Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work. Hosted by Peakon’s Chief Evangelist, Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Gareth Jones, Chief Executive at Headstart, on vulnerability, rocket ships, and reshaping the workplace from a place of trust.
A lot has been made of the shift in work instigated by COVID-19. Whether it’s the necessity of creating remote working options, or a renewed focus on employee wellbeing, we’ve all felt a change in our workplaces. But for Gareth Jones, CEO at Headstart, that shift is potentially superficial at best, or maybe even non-existent.
„The trick will be, when COVID is gone, and we face the opportunity of living in a new way, leading in a different way, versus, ‚Okay. Back to usual guys.‘ I think that’s when we’ll notice whether there’s been a change,“ Gareth said. „But I don’t personally see a huge change. I hear a lot of narrative around it, but I don’t think there’s necessarily been a shift.“
Real change isn’t about ticking boxes for the sake of public perception. It’s about building a path forward that embeds your employees at the centre of the decision-making process. It’s about building trust. If you want to learn how to forge trusted, long term relationships with your employees, then tune in, check out the key takeaways, and read the transcript below.
Leading in a different way post COVID-19
While Gareth certainly sees a shift in leadership style during the pandemic, he stresses that in order for this to become long-term, it needs to go from being talked about to actually becoming rooted in the style of leadership and company culture as a whole. For that to happen, engagement and communication are key.
There needs to be open dialogue with individuals. People are not the most important asset in a business — they are the business.
Becoming an open leader
According to Gareth, for the longest time, the narrative in business has been that leaders need to hold something back — instead of being themselves, they need to conceal emotions and the desire to share. Leadership has been so far built around the strength of character and resilience. Changing this mindset is essential to long-term success in building trust and a strong foundation for communication.
Being open in the work context is difficult, but Gareth highlights that it’s something we have to become comfortable with.
Be you, and be open, and be transparent, and then people will then start to trust because they’ve got all the information, and they relate.Gareth Jones
Helping people understand vulnerability
What used to be a parent-to-child management needs to progress to become an adult-to-adult dynamic, according to Gareth. During the hiring process, companies want to bring in the best individuals and the most capable people, yet as soon as they join the company, they become restricted — treated as children. In the adult-to-adult model, transparency and vulnerability are embedded in the narrative. Gareth’s approach has always been to tell people everything about where they are as a business — the good and the bad, as well as sharing how he feels about it.
If you, as a leader, don’t create an environment where people are able to tell you how it is, how you are, and whether you’re doing a good job, then you hinder the performance of your organisation.
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Patrick: How leaders are approaching the individual relationships with members of their team has been put to the test over the past six months. One thing is clear. There is a relationship evolution happening and it’s happening at a fast pace. Leaders are quickly figuring out what is working and what is not. My guest today is passionate about effective leader relationships and what can happen when that trusted relationship fails. Gareth Jones is the CEO of Headstart, which is a business focused on empowering diversity within organizations. His background is diverse with experience as an investor, executive-level leadership, and he has also been responsible for innovation at the Chemistry Group. Today, we’re going to talk about people, leadership, and trust. Gareth, thanks for joining me today.
Gareth: Thanks, Patrick. Good to be here.
Patrick: All right. People leadership, evolution of the relationship between a leader and individual members of their team, the world’s rapidly changing, world of work rapidly changing over the past six months, how would you describe the leadership relationship evolving over the past six months from your perspective? We’ve had a long experience within HR. What have you seen change over the past six months?
Gareth: Ultimately, I wonder if much has changed, which is how I look at it. Six months is a really tiny amount of time, isn’t it, in the grand scheme of people management and leadership, and certainly over the last 30 odd years, because I’m that old and I’ve been around in business, things have, on the face of it, changed quite significantly. The world of work is very different now to what it was when I first started in terms of just the whole relationship and how organizations were and how you were in them and remote working, all those things weren’t present then.
I think in the last six months, we’ve had a catastrophic shock to the system caused by the global pandemic, so I’m not sure yet. The trick will be, when COVID is gone, and we face the opportunity of living in a new way, leading in a different way, versus, „Okay. Back to usual guys.“ I think that’s when we’ll notice whether there’s been a change. But I don’t personally see a huge change. I hear a lot of narrative around it, but I don’t think there’s necessarily been a shift.
Patrick: We’re talking about now and for the foreseeable future, everything is a bit up in the air. Obviously, you and I are both in the UK, we might be going back into another lockdown. But what could an organization do today to figure out how they could build this in a realistic way for the future, so that it sticks, so that it’s not just talking about it, but that it’s something that’s tangible for the future?
Gareth: Yes. It’s a great narrative, isn’t it? When you talk about, what you started that sentence with, about the employee experience, everything else, it’s really attractive. It’s really engaging. If we could turn that into reality in the world of work, why wouldn’t you embrace it as an employee and a leader, frankly? We just look at it like, I think, „How do we go forward from here?“ It comes back to fundamentally how we relate with people in the organization and trust. I think if we, as leaders, are trying to navigate a future in business and specifically, how do we cope with the changes based on the things that happened in the last six months and the impact it’s had on people’s lives? Some people have really thrived through lockdown and or the remote working scenario, some people because of the conditions and constraints have really suffered. People working from home and have to homeschool kids and so on.
For me, the trick is you’ve got to engage your people. You’ve got to talk to the people. You’ve got to have an open dialogue with your individuals. I think the starting point, and that comes back to trusting and saying, „We’ve got a bunch of people in this organization that have huge talents across the business.“ It’s not just a small number of people who are talented. This war for talent is nonsense. We’ve got great, talented people who can, if you trust them and allow them to be their best selves, and allow them to put themselves in their best position, they will, providing you’re not an unethical business or anything like that– they will respond. You are nothing without the people in your business.
Dyson is a man in the shed with a great idea without the next person who took him to the next level, to the next level. There’s this comment I’ve grown up with, „People are our most important asset.“ For years I’ve seen that not being lived up to. Actually, for me, people are not the most important asset in your business. They are your business. I think that’s what– the mind shift we have to say. My first starting point is to engage the people and say, „This is the landscape. This is the direction of travel at the moment. What are you guys thinking? What are you guys feeling and how can we navigate this? What do we need to do as an organization?“ That requires vulnerability from the leader to say, „I’m not the person that has all the answers.“
Patrick: I think that is very powerful because it’s true. If we think about it, people are our business. The success of our business depends on our people. But how do you help people understand vulnerability and what that means and how do you help somebody to dig into that a bit? It’s an uncomfortable place to be for a lot of people.
Gareth: We wrap it up, vulnerability, authenticity we have these words. It’s about being you. For a long time, and still very much is, the narrative around leadership is, „You’ve got to keep something back. You can’t be you. You can’t be the real you.“ The underlying inference there is you can’t really be emotional, you can’t share everything about you as a leader, so you can’t make mistakes or you feel. For a long time, it was like, „Yes, you, as a leader, you could have empathy, but not sympathy or the other way around. You can’t show all of that.“
Those traits, that whole thing about being authentic and being transparent and showing emotion, for example, or telling everybody exactly how you feel as a leader, and being completely open, was seen as weak traits. We’ve built leadership around strength of character and resilience and all of those things and to the extreme of kick ass and take names, and the softer leaders were seen as a weakness. It’s always seen as– as I’ve been told that in my early career, „If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to toughen up.“ That narrative, unfortunately, plays to the White male narrative too, which isn’t great for diversity at all. I think it’s being comfortable with being open. Just being yourself and being authentic, but just being you and being able to have an open conversation with somebody.
That’s as difficult with a group of people or more as it is with an individual. Two people sitting down and being totally open about how they feel with each other in a work context, for example, is difficult. Open feedback is really difficult, isn’t it? It’s sometimes it’s very difficult to give and it’s very difficult to take at times, but that’s what we have to become comfortable with. For me, vulnerability and authenticity is just about me being me and saying, „I’m having a difficult time with this. I’m sure you’ve been in similar environments where business and particularly in a company like ours in this investment life, we don’t have a business model at the moment in a business that’s 20 years old that makes 40% in EBIT a year, and we can just truck on and it’s great. It’s a life of ups and downs. I describe the startup life as true to being like a rocket ship. The elation of going to space and getting out there but the absolute sheer terror of being in a metal object, that’s being shot out of the earth’s system. There’s this constant struggle.
My default position has always been to tell people everything about where we are in the business, the good and the bad, and also to share with them how I feel about it. If I’m nervous about ability to onboard clients, if I’m nervous about the economy and what it means, so going into COVID, it’s fine for me to say, „Guys, I’m nervous about it. I’m nervous about the impact on our business over the next 12 months. How are you feeling about it? Therefore, then what can we do?“ Whereas traditionally, it might’ve been, „You got to go out there.“ You’ve got to go, „It’s going to be great. It’s going to be fine. We’re going to kill it, guys.“ There’s a place for some of that, but really for me, it’s about being open.
This is a personal thing. If I think about trust, we bandy that around, but who do I trust then as a person, especially when I meet somebody new? Who are these people I trust? I trust people who I’m getting open signals from, who I can make a mental or subconscious unconscious decision about, „Are these behaviours that I’m seeing, things that give me warning signs as a person inside subconsciously my instinct, or I’m getting good signs?“ I trust people who engage with me and behave with me in the right way, who appear to be being ethical in their conversations, who appear to be honest with me, and et cetera. It’s those things that engender trust.
As leaders, if I want my team to trust me, I’ve got to show those behaviors, I’ve got to be open. They’ve got to believe me when I say, I want to do something or I’m feeling something. It’s being okay with saying, „This is the real me and this is actually how it is.“ You can’t feel trust when people don’t have all of the information. That’s, again, a thing historically in the past is need-to-know basis. We talk about transparency in business and there’s so many things leaders don’t want to share with their organization for fear that everyone will leave or for fear. From my perspective, this is how it is in our business, for example, „These are the challenges we face, are you comfortable with that?“
We face some tough times as startup, as others have. At every single stage, we have to be just totally transparent as we can so that people can then make the choice. My experience is that when you do that, people engage and trust. Some people will decide, „This is not for me. The rocket ship isn’t for me. No, definitely not.“ But other people will go, „You know what? I’m with it. I understand the risk because I’ve all the information.“ For me it’s about just vulnerability, authentic, just about be you. Be you, and be open, and be transparent, and then people will then start to trust because they’ve got all the information, and they relate.
Patrick: You made a good correlation there, between giving people information in an incredibly transparent way, but then also connecting how you individually feel about that information as well. That connection of not just being a leader and sharing information, being transparent about what’s going on, but being able to make that personal connection between how you feel about the information that you’re sharing, that very much builds that trusted relationship even deeper, because that’s a unique perspective around vulnerability because many leaders think that their role is to share information and to regularly, openly, transparently share information.
It absolutely is. However, if you can make that connection, „This is what’s happening, but this is how I feel about it, this is how it affects me, I feel good about this, I’m worried about this, I have the same concerns that you potentially have,“ making that feeling connection, I think is one of those moments where you can create even deeper, trusted relationships with your teams.
Gareth: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s a missing element and that people are looking for consciously or subconsciously. They want to know what’s on your mind and I want to know what’s on their mind too. This is one of the key things for me. If you’re going to take the responsibility as the lead baton holder in the business, as the person that ultimately has the most context, someone described it– I’m not more important or any more talented at all than any other people in my business, in fact, I’m probably the least in that context, but I’m in the role where I have the most context, in theory across the whole business. Each my function leads them, and all the people in the business have got this context in their area, and hopefully a broader context. I’m the one I suppose the CEO in this construct we call a company that has the broadest possible context, and therefore around key decisions and key directions that you’re the CEO is then defined as the person who will then make some key decisions to get us to the next stage and the next age and so on.
The thing about this trusted relationship is that, as a leader, if you don’t have that, you’re not informed. That is the biggest observation I’ve had over the years. I’ve worked with some fantastic people in the past, I’ve worked with some terrible people and worked for some terrible people in the past, terrible leaders. One of the key differences is that the worst leaders are the ones that create an environment, and not create an environment of fear, even, but it’s just subtle use of language that means that people don’t share everything, what’s on their mind, their concerns. At the extreme, you end up with businesses that implode, and we’ve seen lots of them, where the leadership just were ignoring the trends in the market or the feedback from people and people around them were too scared, or too closed to share. In a business, you’re a leader who creates the environment where people aren’t able to tell you how it is, how you are, how you’re behaving, and whether you’re doing a good job or, „There’s something going wrong here.“
You’re misinformed, then you get surrounded by yes people and then you start to live in this bubble of non-reality and that’s when bad decisions start being made. It’s really, really important to create that environment where you can get the trust of others and be trusted because that’s when you are fully informed. Without that fully informed nature, you’re going to make decisions that are not fully informed as a leader. I don’t want people around me who would just leave the room and talk to their colleague who’s just from a meeting, „He doesn’t get it. He just shut me down.“ That’s not that I’m saying I’ve never shut someone down in the conversation, right? I’m human, I’ve had my moments. I’m a passionate person, which in itself can intimidate people, right? I want to make that clear. As a leader, I’m not informed if I don’t make sure that I have that trust and I allow that feedback.
But the other way around, individuals in the company can’t make informed decisions about their career, about themselves, about their role, unless they’ve got everything for me, and we’ve got that trusted relationship. I think for me that’s the key thing, is, if you don’t have that, you don’t have the full context as a leader and you can’t then make or facilitate the best decisions.
Patrick: We’re talking a lot about this trusted relationship. Every great relationship is based on trust. Employees right now are thriving in an environment of trust with their leaders and feeling that they have more autonomy and that they’re being empowered to make decisions on how they do work, when they do work, how they meet goals and expectations. I think that those changes have happened at organizations because they’ve had to or because people aren’t going into an office and there’s this whole conversation, which again, is another podcast around organizations that were worried about productivity, when the last thing they should be worried about is productivity. What they should be worried about is creating a trusted, autonomous, empowered relationship and productivity will follow from there.
We can have a whole other conversation about that, Gareth.
Gareth: Couldn’t be adjusted.
Patrick: I think that for today that the really great insights and takeaways, I think that you’re sharing are around the simplicity and design of communication. Like I said, this idea of open, transparent communication, but then connecting the feeling to it, so that you can start being yourself a bit more as a leader, but that encourages employees to be themselves as well.
Gareth: It’s an adult-to-adult thing. That’s the point, that historically, business is more parent-child, that’s either very, very prominent or very subtle, but it’s still that kind of parent-child relationship. We are not parents and children in that context in work. We talk about, „When we’re hiring here, we want to hire the greatest person, that we want to hire the most capable person, the world’s your oyster as an individual coming into the business,“ and the moment we bring people into business, we then constrain them and their thinking, and we’d start to communicate and treat them like children in that context.
I think the adult to adult, it is what it is, everything clear and transparent, is the most important thing in that context. It isn’t easy. I make the mistakes and it’s difficult for me. I’m sitting here saying, „Yes, that’s transparent, share everything.“ That has been probably one of the main threats of, I guess, my leadership within HR and within Headstart. When COVID came along, an unprecedented scenario, I was used to sharing everything with everybody and giving them– Even when we were coming up to funding rounds and our runway was getting shorter and stuff, I’d share all of that. COVID came along and I made some calls about the business, like a lot of people did. I made those on my own and then we rolled those changes out into the business, and I lost some trust currency, because I felt like, at the time, that this was happening incredibly rapidly, and I agonized over the changes for a couple of days, „Should we, shouldn’t we, and what should we do about it?: It was unprecedented and quick. I didn’t share this stuff, I guess, and as base camp would say, my trust factory was drained with everybody and I have to acknowledge that. Now, hopefully, this kind of economic unprecedented situation will never happen again in my lifetime and anybody else’s hopefully.
It was tough. You know what? It was tough to hear it as well. It was tough to get the response from people in the business that was staying and some that were going and to deal with that and manage that, but then come back and resettle it, it’s tough. We’ve come through it and hopefully, I’ve recharged my trust battery a little bit, but it isn’t easy, particularly when you make decisions that you think are really the right ones at the time, and they impact people, they’re going to tell you and that’s what you want them to tell you.
As much as I felt we had a difficult six weeks and I felt the brunt of that from the team, they told me, they fed it back to me and I fed it back to them how I felt because in a traditional environment, I wouldn’t know that and probably would have lost people as a result of it. I think it’s fundamental.
Patrick: One thing that is a common thread with all of us is that we’re all going to make those mistakes.
Gareth: Over and over. First sign of madness, isn’t it?
Patrick: The good thing is that if you really do have that relationship there and you trip a bit, then it’s a lot easier to forgive and to understand. The flip side of it, it’s a lot easier to get some forgiveness and understanding if you have a good foundation there of building that trusted relationship from the start. No leader is perfect, but I think if the core of the relationship is there, and we trip, or maybe there’s a stumble along the way with transparency or communication that is unintended, I think that people are much more willing to move past it, because the core fundamental is there.
Gareth, thank you for your passion, number one, for your insights and really good suggestions around communication, trust, and how it’s all connected. I also really like your perspective of, „We’re talking a lot right now about employees, but we need to really make sure that that is the reality for the future and not just something that we’re talking about right now because it can’t just be a buzz term or buzzword right now.“
Gareth: No, it can’t be. It has to be fundamental, going forward. Not a fad, or just a quick response, because ultimately all companies, what were they going to do in COVID? They can’t come out and say, „We don’t care about people. Just get on and work at home.“ Of course, they’re going to say, „We care about their mental health, we care about those things.“ It’s how that becomes embedded in their business going forward that matters.
Patrick: All right, Gareth. Thank you so much.
Gareth: Thank you. Thanks for giving me the opportunity. It’s been great, Patrick, thank you very much.