“The minute you think you have nothing left to learn, you are no longer a leader.” These wise words come from Naomi Jones, Comms and Corporate Affairs Director, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, who we are delighted to have interviewed this week. Hailed by her colleagues as being “lively, passionate and approachable” (we agree!) Naomi talks to us about building a successful comms team. She also shares how she played an important part in shifting SUEZ’s way of looking at sustainability and social value from a project-led operation to a fully integrated strategy with a “People and Planet” ethos at the heart of the business.
1. Can you give me a brief overview of your background and experience?
I started my career in agency specialising in public affairs before moving into corporate communications and crisis management. Working in agency early on in your career gives you so much experience and I got to work on some amazing projects and manage teams from a young age.
From there, I realised two things. One, that I love working across the breadth of comms and corporate affairs rather than specialising in one area and two, working for a company with a strong purpose and which gives back is critical to me.
So, 13 years ago I joined the SUEZ group as their youngest ever department head at 28 years old. I currently oversee a team of 32 and over my time at SUEZ have contributed towards embedding a People and Planet approach, increased SUEZ’s media share of voice in the sector to first position and joint managed the employee engagement programme with HR, resulting in the company being awarded the Sunday Times Best Companies’ ‘Best 25 Big Companies to Work For’ accolade.
2. You have built a large team at SUEZ comprising communications, corporate affairs, marketing, brand and design and internal communications. What’s the secret to successful leadership?
For me, it is three things. Firstly, it is blending what we traditionally value in a leader (focus, a drive to pursue goals and the ability to inspire) with very strong people skills and focus. People are at the heart of business and strong leaders recognise this.
Secondly, it is trying to keep your ego in check. You need to be able to steer your team but also know when to change your mind and take counsel. Good leadership is about continuing to adapt and learn. I have made many mistakes over the years! But I like to think I have learned. The minute you think you have nothing left to learn, you are no longer a leader.
Lastly, it is recognising that leaders come in many forms. The image of a board member is often someone very serious and controlled but that just isn’t me. One of the best compliments I have ever received is from one of my newer team members. She said that if she becomes a director one day (which she will!) that I have shown her you can be senior and still be lively, passionate and approachable. It was a lovely compliment.
3. What are the top three essentials you look for when you’re hiring for your team?
I look for people who think differently to others in the team and in terms of my senior team, people who think differently to me. In a team you should be able to both support and challenge each other, because you trust each other.
I look for people with empathy, who value the input of others and are purpose led.
And I look for people who are passionate about what they do and really value the role of corporate affairs, seeing their role as experts and who want to keep developing their craft.
4. Your passion for STEM and sustainability are evident and you speak publicly on the subjects. Can you share a highlight from your time at SUEZ that you hope will have a positive impact on the future?
It was when we realised that we needed to move from a project-led to full integrated way of looking at sustainability and social value. Now People and Planet is at the heart of how we do business and I am proud to have been a part of that.
But we certainly didn’t always get it right! We have always been honest and committed but fell in to the trap of seeing it as a stand alone division, with different departments doing great work but not in an integrated way. We even had a gimmicky campaign many years ago, which unsurprisingly employees hated!
Now, it is not standalone but instead just how we operate. We are honest about what we still have to achieve as well as what is stand out right now. This has led to employees fully embracing People and Planet as our purpose, changes in Government legislation and work leading to concrete and long-term change.
5. Securing ‘the top comms job’ isn’t easy. You report directly into the CEO. Please can you share a few thoughts on what you think contributed to getting to this position?
One big thing is the ability to not just look at or carry out your area of expertise in isolation. You are not just a communications or corporate affairs professional. If you are in an executive or leadership team role you are a business leader first who also has an expertise in communications, HR or whatever it might be. You need to be able to advise and operate in this capacity.
Too often when we recruit for senior roles it is about your industry experience. In my view, whereas this carries a degree of importance, cultural, business and leadership skills are far more critical. I have always got my senior roles through demonstrating these skills and a company seeing the importance of these skills over sector experience alone also helps me to know that that company is right for me.
I have had the privilege of working with two great CEOs thus far and when I first got my current role, I think the big thing that got me the job was sharing in and believing the vision my then CEO had of turning a traditional industry into one contributing towards a circular economy. I was able to demonstrate how communications could contribute towards this. It is a vision I helped realise, and being a part of an industry which has completely evolved has been a career highlight.
6. What is the most important lesson you have learned in life so far?
Experiences change you and also help to shape you. The hardest thing we ever went through as a family was having a seriously ill child who we nearly lost twice in her early years. It was a difficult time and the subsequent trauma tough.
Our family experience taught us all to both embrace life as fully as we can, as well as to not always put a brave face on. That combination is key. (I tried to remember this when my daughter (now 9) dropped nail polish all over the new carpet the other day).
In work, I always try to remember that people have lives going on outside of work and you never know what someone else is going through. Always be kind. And kindness is not a weakness.
7. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given along the way and by whom?
My Dad is a Kenyan national who came to the UK in his early 20s and who didn’t go to university but built a great career in Finance. I certainly didn’t inherit his financial brain but I did inherit his positivity, go getting attitude and approach of “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” I was taught to create your own opportunities rather than rely on chance. And also to make the most of things.
The dot com business my Dad was a Director for went bust just before I started university, as many did at that time. In hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened to us both. He carved a new career he was very happy and successful in until he retired. I had to help fund myself through university and also saw and learned how to keep fighting, carve opportunities for yourself and not take things for granted. Over the last 20 years, if I see a business opportunity, I put a plan together and go for it. It is a very rewarding way to look at work.
I will always be grateful to him for being this example to me growing up.
8. Considering you have ‘a big job’, what do you do outside of work to de-stress?
I am the social organiser and often at the centre of things but I also love my own company. My two big loves outside of my family and friends are reading and cinema. I am always reading and get absolutely lost in a book. I am also a film nut and often go watch movies on my own.
I am also very passionate about the charity I am Chair of Trustees for, BIBS, which supports the neonatal ward which helped my twins.
A few years ago I also discovered running. After recovering from a knee injury I am training for the Reading Half Marathon next year.
9. Do you have any hidden talents?
I love drawing and sketching and though I am not good enough to make a career out of it, I find it fun.
Thank you, Naomi.
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