1. Looking back over your career to date, what would you say are your key qualities that have led to your success?
I’ve always got on with most people I’ve worked with, whether it’s understanding the working style of the CEO, meeting journalists informally or getting to know someone serving coffee in an office canteen. I don’t mean some kind of power-networking strategy, just taking an interest and making an effort to be friendly.
People at all levels make companies tick, define the culture and can provide support when you need it. In larger organisations it can also be a challenge just to get things done and make meaningful decisions, so if you’ve got strong internal relationships you’re already halfway there. Having that network and a collaborative approach can be just as useful as making external connections with influential stakeholders. Plus you usually spend more of your time with your colleagues than anyone else in your life so, in my book at least, you’ve got to develop friendships and have a laugh along the way. It’s a bit like that office poster says: ‘Work hard and be nice to people.’
I’m also passionate about what I do and I’m a straight-talker. It obviously helps to empathise with whoever you’re working with, but you shouldn’t be afraid to express your opinions and be yourself either. A quick chat or a phone call can also get you much further than firing off emails all day.
2. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given along the way and by whom?
If I had to pick one example, it would be the words of a former colleague and remaining friend who said I needed to learn to switch-off from work more often. As a bit of a perfectionist I’ve always tried to be responsive around the clock, but not taking proper breaks can take its toll over the years. Everyone knows the curse of constantly checking your phone, or multiple phones when you’re out of the office. I certainly do but, as you get older and the pressures and responsibilities of life outside of work get bigger too, you learn it’s not sustainable to be switched-on 24/7.
If you make things happen day-to-day and can be relied upon in a crisis, then quality people won’t rate you on how quickly, or late at night you respond to emails.
3. Where do you see the future for PR in FinTech?
There’s naturally a lot of emphasis on PR activity helping to raise awareness and understanding of new brands, technology or products, especially for cash-constrained young companies in a noisy media world. But finance is a serious business and heavily regulated, so the most value a PR professional can add in FinTech is at the core of a growing venture and its brand. Communications should have a seat at the top table and help define everything from the company’s vision and values to mapping the most important stakeholders and the relevant key messages.
Customers, execution and scalability are at the heart of most FinTech companies – and for good reason - but sustainability should have equal billing. You need the right blend of entrepreneurial people who see the world differently, plus the experience and knowledge of people who’ve done it before, which applies to communications and brand people too.
4. You went from working for Virgin, a well-established brand, to a start-up - what has been the biggest challenge for you?
If I’m honest it was probably the change in work-life balance, or should I say the lack of it. My role with Virgin Media was often hectic too of course, particularly around the launch, and any communications role can be full-on since the advent of online news and social media. But most start-ups need all hands on deck during the first few years, when you’re trying to get traction and prove the business model.
I went from having a well-defined PR and media leadership role in a big organisation – which came with a team, serious budget and plenty of agency support - to a lone, budget-less position in a single office where everyone was expected to get involved in all aspects of the business. I missed having the sounding board and support of a team-mate or agency, but you make almost family-like friendships with everyone else in such an intense environment, while learning and developing at 100mph. I often refer to the early years as feeling a bit like sprinting a marathon, not that I know what actually running a marathon feels like.
5. You are incredibly busy in your professional life, what do you do outside of work to de-stress?
Life outside of work isn’t always stress-free of course and I’ve recently been through a lengthy and dusty building project at home for example, but it’s your family and friends who keep you sane. You also can’t beat fresh air and the great outdoors for a bit of perspective when the work pressure piles up. I still like to socialise with colleagues and friends too, letting off steam that way, although I’m getting too old to party like I used to during the week, while weekends are usually about children and DIY at the moment.
6. What is your top tip for influencing C-Suite?
I think communications should be on or close to the top team but, for anyone in a positon where that’s not the case, I’d say be proactive and build meaningful relationships where possible. Don’t rely purely on emails and presentations, but back up any proposals or arguments with as much data and logic as possible. Always have a plan B up your sleeve too, or at least a menu of options ranging from ‘daring’ to ‘safe’ or from ‘expensive’ to ‘free’!
Stick to your guns when you know you’re right and front-up and apologise if you get something wrong. Even the most experienced of chair people and CEOs are human and have their own stresses, whether they show it or not, so it also helps them, and you, to measure and recognise progress. Modern communications should be about adding value at the heart of a business, not tinkering around the edges or supporting other functions.
Thank you John for taking the time to answer these questions.