Philip Severs is the outgoing Director of Finance for Sheffield Hallam University, which is one of the largest Universities in the UK. The organisation is one of the key employers in the city and it plays a leading role in the success of the regional economy.

As he closes the chapter of his time with the University which has seen significant change, we caught up with him to hear more about the challenges in the role and his insight on leadership in a complex organisation.

Tell us how you got to where you are today.

“After gaining a Maths degree, I trained as a Chartered Accountant with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell in Leeds. I then progressed my career through the traditional route of management accounting, financial accounting, financial controller and onto director of finance type roles.

The majority of my career prior to joining the University was in public transport – buses and railways – organisations going through significant changes – deregulation, privatisation, commercialisation. For example – when I was with British Rail – it was a £3.5bn turnover organisation breaking up its balance sheet to support a new commercially focussed business structure.

I also had a spell in Further Education due to the ‘92 Act – colleges were effectively being privatised and deregulated at that time.”

Is there anyone who has acted as a mentor early on in your career?

“There are no particular individuals, but I have come across various people who have offered insights and different approaches. For example, from the Finance Director of the bus company, I learned a lot about how to lead a team going through change during the process of turning a nationalised industry into what was to become a private sector organisation.”

How long have you been at Sheffield Hallam University and what has the role been like?

“Fifteen and a half years.

This region/city has sucked me in, hence I’ve spent over fifteen years here, when my previous average in a role was four years.

In my leaving speech next week I will say: “When I came here, it was almost `just another job’ but it’s most certainly not been just another job”.

Nothing can prepare you for working in a University, particularly when there is no financial bottom line as a prime objective. You can quickly run into difficulties if you don’t get the financial management right. It is a matter of squaring off the University’s academic priorities against the supporting financial ones.

It’s only when you look back, you realise that it’s a fantastic privilege to work in this University, with over 34,000 students and how important it is to the city and the region.

The role brings with it fantastic moments but sometimes considerable frustration, with people whose priorities are so diverse.

We’ve been financially successful – registering financial surpluses every year and generating cash.  The focus is now on generating an EBITDA-type measure as the sector is moving in that direction.

I’ve seen massive changes during my time here. When I joined annual income was £115 million, now it is £265 million and we have invested c£200 million over the last seven or eight years in capital, including the estate.

We had a significant teaching grant – £65m-£70m when I arrived – that is now down to £5m.

The University now has to go out into the market place and recruit students or we don’t get the income and the cash flow starts to suffer. It’s not quite a market yet – there are still restrictions on what we can do with pricing with student fees still being capped, but beyond that, it is an increasingly competitive market.”

Your relationship with the three University Vice Chancellors (Chief Executives) that have worked with during your time here has been key. How have you made it work?

“Increasingly University Vice Chancellors have become more like Chief Executives, focusing on strategic direction as well as academic leadership.

It’s about understanding organisational priorities and individual priorities for each one, how then the finance agenda can work against that and within that.

I’ve been lucky with all three in that I have had informal relationships with them all, which I think is important.

I’ve always thought that the three-way relationship between Chairman, Chief Exec and FD is really important and understanding the priorities of the Board and the priorities of the Chief Executive, and what that means for the finances of the organisation has been very important.

I think, all those relationships are built on demonstrating doing what you say you’re going to do. It’s about understanding and making commitments to the Vice Chancellor/Board and then following through and delivering.

When I look back, I’m incredibly proud to have worked for this organisation.”

What has been your biggest challenge?

“There’s a personal challenge, which no one prepares you for, in becoming Director of Finance for the University. It’s a bit like stepping off a cliff. The move from grant to fees has driven a very different dynamic in the University. We’re moving from a grant culture, where Universities were, to a situation where we only survive if we go out and recruit students. It’s an interesting challenge in terms of the academic thinking, for example, academics may want to put on courses they want to deliver, but if that’s not attractive in the market place, then you’ve got a bit of a problem.”

How would you describe your leadership style?

“The key thing about leadership, is about creating meaning. Within the changes that we’re facing, what is it we’re wanting to achieve as an organisation? and also importantly how do you articulate that vision and future direction in different ways for different people that you’re working with?

And sometimes, how can you persuade and give confidence to people that they can do things that they don’t think they can do?

Part of our leadership initiative is allowing myself to be convinced by those who are passionate about our leadership agendas and then giving responsibility to people get on with it. I’ve generally come to the view that you build change from the bottom up. You can’t force change from the top.”

Is there a piece of advice you’ve carried forward throughout your career?

“Yes, the importance of listening and understanding. Finance is trying to paint a picture of a particular set of circumstances in numbers and then you need to understand what it is you’re trying to measure. It’s important to get out of the office as much as possible to understand what’s happening on the ground and to understand peoples’ perspectives and to interpret that in ways that become meaningful.”

What do you look for in people when you recruit?

“We have to go beyond technical skills now. You can look at someone’s CV and see that they’ve produced accounts, they’ve done management accounts, they’ve controlled cash, all those technical things.

You need the people skills to go beyond that. You need someone with empathy who can interact authentically with their team and peer group.

I have yet to be persuaded that good technical people have sufficient people skills to be good managers.

Organisational empathy and understanding what the organisation is all about are really important here. We do change people’s lives.”

What’s next for you in your career after SHU?

“The standing of my role in the University and the exposure to change management has allowed me to secure a couple of non-executive roles.

I’m on the board of Chesterfield Royal Hospital Foundation Trust – which is an incredibly exciting role. The NHS is in a very challenging position at the moment.  This takes a lot of my time, but I am keen to contribute more.

I’ve also recently joined the board of Yorkshire Housing, based in Leeds and I want to contribute to that fascinating sector.

I’ve had a number of offers of “Are you interested in working with us on this?”, but my wife  tells me she’d like to see more of me, but I still have that burning desire to make a difference.”