. Your role isn’t always what you expect, but adaptability and resourcefulness are other things the military teaches you and stand you in good stead in business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I had a commanding officer called Lieutenant Colonel Howard Hughes, who I worked closely with. He was a great guy and multi-talented; not only was he an effective officer, but also an author, a musician, a pilot, and a gifted raconteur. Above all though, he was a good bloke. I learned much from him before he tragically died in service, but the thing that stands out was that he taught me that success comes in different forms. I have worked for officers who were more ambitious, more driven, more intelligent, harder working. But Howard taught me the importance of balance and of looking after those under one’s command, rather than simply aiming to please the top brass.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
Crises take many forms, both personal or professional. To me, it means a situation that is extremely difficult or dangerous. To me time is an important factor too; it’s urgent and not something one can live with for a protracted period; it’s an emergency and the danger has perhaps only recently been identified. For a business, a crisis holds the potential of ruin.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
In the army, they teach us to plan… and keep on planning. It’s about 90% of an officer’s work, even when you don’t have the word “plans” in your job title. I’m not a natural planner, but I recognize that it’s invaluable, especially pre-crisis. The military has an extensive analysis process which they will follow, but I won’t attempt to reproduce that here, I’ll just pick out some key elements.
When a business plans their project or campaign, they need to consider a variety of factors and outcomes. Before they come to look at courses of action, they first need to look at the mission ahead of them and ask what subordinate tasks will be required to complete it. Can they do it on their own or will they need external assistance like consultants to help them? That way they not only avoid creating problems but can make sure they have the right resources available — and if you can’t perform a mission or need extra help it’s best to tell your boss — or perhaps the board — as soon as possible.
Next, the leader must look at every factor of their tasks and ask “so what?” This is the point at which you start to ask what might go wrong, what impact that problem would have, and how you can avoid or mitigate negative outcomes. After you have come up with options for a plan you can decide on a preferred course of action and then you need to wargame it; it’s best if you get a senior member of your team to stress test any plan by attacking it. So they must ask questions like: “What if our logistics company lets us down? What if our currency falls or rises against the currency in our target market? What if consumer demand for our product collapses? What if we have a health or safety problem at our offices?” These are the sort of questions that are on business leaders’ minds in the current Covid19 crisis, though these problems can come up at other times as well. It’s best to tabulate the issues, grading each for likelihood as well as the severity of impact, and having plans to mitigate each. Murphy’s Law dictates the ones you don’t plan to mitigate will be the ones that hit you.
The biggest benefit of working through this process is that you’ll end up with the strongest plan, which may not be the way you had first thought of approaching the mission.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
I’d say the first thing people need to do is ask: “Is this a matter of life or death?” If it is, then preserving life is your top priority and if danger is imminent then you need to think whether you can handle this on your own or if you need to call for help, perhaps from the emergency services.
If it isn’t life or death and nothing is going to fall apart if you take no action in the next time then thank God it isn’t, make a cup of tea and sit down with a pen and paper, or a blank computer page. Then start planning, starting with asking whether this is up to you to sort out and what other colleagues, resources, and external agencies you need to inform and in what order. It’s highly likely that you’ll not get far down the page before you realize you can’t tackle this on your own and you need to seek some advice and assistance.
If you have previously taken the time to plan for different crisis scenarios, you’ll find yourself dusting those plans off pretty soon. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, but there are often whole chunks of it that you can use.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
A cool head. An understanding of the business and the problem. The ability to form a team. Communicating with important stakeholders. A sense of humor. Remembering to sit down and have a cup of tea from time to time.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My old Sandhurst Colour Sergeant, Doug Beattie went on to win a Military Cross in Afghanistan. He has these qualities in spades and he was decorated as one of three officers who led a composite force of rear-echelon and reservist soldiers and Afghan forces to try to retake an Afghan town called Garmsir from the Taliban. I remember him as an inspiring figure and a great communicator. But in his time of crisis, it really was life or death and he didn’t have much time for cups of tea. He’s now a politician in the UK and a tireless advocate for his community.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
In 2018 I came back from holiday and was sacked by the PR consultancy I was working for the day after I got back. I didn’t see it coming at the time. In truth, the job wasn’t right for me as I felt I wasn’t going anywhere, but I was stubbornly sticking with it, so with hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Nonetheless, it’s not pleasant when you suddenly lose your main source of income. I set about building my own small consultancy since then and I’m much happier doing my own thing.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Prioritize and plan. Work out what you must do and when. When I lost my consultancy job two years ago, my first priority was finding other work in the short term, to buy myself time to look to the longer term. So that meant taking on a mixture of small project work and PR gigs for agencies while I built up my client portfolio.
- Focus. You’re going to have to put some things on the back burner when you have a crisis to solve. I remember in my first job after leaving the army I declined to go to an evening work event as I wanted to go and workout at my gym. Two weeks later I was fired and that incident was cited as an example of a lack of commitment; so a lack of focus on my job created a crisis.
- Ask for help and advice. Even if it’s down to you to sort things out, there’s usually someone who has been there before or who can help by taking off your shoulder some other burden — so if you’re a parent trying to grow your business, it might be finding someone who can help with childcare to let you attend networking events.
- Communicate. If you are to maintain your relationships in the non-crisis areas of your life, then communicate with the important people. If you don’t want to give friends and family the details then at least let them know there’s an issue at work. So if your buddies invite you for a drink and you need to work late, be sure to respond to that message to say so; don’t leave them thinking you don’t care. But if you can go then go; you need to maintain a work-life balance and friendships are one of the things that make life worth living.
- Be positive. You will get through this situation. Like Dipprasad Pun and Doug Beattie: don’t stop.
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If at all possible, you need to get involved in something outside work and the home. Of course, that’s less easy for those working long hours or with a young family and you have to prioritize and not create a crisis in those areas by doing too much. But getting involved in some sort of activity, sport, society, or community project broadens your horizons, giving perspective beyond the daily grind and offering the chance of another level of friendships and success; as my old CO Howard Hughes taught me, success comes in many forms. If it involves charity or giving back in some way, then even better.
Personally speaking, I’m an officer in the army reserve, a member of my local church, I go to the gym daily (when it’s open — currently it’s closed due to the virus), I ride horses and play polo in the Summer. I’m also a member of the Company of Communicators, a London city livery company, which is a charitable and networking body for those in PR and related disciplines. I benefit from being involved in each of these activities and I add value to organizations where I can. I admit it’s easier for me to be involved here and there as I’m single with no family commitments.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
This isn’t something I have often thought about, as to me celebrities are just people like the rest of us; they have their own issues and their views are usually no more or less worthy than mine, yours or your readers. But since you ask, I’d be interested to find out over lunch or coffee whether Tom Hanks is as charming a guy as he comes across onscreen. And if I was in California seeing Tom, then maybe I should stop in on Prince Harry for a beer as he might appreciate an English accent and a chance to talk about the army and polo. I reckon Sean William Scott would be good fun to go for a pint with too.
How can our readers follow you online?
My Twitter handle is @FinchPRMatt and I’m on Instagram as @finchy4. My consultancy website is finchpr.com and interested business people can find my profile on LinkedIn. I don’t like to spend too much of my life online, but if some of your readers start following me, I might have to share more often 😊
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.