Joanna Swash of Moneypenny: “Dream big”

The key is in knowing yourself, your purpose, your strengths and your weaknesses, accepting them and then building a team around you which fills in the gaps and enhances the strengths. Speak to other CEO’s and businesses too to share problems and solutions. Empower your staff and you’ll reap the reward — think back to your previous […]

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The key is in knowing yourself, your purpose, your strengths and your weaknesses, accepting them and then building a team around you which fills in the gaps and enhances the strengths. Speak to other CEO’s and businesses too to share problems and solutions. Empower your staff and you’ll reap the reward — think back to your previous jobs — who did you work harder for, the boss who made each day miserable or the boss who treated you fairly and made work fun? Inspiring a workforce will always yield better results than those who rule with fear.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna Swash.

Joanna Swash is CEO of Moneypenny, a business which employs 1,000 people globally and supports over 21,000 clients through telephone answering, live chat, switchboard and multi-channel services. Joanna is well known for her commercial acumen and hands-on leadership style, passionate about developing people and creating a culture that breeds success and innovation.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Having had my own small business, I recognized the importance of customer service and ensuring you provided an exceptional first impression to clients, so it was an easy decision to go and work for Ed and Rachel (Ed Reeves and Rachel Clacher co-founders of Moneypenny). I believed in the business and what we were trying to achieve right from the very start and had experienced the need for it first hand having had my own small business. I knew that it would be difficult to work for others having worked for myself but I had such respect for what Ed and Rachel were doing and the amazing work culture that I knew it would work with them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There’s two that spring immediately to mind. First, moving into our new HQ and second acquiring VoiceNation and Ninja Number in Atlanta.

In 2016 we moved into our new £15m headquarters and it was such an exciting time. The driving force of its design was to create one of the happiest workplaces we could, and it was all based on the feedback of our 500 employees at the time. This feedback then formed the blueprint for the building, from the tree house meeting room to the on-site pub. It was so interesting listening to what our team really wanted rather than just assuming. And then seeing their reaction when they moved in and saw all their suggestions had actually come to life, was a proud memory I will keep with me. The cherry on top was when Prince Charles came and officially opened the offices.

More recently, welcoming VoiceNation and Ninja Number to the Moneypenny family has been an exciting time, especially as the acquisition went through days before lockdown when coronavirus was taking hold. Listening and learning from the founders and discovering such similar approaches to business, the combination of people and technology, was fascinating. Only heightened by the fact we had to finalize everything virtually, from merging our technology, integrating teams and meeting new team members.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It definitely wasn’t funny at the time but I did learn my lesson. I was heading out to the States for a business trip, looking forward to it and all prepared. However, when I turned up at the airport, they couldn’t find my booking. It turns out I was booked on a flight the day before and they had me as a no-show. I was mortified. It did teach me that no matter how busy you are, you have to be organized.

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 about that?

It’s actually two people; Ed Reeves and Rachel Clacher, our founders. Their determination and belief in the business was inspiring and amazing. In my early career I came to the conclusion that working for other people wasn’t for me but the very first time I met them I realized that I was wrong. As one of their first employees, they have given me the respect and flexibility to grow to where I am today. I feel so lucky that I have had people who trusted me without proof. It blew my mind that what they were telling me about their people-centered business model and that it wasn’t just a sales pitch, it was actually true. From day one it felt like a family environment. It was so friendly and enabling and gave me the same freedom and environment as having my own business. They had, and still have, a brilliant attitude and always put themselves in the shoes of theclient, as that is how they had started off themselves. They also really thought out of the box and challenged norms so that problems were turned on their head and solutions were always found.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I am fortunate that I live in a beautiful area, so I look after my mind and body through switching off with my family and doing the mundane things appreciating my surroundings and the little things. I find that I do some of my best thinking and processing when I am sitting on the mower going up and down the lawn. Anything that disconnects you from technology is important to help give headspace and time to think, for me that could be riding or skiing perhaps.

‘Make life work’ (I have always drawn a big circle in the air and said to people it doesn’t matter how you do it. It is all in your circle and you just need to be flexible and make it work. This has stood me in so much good stead for this situation.)

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

We would live in a thoroughly boring world if everyone was the same. We thrive because we meet new people, learn new things, ask questions and listen and learn. And we can’t do this if we are all the same. Having a diverse team, in thought as well as background is essential for business success, as long as you have created the safe environment in which they can express themselves. In his book, Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed proposes that success is no longer about talent, knowledge or skill but about cognitive diversity and how that demographic diversity can increase group wisdom. Teams that are diverse in “personal experiences tend to have a richer more nuanced understanding of their human beings.” I couldn’t agree more.

As a leader, it means that you can draw from a well of unique background, experiences and viewpoints. This helps increase productivity, creativity, profits, employee engagement and much more. Having many opinions form a diverse group of people will give the best result.

We have all seen the impacts of governments that don’t have different viewpoints. Need I say more…

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

I believe in authentic, compassionate leadership in business and these principles easily translate to society. Showing empathy, cultivating trust, empowering people, and being open and honest are all important skills, we as human beings, can develop and should prioritize.

For example, empathy opens doors, removes confusion and it develops deeper levels of trust and loyalty. When people are open you can be more creative in solving problems in ways that drive productivity and success. As a CEO it is hugely important to surround yourself with brilliant people who are full of ideas and that can enhance your skills and knowledge to lead more effectively. So, we take a lot of care in ensuring that everyone knows why others are on a team and the value that they add. We also coach people on how to communicate with others of a different mindset in a positive way. This, in turn, promotes respect, trust and loyalty.

The same can be said for our approach to clients during the pandemic. So many of them have been so grateful for our approach to our flexible approach at this difficult time. We felt it was the right thing to do but it also creates loyalty and trust, reinforcing the partnership.

If you empower teams to make mistakes, be brave, and put aside the things that could hold them back, you are creating the perfect environment for them to come up with powerful ideas that could radically change the way you do business for the better. People naturally want to feel empowered — it’s up to you to give them the platform. It is about responsibility, trust, listening, purpose and self-improvement, and it can create a more connected culture.

As we work towards a new-normal, I think that it is hugely important that we learn our lessons and come out of it stronger, whether that is personally or professionally. We have seen how important it is to have a clear vision, supported by strong values so that everyone is aligned and working for the same purpose.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

My role is in building passion around our vision and nurturing our amazing culture of trust, openness and empowerment, allowing our brilliant people to do brilliant things. A good day for me is when people don’t need me but are aware of what they need to do for us to achieve our goals.

My door is always open and I believe in a in a very hands-on type approach. Being non-hierarchical enables us to be agile and creates a genuinely wonderful working environment with engaged and empowered staff who feel, and very much are, a key part of our company’s success and continued growth.

(A bad CEO makes themselves look important) I am here to support my team and give them clarity and focus and what they need and I will be available to do that.

One of my favourite quotes sums it up really well. It’s from ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

As a CEO it is also important to remember that if you are going at Ferrari pace you need to have Ferrari brakes, so you don’t crash and burn. It is important to remember this and to keep taking a step back.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

Great CEO’s are not those who are perfect. Is anyone actually perfect? A common misconception is that a great CEO is capable of handling anything. That’s not true. The best CEOs are those who are authentic, they know their strengths and weaknesses and, as I said above, are able to surround themselves with brilliant people who have strengths where your weaknesses lie, ask questions, challenge you and aren’t afraid to dream big.

We all make mistakes and a good CEO should be happy to talk about the mistakes they have made along the way. They need to be human and real and remember that no one knows what to do all of the time and for every possible eventuality. In order to scale and grow the business you need to give people the trust, freedom and clarity to expand.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I don’t see gender specific challenges. Everyone, male or female, faces different challenges based on any number of factors. And everyone, has different problems, large and small, to overcome. My advice is don’t blame it on anyone. You are in control of your own destiny. Crack on an find a different way, your own way. Challenge and change the attitudes of people who see things this way.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I’m not sure there was a difference. My actual job is the job I thought it would be because I own it. And by that I mean it is so easy to label and restrict what a CEO should be or do, as we have already discussed. My aim is to be the best CEO I can be and there’s no prescription for that. I am fortunate that the founders have allowed me the freedom to develop and lead from their example and values, doing what is best for the company and the whole team who support it.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

We’ve touched on a few already but here’s my top eight:

A bold, can-do attitude — fortune favors the brave

Dream big — just make sure you have measurable, achievable goals

Openness and honesty — be authentic

The ability to truly listen and communicate

The ability to stand in the customer’s shoes

Foresight and adaptability

The ability to stay focused on the job in hand

Never underestimate yourself — believe in yourself and follow your gut.

If 2020 has taught us anything it is that leadership is more important than ever. In this new-normal, the softer skills have taken center stage and sorted the strong from the weak, and leadership skills will have to adapt for businesses to survive. There is no longer room for rigid, unempathetic leaders who rely on hierarchical structures and have large egos.

What will set winning leaders apart is honesty, authenticity, adaptability, optimism, and a little outside-the-box thinking. Employees do not want to work for inauthentic managers, and businesses don’t want to transact with other businesses that aren’t transparent.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

The key is in knowing yourself, your purpose, your strengths and your weaknesses, accepting them and then building a team around you which fills in the gaps and enhances the strengths. Speak to other CEO’s and businesses too to share problems and solutions. Empower your staff and you’ll reap the reward — think back to your previous jobs — who did you work harder for, the boss who made each day miserable or the boss who treated you fairly and made work fun? Inspiring a workforce will always yield better results than those who rule with fear.

Also, don’t be afraid to dream big. History has shown us what can be achieved when we dream, when we embrace and pursue our dreams — it’s how we define who we are and what we want to stand for. Don’t be afraid of them. Just make sure they don’t turn into daydreams. Whether they are large or small, keep them measurable and harness their power.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

At Moneypenny we are all about our people. Without them we wouldn’t be the success we have been so I can’t stress how important that is. We are the biggest employee in our area and have a huge sense of responsibility to the 1,000 employees we have, and the 300 new recruits who have joined us since March, so truly looking after them is a big part of what we do. That extends from creating a happy workplace and safe environment for them to flourish to making sure that they have a festive feast on their table this year.

Corporate Social Responsibility is important for many reasons, not least because we all have a responsibility to think about the impact we have and the contributions we make. Just one example at Moneypenny is We Mind The Gap, a charity created by Moneypenny’s founder Rachel Clacher to offer support and provide opportunities for young women, giving them access to paid work experience as well as life-coaching and mentoring. After six months, 7 out of 10 of our trainees move from being wholly dependent on the state with few choices to make, to full-time work or education with many great choices.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. That until you have actually done it, you can’t live it. It’s all well and good learning about things and reading new theories but until you put it into practice you don’t really understand it.
  2. That what I thought would be my goal in life, actually wasn’t. Learning to understand myself, my purpose was the most important thing, and my goals came afterwards. Plus, they are not static, they need revisiting and revising and sometimes altogether scrapping!
  3. To believe in yourself and trust your instincts
  4. That everyone deep down is the same. Like my mum said to me at an early age. Everyone is scared of the same things and it is important to remember this.
  5. In truth, people don’t want you to fail, they want you to be a success.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement for good manners. If everyone treated people with respect, honesty, acceptance and authenticity then the world would be a better place; a safer more pleasant place in which more people would feel free to be themselves and, in turn, realize their potential.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

To Smile More. My first job, aged 14 was in a fish and chip shop. It wasn’t glamorous in any way; I was washing dirty pots from the café and the greasy paraphernalia from the shop. All for £1.50 per hour. After only two weeks in the job Mel, who ran the café, went on holiday and I was parachuted in into a pinny and front of house.

This particular day was extremely busy and will always stick in my mind. As I rushed to plonk a couple of plates of fish and chips on a table, the elderly woman touched my arm and said “I know you are very busy love, but it doesn’t hurt to smile.”

This comment has stayed with me for life and has really helped both in business and personally too — a smile on your face is contagious and allows us to empathize and even experience other people’s feelings, something that is really important as a leader. This customer wasn’t afraid to give feedback, and I wasn’t afraid to take it. To this day I passionately believe that getting stuck-in and having a smile on your face is a key ingredient in leadership

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 if we tag them

It has to be Ryan Reynolds. Along with Rob McElhenney, he has just bought our local football club, Wrexham FC, and that really excites and intrigues me. I look forward to welcoming them to our home town and I love the fact that neither of them professes to be football experts but they are up for a new business challenge and learning all about it.

Having read all about Ryan’s involvement with Aviation Gin, I would love to pick his brains about his approach to business and the lessons he has learned, his work ethic and how his career as an actor has helped or hindered this side of him.

Plus, I think he would be good fun too and we both have links to Wrexham and the US now. He comes across as really enthusiastic, energetic and witty (his lessons on parenting had me in stitches), not taking things too seriously.

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