Best Boss Series: Penelope Jones, Strategy Director (UK)

Penelope Jones has spent 15 years exploring international media in a range of strategy and business development roles.  She has travelled extensively and lived for periods in Sydney and New York but invariably finds her way back to London in the end.

At The Guardian, she was a key part of the launch of Guardian Australia, worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation on a number of multi-year grant funded programmes and spent time leading the company’s content relationships with global media partners.

At Conde Nast International, she laid the foundations of the company’s ongoing transformation process, Project 2020 and was instrumental in bringing together a new central team of digital experts to take this forward and in creating a positive culture of change within the organisation. Penelope is currently working on her next chapter….

Tell me how you define a successful leader.

To me, leadership is 100% about people and relationships.  Its about inspiring people, and creating the conditions for them to be their best.  Leaders surround themselves with people they can learn from, and have an unfailing sense of curiosity.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?

I don’t think there was a single moment I could point to and say, ‘it was this…’ but the proof I had got there was when people starting actively seeking out my input into their career and professional decision making.  In realising the responsibility that came with this, I began to become more confident, my approach to work became more considered and I started to develop a more personal style.

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.

Definitely the launch of Guardian Australia. Across 2012/2013, a very tight cross functional team in London worked on business planning and the initial plans for the site, but when it came to bringing it to life I was the only non-editorial person on the ground, and the majority of the team were new to the project and unused to the level of scrutiny we were experiencing.

There was a big disconnect between those in London who were experiencing everything one step removed, and the folks in Sydney who were feeling a huge amount of pressure as the launch came closer and there was definitely a risk of an ‘us and them’ mentality developing, despite everyone working toward the same end goal.

The role I played in getting the site over the line wasn’t a tangible one – I wasn’t the editor or the project lead, I wasn’t out hustling for clients or designing pages, but I worked on an individual basis with pretty much everyone in the team to find out what they needed in order to feel confident, and then went about providing that for them – whether that required negotiation with London, help with recruitment, someone to catch a bunch of admin, a shoulder to cry on at 2 in the morning when you’re still working and have lost sight of why or just some moral support and someone to buy a round of coffees and do a lunch run.   And then the same in reverse with London, letting them know why things weren’t moving at the pace they wanted, helping them understand how their actions were being perceived by the team when there was tension and catching things that were a priority for them, but that didn’t have a specific owner within the launch team.

This experience made me realise for the first time the value of the role I play in teams – as the glue that binds it all together.

It gave me a very keen awareness of my leadership style being from the middle helping everyone move forward together rather than standing at the front giving directions, or at the back chivvying people along.

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?

Very early in my career I hired, and very soon after had to let go a member of my team, and it was an experience that has stayed with me ever since.

I was inexperienced in recruiting and allowed someone else’s opinions to outrank my own as they were more senior than I was, which led to my hiring someone I had significant reservations about rather than trying harder to find a better suited  candidate.

It didn’t work out.  The candidate wasn’t happy, the team weren’t happy and I wasn’t happy so bringing things to an early conclusion was best for all.  But I felt hugely responsible for the bad experience the candidate had had and the additional work the team had put in.  I also felt that I should have worked harder to make it work out – that it was essentially all my fault.

Since then, I take my time with recruitment and go with my gut rather than letting myself be pushed into making fast decisions just to get a post filled.

It also taught me the need for compassion and humility – to always conduct yourself in a way you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.  And probably most importantly, it taught me that just because someone is senior to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are right.

Who have been your greatest mentors? Were they a colleague or did you hire a professional coach? What about this person or the experience had the biggest impact on your growth?

It’s a bit of a mixture actually, as I’ve been lucky enough to have had access to coaching and mentorship across my career – both structured and more organic.

My greatest mentor to date though (and long may this continue) was my manager in a previous role.  He saw potential in me and invested his time and energy in helping me develop and grow, but most importantly, he made me see that potential myself and understand how to activate it.

He has put me in some of the most challenging situations in my career, but has always provided a rock solid foundation for me to stand on and made sure that I knew he had my back.   He gave me the confidence to know that being myself and trying my best is always good enough and apart from my dad, he is invariably the first person I go to when I need either a challenger or a cheerleader.

Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice person?

I really hope so, otherwise I think we’re probably all doomed.  But it depends very much on your definitions of ‘success’ and ‘nice’, and probably also of ‘business’.

I think the prevailing culture of a predefined and heavily male dominated view of success at all costs is changing, and the type of contract people are increasingly wanting to enter into with their work is leading us toward a much broader and more personal set of definitions.

If success is equal to a happy and satisfying career doing something you enjoy or find meaning in then hell yes. We can all achieve that without selling our grandmas.

If we take success in business to mean making it to C-suite in a major listed company, or becoming a multimillionaire by the time we’re 40, then you probably do need a certain personality type to achieve that, or even to really want that.  But even then, you can still be fair and treat people decently.  Whether you do or not, and what behaviours you reward in others along the way is your choice.

Also from Best Boss series – Minter Dial: “You’ll only get established if you lay out what your legacy will be when you leave”.

Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips?

I’m really looking forward to reading 52 answers to this question across the year, as I find the ways that people relate emotionally in work contexts absolutely fascinating.

I’m pretty sure that most people who have worked closely with me in any capacity will agree that I am an emotional person – I lead with my heart and check that my head is in agreement rather than the other way around, so managing that volatility and channelling it into my work is really important.

An important lesson I learned later than I would have liked is that managing pressure or emotions isn’t the same as suppressing or denying them.  After all, our emotions are what makes us human, and what helps us keep perspective.

Its better to recognise and accept how you’re feeling and then assess how to work with it rather than against it than to try and check your baggage at the door every morning.  And this has to come from the top – I want to work in a company where its ok to be human, where wellness is valued and supported and where this is reflected in the behaviour of everyone from the CEO down.

But that isn’t answering the question!  How do I channel and control my emotions?

1) I exercise.  When I worked for the Guardian in London, I organised lunchtime boxing sessions for a group of staff at a local club, which meant that I had a pressure release valve built into my day when I needed it – and conversely, on those days when what you really need is a hit of rocket fuel, it played the same role.  Those same classes are still going on now, long after I left the company!

2)  I make time to get outdoors.   More recently, my work has been less conducive to something that structured – we were a fast growing team, working long hours, based right in the centre of London and with lots of overseas travel.  When I invariably started to feel that I was becoming tied to my desk, and beginning to lose perspective, I began to walk either to the office or home again a couple of days a week – and at 6 miles a shot that was quite an undertaking, but it gave me time to reflect on what was going on, to check in with myself and just let niggling thoughts and feelings blow away with the cobwebs.

Since making that part of my routine, I found I was far more self aware in the office, and if I needed a break, I would grab 15 minutes and take a walk around the block.

At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?

This is pretty much the same as the question above for me.  I take time to exercise, I make time to be outdoors, and I have also learned to remind myself that it’s just a job at the end of the day.

No matter how important something seems in that moment, what would really happen if it didn’t get done? Is that deadline meaningful or arbitrary? Is there a different way to address the challenge? Is there someone who can share the load?  Can this one wait?

I remember an article the Guardian published years back now, but which pops up regularly on the ‘most read’ list on the site about regrets of the dying which had a huge impact on me.  Looking back, no one wishes they’d pulled a few more all-nighters or feels proud of themselves for putting their health or relationships at risk by working too hard, so I use this as my test – if I just need a kick up the backside, and to get on and do something a bit dull and boring, then I go for a walk, or to the gym and then grit my teeth and get on with it.  But if I am really struggling and losing perspective, I’ll ask myself ‘is this the best thing for me to be doing right now?’ and if the answer is no, I’ll put myself first, and if that means working from home for a day, leaving early or coming in late or re-evaluating my to do list to give more space, then that’s what I’ll do.

And I try hard to build this approach into my teams – everyone who works for me knows that their well-being comes first, that I want to know if people are repeatedly working late etc so we can make sure that is an exception rather than the norm, and that they are appreciated as humans not just ‘resources’.

Also, a pretty steady supply of biscuits can go a long way!

What are your top three book titles that were most impactful for your leadership development?

Hmmm.  Only two spring to mind here.  First up, the GMAT review book.  A few years back, I was convinced that I needed to be something other that what I was to become a leader, or to be successful, and that what I needed to truly legitimise myself was an MBA, and to get onto most MBA courses you need a) an eye-watering amount of money and b) a half decent GMAT score.

Not having an answer for a) at that point I decided to focus on b) and bought myself the Wiley, 13th edition GMAT Review.  Which promptly removed the need for the eye-watering amount of money as I was convinced by about page 5 that this was not the route for me.

And I can happily report half a decade or so later, that my lack of MBA hasn’t held me up in the slightest.  Quite the opposite in fact.

Next up for me was Lean In.  Like a bunch of young professional women, I was expecting this to be the answer to all my questions.  But what I got out of it was a pretty stark realisation that women are not going to change the world by confirming to a predefined, heavily male dominated set of ‘success metrics’.  We need to feel more confident in our own definitions of success, and to change the prevailing culture to be truly inclusive in time, not try to change ourselves to fit something which shows all the signs of being truly broken.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?

The first question for me here would be, why am I working somewhere that isn’t people oriented?  If I don’t feel valued and supported then its unlikely that would be the right environment for me to grow professionally.

But putting that aside, I think that all you can do in any situation is own your own behaviour, and create a positive and productive local environment for those around you.

You don’t need a company policy to treat people decently, to give feedback and ask for it in return, and to invest in your team’s wellbeing and development to the best of your ability.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. Have you found a way of dealing with this?

I’m a big believer in three things:

  1. Pay people fairly to begin with, and with the appropriate structure for their job.
  2. Provide a culture of reward which is not rooted in pound/dollar signs.
  3. Provide a work environment where success is celebrated.

This, to a certain extent at least, lessens the importance of specific financial reward, but it is impossible to remove these types of issues completely.

A few years back I asked my boss for a pay rise, and put forward what I thought was reasonable, along with my arguments as to why.  We disagreed on the number, but it triggered a really valuable conversation about my work and my progress to date, and together we identified areas where some additional training or exposure would help me to hit the level I was asking for next time.  It also meant my boss committed there and then to investing in that programme which was probably worth the same if not more as the discrepancy between what I asked for and what we agreed on in the end.

In general, I think the only way to navigate reward is to be completely open – make sure your team know you are fighting for them, and your company know if you don’t think what they are offering is appropriate – especially if its likely to be detrimental to their business in the long term.

One thing I really don’t think is appropriate is offering jazzed up job titles in place of pay rises.  If someone’s day to day work and responsibilities have changed enough to warrant a change in title, then you should also review their salary.  No one likes being asked to do more for less, and if you would hire someone in on a higher salary, then you should question why you don’t think your current employee is worth that consideration.

Also from Best Boss Series – Bronwyn Kemp: “As a leader, you’re the creator and manipulator of the world around you, you’re the gateway to your staff’s experience, happiness and productivity”.

Companies often refer to themselves as “family”, yet only a few support their employees like a family supports its members – unconditionally. Aside from professional training, what support do you offer your employees?

To be straight, unless you are a legit family business, I don’t believe it is the role of a company to provide familial support.  While I want to feel passionate and committed to what I do, I also think it’s incredibly important to remember that we get paid to turn up everyday.   That’s not to suggest for a second that companies don’t have a duty of care – quite the opposite in fact, but I think it’s vital for employees to build positive and supportive networks of their own outside of work.

At a minimum, companies should provide access to mental health and occupational health support in some form, whether its through anonymous phone based providers or partnership programmes.  It’s not acceptable to wait until there is a crisis to provide support.

But on a more general note, companies should be treating their employees fairly, and decently, and in the manner they would want to be treated themselves – with access to learning and development opportunities, appropriate pastoral care and support when needed and positive role models visible at all levels – letting actions and behaviours speak louder than words.  And they should be proud of that.

It’s also not ok to expect people to be checking email, or slack, or all the other things as standard in the evenings and weekends.

Sending stuff at all hours just because you can or because it makes you feel important has a really detrimental effect on your team, who feel like they can never truly switch off.  I recently removed my work email account from my phone when I went on holiday and felt an overwhelming sense of panic when I did so, and then enjoyed a truly relaxing break knowing that if it was really that urgent, someone would call me.  And of course, no one did.

Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?

Hierarchy is something that makes traditional management feel comfortable, not something that inspires and motivates individuals.

No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and the more managers try to squeeze new ways of thinking and new talent into old and conservative frameworks, the less productive and engaged you should expect your teams to be.

Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom.

I have a set of check boxes for delegation.

  1. Is there a specific reason for me to do this myself?
  2. Who is best suited to taking this on in terms of experience/skills match?
  3. Who will benefit most in development terms from doing this?

If the answer to 1) is no, then I aim for some combination of 2) and 3).  It’s tempting to always give the person with the best skills match the task because you know they’ll do it well, but if it’s something they can do in their sleep it’s not going to offer them any real challenge.

My challenge is to strike the right balance between getting things done well and on schedule, and ensuring my team have room to grow and feel energised. Personally, confident delegating is still a work in progress for me, despite being shown time and time again that when I empower my team to do what I hired them for, the quality of their work speaks volumes!

Team building has become a buzz word in the corporate world, yet many still do not see the value in applying it to their group or organisation. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building?

You can build a zillion rafts on a million away days, but I still think the best way for teams to bond is for them to work together – sharing real life successes, problems and stresses.  This is more effective to me than any amount of enforced fun will ever be.

When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo?

It depends on the size of the team and the nature of the briefing.  If you can make in person work, great.  If you are split across timezones or sites, then do whatever will work best to make people feel informed and included.

How do you decide to be available to your team (i.e. text/email/voice call/video call)? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?

In general I think people will use whatever is most appropriate to the situation – that said, in my past role I was absolutely awful at charging my work cell phone or remembering to actually take it places, so email or slack would get you a much faster response as they came through to my personal phone.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?

Transparency and communication are hugely valuable, but should be combined with a hefty dose of common sense or you risk ending up with either a flood of information with no context or a drought, where everything is locked away as sensitive or confidential, and people aren’t able to access information which would help them to perform better, just because it makes the people at the top feel comfortable and important.  There is no one size fits all solution but pretty much everyone could do better.

Also from Best Boss series – Andrey Seleznev: “A good leader can perform well only in an open and democratic environment, a leader nurtures and supports openness at work”.

How do you best separate work life from personal life – for a healthy balance?  What are your biggest challenges around this? How does this impact you personally?

This is probably the lesson I learned the hardest way, and am continuing to learn as I go.  For the longest time, I let my work influence my choices in other areas, I was ambitious and passionate and convinced myself that the personal sacrifices I was making were worth it in the grand scheme of things. It turns out I was wrong… I was really just using my work as a barrier between me and the rest of the world.

I think that everyone, no matter how ambitious or driven, or how personally motivated they are by the living they’ve chosen, can benefit from taking a step back and seeking a sense of balance.

Its a hugely personal thing – and very fluid – what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, and what works for me, now, may well not have worked for me five years ago, but there will be something and it will make you feel better.

Explain how you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing.  What works for you and how do you handle the interviewing process for vetting candidates?

Working with HR and recruitment functions is vital as they are often the first and only touchpoint individuals will have with your organisation.  But the relationship only works if you remember they are human beings trying to help you, and not miracle workers who can conjure up perfect candidates out of nowhere on a moment’s notice. Make clear upfront what you need and how they can help you find it, then work in partnership.  Your dream candidate won’t always work out. Deal with that – you probably screwed it up more than your recruiter did, or it was just not the right opportunity.  You may find that they later placed that candidate who didn’t work out for you with one of your colleagues, or that a candidate who didn’t get the job still had a good enough experience of the process to recommend you to their peers.

How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?

My main experience of this is personal, and the care and consideration I received was overwhelmingly positive, with my company providing counselling, referrals and extended leave to give me time and space to recover.  My boss struck the right balance between caring and professionalism – I felt able to talk about it, or not, as I saw fit.  I know there are huge numbers of people who are not so lucky.

I would urge all companies to ask themselves whether the mental health provision they have in place is appropriate, especially as we make ever more demands on our staff.

I know this is probably the third or fourth time I’ve said this now, but treat people as you would want to be treated yourself – and don’t forget the value of kindness and compassion in an area which can be pretty fraught with concerns about what is or isn’t appropriate behaviour.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?

I am lucky enough to have only had this occur once in 17 years, and I’ve told that story already.

Overall, I think the time I would want to consider parting company, if performance management and other avenues hadn’t worked out, would be when those around the person in question were being negatively impacted.  Your responsibility is to your team as much as it is to the company.