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A view from here: Doug Field

23 March 2020: Doug Field, Joint Chief Executive of East of England Co-op, talks to writer Penelope Rance about how he got to where he is, and what advice he’d give new accountants.

How did you get to where you are now?

I started out in Cheltenham, qualifying with a company called Hazlewoods, then went on to PwC in Bristol. In 2004 I moved into industry at Christie Group in Milton Keynes. I ended up in retail by accident – or rather, by necessity. My wife was from East Anglia and wanted to live there. I was on a long notice period, so I resigned without having another job. It was a risk, but my PwC experience stood me in good stead, enabling me to join East of England Co-op as financial controller in 2008. I became finance director within a year, and by November 2010 I was Joint Chief Executive. In December 2014 I joined the board of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) Board and became chair in September 2017.

Why did you choose accountancy?

Because I thought it was the best route to becoming a business person. It’s a trusted profession. It’s got an organisation behind it that generates that trust, whether that means making hard decisions, making sure we’re compliant, or coming down on people who breach the rules.

Has it met your expectations?

Yes. And the highlight for me is definitely the people. Being on the LEP board means I’m working with like-minded people, and also those with diverse skills, who help me become more open-minded. It’s helped me grow as an individual, benefited me in my career, and even improved my personal life.

Besides technical knowledge, what skills are key for accountants today?

It’s an accountant’s role to work out why things happened, then use that insight to drive the right business decisions. For example, our average basket spend is less than £10. That’s 40m transactions a year to generate £5m profit. You need to handle huge volumes of data, but can easily fall into the trap of not using it effectively. Find the question you want to answer, then get the data you need, rather than using data to force an answer.

How have your skills evolved for each career step?

I’ve had to develop my leadership skills managing bigger, more diverse teams with different skill sets. You’ve got to find a style that suits you and the people you lead.

What do you wish you had known at the start of your career?

The importance of communication and soft skills. I had to work hard at networking when I was younger, and it meant pushing myself out of my comfort zone. But I’m reaping the rewards now.

What advice would you give accountants starting out?

If you ask the right questions, you can make progress. Because what gets measured gets improved, and you can then start using those measurement tools as analytics to help drive improvements.

What’s the best advice you’ve had?

Always ask the stupid question – very often it’s not so stupid.

How would you advise an accountant looking to move into business?

Think practically. In industry, you have the opportunity to be part of a team that makes a difference. At PwC, I had the chance to move into financial services, but there’s no tangible product there. It’s much more theoretical. The PwC client I liked working on was Dyson, where there was a product you could see and touch.

What should accountants be learning about right now?

They’ve got to find new ways of doing things, different business models. They need to develop their challenge and inquiry skills, so they’re well placed to be part of the journey to the solution. We need to refocus attention on helping people take calculated risks.