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Executive Education

Finance for Executives

Finance for Executives Programme: Gaining a voice at the table

Charlotte Thompson

Director of Strategic Planning and Research with the British Olympic Association (BOA)

Past participant of the Finance for Executives programme

You meet such a lovely diversity of people from so many different sectors, businesses and geographies. These are people that you simply wouldn’t meet in your day-to-day working life, and what is so striking are the degrees of difference and similarity.

Charlotte Thompson is Director of Strategic Planning and Research with the British Olympic Association (BOA), the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain & Northern Ireland responsible for taking Team GB to the Olympic Games. It’s a role she’s held since January 2018, but her route to Team GB was almost as winding as an Olympic BMX racing track.

An expert in crisis management, Thompson has worn many diverse hats across the trajectory of her career; from emergency planning and business continuity roles for the public sector through to senior consultancy roles with Deloitte in risk and resilience, and now major Olympic Games planning. Something that underpins her professional and private life – a red thread binding her interests and choices, she says – is a passion for sport; and a gift for bringing people together to achieve a shared goal (Plan A) and in adversity, to navigate the “bumps in the road” (Plan B) when things go wrong.

“I’m fascinated by people and by how we respond to challenges, especially in times of crisis.  Emergency planning, be it within the public sector, in enterprises or in the field of sports management – building that Plan C for contingency – is where my career began, but I soon realised it felt a little sad always planning for things to go wrong! I was lucky to get the opportunity to work in the Organising Committee for London 2012 and then also head out to Rio in 2016 to support the ParalympicsGB team as an operational readiness consultant. These roles allowed me to really combine my strategic planning mindset with my passion for sport and for the Olympics, and led me to where I am today.”

Today, Thompson leads the BOA’s efforts in strategic planning: providing the centralised cross-department support in ensuring that Olympic Games planning, business-as-usual operations and any new strategic initiatives are scoped and delivered in line with Team GB’s Strategic Plan and priorities. She also leads on impact, she adds, not just around athlete performance on the field of play at Games, but around the role that Team GB has 365 days a year in helping to improve the health and wellbeing of the nation through the power Olympic sport as well as becoming a leading sports organisation in their actions and advocacy around sustainability. It’s a demanding role. And one that requires a good deal of financial understanding and influence to drive forward momentum.

“This is what brought me to INSEAD and to the Finance for Executives programme,” she says. “I was looking for an intense, immersive learning experience to formalise and accelerate my strategic skills in financial planning, as I’d not had formal training – I’d learnt it all on the job, so to speak. INSEAD was highly recommended to me by our CEO who is an alumnus of the school. He described the INSEAD experience as the ‘best thing he’d ever done,’ so I signed up for the programme with high expectations.”

Those expectations were exceeded from the start, she says, though going into the programme at first was “a little daunting.”

“Though not entirely unexpected, there was a significant amount of preparatory reading, and coming to such an eminent school I wasn’t sure I’d be fully up to speed. However, I realised quickly I wasn’t the only one thinking this and the teaching from Day 1 was so exceptional that I quickly came to terms with the ideas and concepts. Everything is broken down into manageable chunks and supported by real-life examples and practical application that translates to our actual needs. Re-reading the books and the materials from the programme now, I can understand how to approach everything with the skills we developed.”

The practical dimension of the learning, anchored in live real-world cases with actionable takeaways has given her a broadened understanding of the financial consequences of strategic decisions, all in support of value creation, that has “absolute relevance and applicability” to her own organisation. There is a “freshness” to the programme around the relevance of ideas and theories – concepts that underpin current business affairs and the decisions made by major business players – that brings the learning very much to life, says Thompson.

Then there’s the cohort.

“You meet such a lovely diversity of people from so many different sectors, businesses and geographies. These are people that you simply wouldn’t meet in your day-to-day working life, and what is so striking are the degrees of difference and similarity.”

Coming from a relatively small organisation, she was fascinated to observe how colleagues from multinationals would approach the business simulations and challenges enacted together in the classroom. Her peers provided different lenses, she says, through which to approach problems.

“It’s just fascinating to see how the ‘financial brain’ operates in different people from different backgrounds. I am more of a coordinator who likes to bring all the different sources of financial information together to help make an informed decision, while others are happier to be driving the data input and spreadsheet calculations, but what was great in this course is we worked closely together through each step and supported one another to make sure we understood all the steps in coming to our conclusions. And the bonds you build within your cohort turn quickly into solid connections – friendships that I hope to maintain for life.”

Coming out of the programme, Thompson is keen to apply the frameworks that she has mastered across the pipeline of projects within her organisation. She is energized to bring a new understanding of holistic costing, longer-term strategic financial management and control to the work that she does with her CEO, CFO and colleagues.

“I’ve built the knowledge, the confidence and the vocabulary to have new conversations and to articulate my decision-making at the board level. The programme has given me a voice at the table whereas before I might not have been sure enough to ask the right questions.”

Finance for Executives has comprehensively addressed areas of weakness in her own knowledge and skills – a barrier that has until now felt like it would restrict her from going further in her career, she says.

“No one likes to admit they have a weakness. But for me I was supported by my leader in acknowledging this was the area I needed to develop in, and afforded the opportunity to take a world-class course to help hone these skills. Most of us will have felt a kind of impostor syndrome at some point – maybe reading through balance sheets and not fully understanding the content. This programme gives you the depth and the space to absorb the knowledge, to put the impostor syndrome to bed, and to thrive – whatever your role, whatever your business.”