Joanna Swash of Moneypenny: “Empower your people and take a step back”

Empower your people and take a step back. Your brilliant business is only brilliant because, as a leader, you surround yourself with brilliant people. That’s my mantra and it is one of the earliest leadership lessons I learned. If you empower teams to make mistakes, be brave and put aside anything that would hold them back, you […]

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Empower your people and take a step back.

Your brilliant business is only brilliant because, as a leader, you surround yourself with brilliant people. That’s my mantra and it is one of the earliest leadership lessons I learned.

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


As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna Swash.

Joanna Swash is Group 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 and she is passionate about developing people and creating a culture that breeds success and innovation.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Having had my own small business, I recognised 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 started your career?

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 treehouse 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 finalise everything virtually, from merging our technology, integrating teams and meeting new team members. We have stunning offices in Atlanta and are recruiting another 100 employees due to our rapid growth. It is really exciting.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant 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

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

One of my favorite authors is Matthew Syed and his most recent book, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking has really got my thinking about leadership beyond the business, and success in general. I am always learning and love delving into new perspectives. The overarching concept is in the power of cognitive diversity — the ability to think differently about the world around us. It purposes that if we can pool our collective intelligence, we will be able to confront some of the greatest challenges of our time. Think about it. Harnessing or differences to tackle climate change, for example. And it has an amazing range of real life case studies to draw upon. It is science based but explained so well, encouraging the reader to think a little differently and see what a difference it can make.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our culture. It is at the heart of everything we do. When our founders launched Moneypenny, at the center of their vision was creating a place where they would want to work. And, twenty years later, it remains at our core. It is a business-critical element, a mindset and something to be nurtured.

To succeed in today’s ever-changing business landscape taking your team to the next level is essential. I have said this many times: amazing people do amazing things. And creating a safe environment for them to realize their potential is the key.

For us, this is about continued development and improvement, for every single employee, top to bottom. It is about building it into your daily schedule and it becoming a mindset. As a leader or leadership team, if you are continuously seeking to improve as a business then you are consistently engaging with your employees, motivating and empowering them and involving them, as a team, in the evolution and growth of your business.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Do not aim for a C-Level position! Aim to add value to the business you are in, inspire those around you, be creative at driving growth and efficiencies, be innovative and forward focused and the right rewards will one day be yours. A job title means nothing — it is the actions and person behind it that are important.

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. Remember, inspiring a workforce will always yield better results than those who rule with fear.

Also, don’t be afraid to dream big. Believe in yourself. 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.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Once I had a taste of running my own business, the thought of going to work for anyone else just wasn’t what I wanted — and in fact so many people told me not to do it. However I am so glad that I didn’t listen and went to work at Moneypenny as their first sales person right in the early days. Working for Ed Reeves and Rachel Clacher (our co founders) I soon realised that given the right environment I could definitely work for someone else and have huge admiration for how they had created an awesome culture of trust where every member of staff is encouraged to use their initiative and take risks and be bold in order to keep innovating. This culture still very much remains at Moneypenny etc and is something I am passionate about.

I am however a firm believer that decisions in the past make you who you are today. We learn from everything, positive and negative so anything changed in the past would mean I am not where I am now. So, no regrets — if you learn one important lesson from everything you do, it has been well worth the experience.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Authenticity, compassion and optimism.

To be a leader people must have the necessary empathy to inspire understanding and knowledge in team members. I can’t stress enough its importance. It opens doors and removes confusion. When people are open, you can be more creative in solving problems in ways that drive productivity and long-term success. As a CEO it is hugely important to surround yourself with amazing people who are full of ideas that can enhance your skills and knowledge to lead even more effectively. Your people are your strength so trust those that you employ, otherwise, I’d ask why do you employ them?

Being successful at this comes down to respect, making sure that everyone knows why others are on a team and the value that they add. It is also about ensuring that people know how to communicate with others of a different mindset in a positive way and not letting conflict fester.

Outward facing empathy is crucial as well. So many of our clients have been grateful for our adaptability and flexibility in our approach to solutions catering for their requirements as well as payments during this pandemic. It is the right thing for us to do but it also creates loyalty and trust.

Effective leaders have a certain and unfaltering optimism. Thinking outside of the box for a unique solution or seeing a new business opportunity in the midst of a crisis, for example, is what makes you an effective leader. But don’t be blinded by the optimism. Yes, your team and your co-leaders need to buy into your path for the business, your belief but it needs to remain realistic, agile and open, acknowledging bumps along the way and learning every step of the way.

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 C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

My role is in building passion around our vision and nurturing our awesome culture of trust, openness and empowerment, allowing our people to do amazing 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 awesome 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.

What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Speaking rather than listening.

Imposing yourself on the role can be an easy thing to do but effective leaders will spend a lot of time listening and learning. So, take the time to inform yourself, ask questions about everything, learn the status quo before you jump in and change it.

Worrying about wanting to be liked.

This can be particularly hard when you have been promoted from within the organisation and suddenly find yourself leading your colleagues. Be honest and open with your colleagues from day one and remember the ‘we’ not ‘I’ mentality.

Promising the world.

In order to make an impact, it can be really tempting to promise the world, this could be with the very best of intentions but make sure that you can deliver upon them first. If you can’t you’ll not only look a bit silly but it will harm your credibility and trust in your team.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

The happiness quotient. An unhappy workforce negatively impacts all aspects of your business — productivity, profitability and employee health and wellbeing. Happiness is a valuable commodity. If only you could bottle it. Making your business a place people want to work should be integral to the culture and purpose. This applies to aesthetics and working practices. Listen to your employees and hear what they say. Look them in the eye and check-in regularly.

You do have to think about recruiting the right people in the first place. The impact of recruiting just one wrong person can be catastrophic to your culture. Think about attitude just as much as aptitude when you are employing new people, it takes a lot to get your culture right and only a tiny mistake for it all to fall apart. If you have a happy workforce, you have happy clients. Our very first member of staff is still with Moneypenny and her wonderful, positive purpose-led attitude perpetuates more positivity and so on… Create a happy workplace and it will be invaluable.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an 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.

In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

#1 Listen

There is a lot to be said for true listening, and learning. Not simply hearing what a client or team member is saying but taking notice and acting on what they are saying. Everyone in business has had difficult decisions to make. Being honest and open is key for a leader as is being authentic and delivering on your promises. The very culture that we have nurtured through empowering teams to make mistakes and by being brave and bold has allowed us to come up with, and deliver, effective solutions. We have identified agility as a key success factor for business in the future, only by empowering, listening and then quickly adapting to your people and the outside world will organisations be able to achieve this.

#2 Communicate with transparency.

With less face-to-face interaction actually discerning how your team is doing can be more difficult. Likewise, they may find it more difficult to gauge how you are feeling, so being open and honest in any organisation is important as well as sharing the good, the bad and the ugly. Tell them how you are feeling and how things are going with regular video calls and updates It is also the key to being an authentic leader and delivering on your promises.

If you have tough decisions to make, be very clear and tell people why. And constantly update and communicate, whether that is in response to revised government guidelines or a simple ‘How are you doing?’. You don’t always have to have the answers, being an effective leader doesn’t mean that, or that you can’t share how you feel. What communicating with transparency does mean is being clear about what you know, what you are planning and what it means for people, in a way that your audience will understand.

#3 Empower your people and take a step back.

Your brilliant business is only brilliant because, as a leader, you surround yourself with brilliant people. That’s my mantra and it is one of the earliest leadership lessons I learned.

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

#4 Look after mental wellness.

Being a good leader isn’t just about creating a safe work environment for your teams, it is about creating a safe environment. Full stop. People naturally respond anxiously to uncertainty however well prepared they may feel that they are. Furthermore, with remote working looking like it will be a strategic business opportunity in the future, recreating the office environment and those watercooler moments will be essential.

If you work at Ferrari pace, then you should also have Ferrari brakes. By that I mean, know when to stop and when to have some fun. Last week I co-hosted my team meeting on Zoom with a goat. A little bonkers? Perhaps. But it lightened the mood, made people laugh and was a welcome break.

Without your good mental health, you cannot lead and without your team’s wellbeing they cannot support you.

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

Understanding and kindness.

Kindness is a universal human requirement, and its significance is overlooked in business and in daily life. It doesn’t cost a penny, but its effect is endless. Share your smile with one person and the ripple effect perpetuates.

One of the most important skills in a great leader’s competency kit is the ability to understand, listen and hear. This applies to all stakeholders, customers, partners, people, and the marketplace. It provides clarity, encourages openness, and develops trust. And as good leaders embrace the recognised benefits of a focus on softer skills, kindness is linked to real people and real leaders. No one is perfect and sharing a tale of a lesson learned is not about vulnerability it is about authenticity. It helps us connect, another crucial human requirement, influencing the behaviour of others and the effect continues. Smile, engage, help, make time, congratulate, appreciate, and slow down. Kindness boosts your own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of others and more than anything, it doesn’t cost a penny.

How can our readers further follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/joanna-swash-9564197/?originalSubdomain=uk

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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