February 7, 2022

New Shoots of Growth: A Conversation with Howard Bell

Matthew Birchall

Howard Bell is a specialist in sparking business growth. The recently appointed Chief Commercial Officer of JustGiving, the world’s leading online fundraising platform, has a track record that would induce envy in even the most successful growth functions. So what are his top tips for igniting phenomenal business growth? And how did he rise to the top of the industry?

Tell us about your career history to date…

I started out as a product manager for Dow Jones, a large multinational publishing and financial information firm. Before long I was promoted to regional product manager, then regional product marketing manager, before assuming responsibility as the firm’s global product lead.

“This actually came about because I complained about the product! I lodged a criticism and they told me to fix it. All of a sudden I had to learn how to manage 105 people across six continents, to make nothing of the fact that I was also heading up a large transformation programme.”

In addition to working in a variety of business functions, from product management and marketing through to business development, I’ve also worked for a number of different companies, such as PayPal and Barclaycard.

My next big job was Chief Commercial Officer of FutureLearn, a relatively new company that specialises in massive open online courses (MOOC’s). As CCO, I had full oversight over the company’s growth strategy, both on the learner acquisition side (B2C) and the partnership side.  In the last month I’ve taken up a new post as Chief Commercial Officer of JustGiving. This is actually my second stint with the company: I headed up their B2B growth team for three years between 2010-13. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time at FutureLearn, I’m hugely excited to be back with JustGiving.

Can you tell us about your experience at PayPal?

I was the first person PayPal hired outside the US. A team was established in London with a simple brief: try to make PayPal successful outside the US and then grow it across Europe. We were hugely successful in meeting our goal: we opened six offices in Europe, one in Singapore, and one in Australia.

Would you classify yourself as a growth hacker?

At FutureLearn, I did a lot of what the American’s call growth hacking. That term is used more in Silicon Valley than it is in the UK. I tend to view myself more as a growth officer in that I am responsible for overseeing a growth team. When I joined FutureLearn, for instance, the team was small – this was about three months in. We experimented with a number of growth techniques, and dialled them up or cut them out depending on how successful they were in driving business. In that sense, you could say that we embraced a growth hacking mindset.

Who are your heroes in the industry?

I tend to admire brands more than individuals. Sustainable organisations with a strong social mission always interest me, as do disruptive organisations that use technology as a force for good. Skype and Spotify are some well-known companies that fit this description.

“Having said that, I really like what Pierre Omidyar did at Ebay. By creating a feedback forum that quelled fears of transferring money to people on the other side of the world, Omidyar was able to transform Ebay into a brand and marketplace that people truly trusted.”

He’s since gone on to launch a raft of other propositions that have a strong social mission, such as Kiva, an automated microlending platform. FinTech companies like Funding Circle and TransferWise are also great examples of companies willing to change the rules so that they can deliver a positive social impact.

What’s the best learning experience you’ve had?

I learnt a lot during my MBA at the Cranfield School of Management. While I didn’t always enjoy the classes, I never grew tired of learning from my classmates. I was relatively young at the time, about twenty-six or twenty-seven, so the opportunity to learn from people who were already director level was fantastic.

But learning also happens on the job. You should never underestimate what you can learn simply through doing something. When I was a consultant at Gemini, we also did some great Boot Camp training. Twenty years on I still remember the strategy and team leadership coaching we received. More recently, I have turned towards online courses – these have only really come to the fore over the last four years.

Are there any courses that you would recommend?

It’s important to get coaching and feedback at any level, whether that be C-level, trustee level, or management level. Courses aimed at improving your people management skills are always worth thinking seriously about, as they can be really valuable and powerful if done well. This was certainly the case at Gemini, where we focused a lot on people-based development. CIPD  events and resources are great if you are interested in this.

What skills do you think commercial officers in your industry need?

People management skills are essential for anyone interested in a commercial role, regardless of your exact brief. This is particularly true of the tech sector given the premium on building an agile and creative team that can respond rapidly to technological change. I believe that the foundational skills can be taught; I also believe that you can learn a lot from observing others and through live on-the-job training.

The key corporate strategy and finance skills can also be taught. There are clear and robust frameworks out there that you can easily learn about. The real key is to apply the theoretical knowledge you pick up to actual practice. Having a coach and team that you can learn from is also important, as is having an environment and culture that encourages learning. You want to create a culture where people feel comfortable asking for advice.

What do you think growth functions need be aware of?

There are a number of things. Striking a balance between the strategic vision driving your company and the small details that will help you get there is critical. You need to get comfortable with the fine detail in order to grasp what’s working well and what’s not working so well.

“You also need to be quite obsessive about finding new shoots of growth. This comes from doing your standard metrics and analytics work, but it also comes from working closely with your team – you need to listen closely to what they are saying, so that you can find that sweet spot where you get really rapid growth.”

The other point worth mentioning is that ideas that are scalable can often take time, so you’ve got to be patient. You’re likely to fail several times before you pinpoint the right formula. Not being too rigid is key: you’ve got to know when to back off and try a different approach.

What industry trends do you think we’ll see in 2016?

There’s already a huge trend around self-directed learning, and I expect to see much more of this in the years to come. Individuals now have the means to really engineer their learning and development. There is a plethora of high-quality online courses available. The challenge facing individuals is choosing the right one and figuring out how to invest in a learning plan that unfolds over time.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in their career?

If I could do it all again, I would try to find someone to help me reflect on what trends were likely to be important over a twenty-five-year timeline. From here I would look to outline a rough strategy of where I wanted to head.

“But it’s important to note that most careers aren’t linear. You’ve got to be prepared to move laterally and expose yourself to a variety of different roles, whether that’s experience in product management, marketing, finance, or strategy. Mixing up experience in a small versus a large business is another variation on this theme.”

It’s probably wise to figure out what you don’t like, too, so that you avoid going down a cul-de-sac. Figuring out the areas that you are interested in and whether you’d like to be working in these areas in twenty-five years is certainly a good approach. I firmly believe you’ve got to be happy doing what you’re doing if you’re going to sustain an interest and be successful. A degree of self-awareness plus deep reflection on industry trends can really save you in the long run.

What skills helped you land your current role at JustGiving?

Experience really helped. Aside from the fact that I had worked at JustGiving before, I also had a track-record of leading commercial partnerships and driving B2B growth. This is what was in the brief for the role, so that undoubtedly helped me out. Combined with my genuine commitment to the purpose, mission and values of JustGiving, my success in creating growth for digital products and platforms in the past made me stand out.

What attributes do you look for in candidates?

First and foremost, we look for people who are the right cultural fit for JustGiving. We value creativity, collaboration and great communication skills, but we also look for people with highly developed analytical and digital business skills. Successful candidates generally display a blend of all these qualities.

A particular empathy with our mission is also really important. We don’t want people who are satisfied with anything less than the best. People who are really ambitious and demonstrate a willingness to really commit to what they do stand out. Finally, we look for people who can demonstrate that they have the capacity to succeed in the role.

How can someone get ahead in their career?

The capacity to influence people and take others with you is hugely important. You need to demonstrate that you have the potential to lead a team. As you progress in your career, leadership skills often come to the fore, as do good communication skills. Being able to distill complex problems down into very simple recommendations and proposals can really help you out.

Being able to collaborate with other functions is also key. The person who just sits with their team and is an expert in their specialist area is almost certainly not going to be able to exert the same influence over other people as someone who has an outward facing view of their role.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

An understanding of other cultures is important, especially in the tech sector. It’s a global industry by default. What will persuade people in the UK or Silicon Valley won’t necessarily work in the Middle East or Asia, so having experience in different countries can make you a more rounded and effective business leader. I would absolutely encourage people to get out there. During my twenties and thirties, for instance, I spent time in the United States, Australia, and Hong Kong. To this day, I am still drawing on these experiences: my time overseas was immensely formative.

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