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Leaders on leadership – the highs and lows

First-time CEO Jonny Combe and former chief executive turned growth adviser Ken Moss discuss the CEO journey: from the first week on the job, to the highs and lows of leadership, to developing your own vision and management style.

120x120-jonny-combe.pngJonny Combe is CEO at mobile parking payment provider PayByPhone. He joined the business in November 2018 from the BMW Group, where he’d spent 12 years in a number of senior management roles, most recently as General Manager for Environment, Real Estate, Mobility and Innovation in EMEA.

120x120-ken-moss.pngKen Moss a growth adviser working with our Growth 365 service. He started with the firm in January 2019, with more than 30 years’ senior executive experience, primarily in the technology sector. This includes senior roles in pan-European corporates and private equity-backed businesses, as well as non-executive director roles in venture-backed companies.

KM: How do you feel about your first CEO role?

JC: From the outset I was hugely excited, because this was going to be a completely new challenge for me. I’d spent 13 years at BMW – a large and highly corporate environment, with around 130,000 employees – so I didn’t know what to expect going into a small business. I quickly realised that being a CEO is a rollercoaster ride. You experience super highs and super lows on any day, and you have to learn to regulate your emotions around the people you work with.

JC: And how was your first role as CEO?

KM: My background in rugby meant I was instinctively a team player and understood the benefits of everybody being in the right position and doing the right job. I was a salesman and I was reasonably astute at finance, but I knew that I had weaknesses. Looking back now I know I could have managed people better, because without people you don’t have a business. It’s something that comes with age and maturity.

JC: How did you step up to become a CEO?

KM: The role was European head of a software company, following an acquisition. But before that I had been chief operating officer in a business where I had previously been sales director. As COO I had to do things I had no experience of. It was a baptism of fire for three years, doing everything apart from selling.

When I became a CEO, it helped that I’d had that three years of intolerable stress and understanding how a business works. I was quite brash and confident, and arrived with a reasonable understanding of business. I thought that meant I understood everything about business – but I didn’t.

KM: How have you adapted to being head of the company? Have you built the relationships you need?

JC: I’d say yes, but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve definitely learned a lot. In my last company, I’d always had someone to guide me, whereas now everyone’s looking to me for leadership, sometimes in highly stressful situations. I’ve tried to combine listening to people and understanding their views with making decisions and committing to them.

In the early days people push back just to see what you’ll do and test you. You have to follow up and say ‘no, we’re committed to this’, so people realise you’re someone who’ll follow up on their decisions. Even if you’re wrong about things, you’ll gain respect and credibility, particularly among the management team.

KM: How did you manage your first week in the job? Did that set the tone for the following months?

JC: In my first week, I just tried to be honest with people and be fair and consistent. I deliberately avoided thinking I could come in and tell everybody what to do just because I was at the top of the organisation chart. Frankly, the staff knew a lot more about the business than I did.

The following months were about gaining a better understanding of the business. I needed to understand the business model, the market and the key levers to pull to make the organisation successful. I developed a clearer idea of where we wanted to go and a vision for getting there.

Then I started thinking about whether we had the right people in the right places. Sometimes you have the right people but in the wrong positions, so it’s a case of observing what’s working well and what isn’t, then assessing who needs to be moved. After 100 days we had put a new structure in place and I knew more about the business.

JC: Did you have a particular leadership style or approach?

KM: Getting a team in place that is skilful enough to execute the plan you want to deliver is crucial. But you also need respect for your people and you have to trust them to do the job they’re employed to do. Over time, you learn to let go and let people develop in their roles.

It’s also important to provide people with an example of what’s expected of them and also that you’re there for them. You need them to know you can get through anything together. That can mean leading from the front or driving the business forward collectively and sharing the team’s success.

As you get older you learn the value of celebrating other people’s successes more than your own.

KM: Has your management style changed in your first year of leadership?

JC: Yes. While I’ve always known people are the most important part of any business, when you’re leading a small business you realise just how critical they all are to its success. The performance of individuals has a huge bearing in a way it doesn’t in BMW, for example.

To get the most out of people my style needed to change. I have sought advice on it. I began going out and seeing more of my key prospects, meeting customers and setting an example, but also developing a personal connection with people in the business. I introduced a 3-2-1-feedback process, where staff revealed three things they liked about the business, two things management could think differently about and one thing they’d like to see changed.

KM: Finally, how have you approached the question of business culture?

JC: The historical challenge with PayByPhone is that it was a joint venture between three businesses – one French, one British and one Canadian – so there was never a clear company culture.

We’re now in the process of defining a culture and setting values. It’s a process we want to involve everyone in, not just the executive team. It’s a very exciting time for us.

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