Joanna Swash of Moneypenny: Five Things Business Leaders Can Do To Create A Fantastic Work Culture

There is a lot to be said for true listening, and learning. Not simply hearing what a client or team member is saying but taking notice and acting on what they are saying. Everyone in business has had difficult decisions to make. Being honest and open is key for a leader as is being authentic and delivering on your promises. The very culture that we have nurtured through empowering teams to make mistakes and by being brave and bold has allowed us to come up with, and deliver, effective solutions. We have identified agility as a key success factor for business in the future, only by empowering, listening and then quickly adapting to your people and the outside world will organisations be able to achieve this.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna Swash.

Joanna Swash is Group CEO of Moneypenny, a business which employs 1,000 people globally and supports over 21,000 clients through telephone answering, live chat, switchboard and multi-channel services. Joanna is well known for her commercial acumen and hands-on leadership style and she is passionate about developing people and creating a culture that breeds success and innovation.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Having had my own small business, I recognized the importance of customer service and ensuring you provided an exceptional first impression to clients, so it was an easy decision to go and work for Ed and Rachel (Ed Reeves and Rachel Clacher co-founders of Moneypenny). I believed in the business and what we were trying to achieve right from the very start and had experienced the need for it first hand having had my own small business. I knew that it would be difficult to work for others having worked for myself but I had such respect for what Ed and Rachel were doing and the amazing work culture that I knew it would work with them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There’s two that spring immediately to mind. First, moving into our new HQ and second acquiring VoiceNation and Ninja Number in Atlanta.

In 2016 we moved into our new £15m headquarters and it was such an exciting time. The driving force of its design was to create one of the happiest workplaces we could, and it was all based on the feedback of our 500 employees at the time. This feedback then formed the blueprint for the building, from the treehouse meeting room to the on-site pub. It was so interesting listening to what our team really wanted rather than just assuming. And then seeing their reaction when they moved in and saw all their suggestions had actually come to life, was a proud memory I will keep with me. The cherry on top was when Prince Charles came and officially opened the offices.

More recently, welcoming VoiceNation and Ninja Number to the Moneypenny family has been an exciting time, especially as the acquisition went through days before lockdown when coronavirus was taking hold. Listening and learning from the founders and discovering such similar approaches to business, the combination of people and technology, was fascinating. Only heightened by the fact we had to finalize everything virtually, from merging our technology, integrating teams and meeting new team members. We are due to open our new stunning offices in Atlanta in the next couple of weeks and we are really excited about this.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Absolutely, we have just opened our new 27,000 sq feet state-of-the-art headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The new environment houses employees from across all three operations; Moneypenny, VoiceNation and Ninja Number and has been designed to mirror our UK offices, which have been recognized in numerous accolades as contributing to making Moneypenny a great place to work.

The whole process has had our workplace culture, ethos and purpose at its heart. We wanted it to be an amazing place to work, fun and functional, and it was key for us that we consulted our teams along the way, listening to and incorporating their requests. For example, there is a refreshment and social area called the Middle, which sits at the heart of the building and is a hub for staff to relax. There are also several social spaces and especially sound-proofed spacious desk pods.

With plans to increase our scale and service offering this year, it was critical that we had a headquarters to support our growth and optimism. And one in which our employees would be happy to grow with us.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Change and uncertainty are the big culprits here. COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the business landscape. It is an event that has reshaped society in far-reaching ways, questioned our business strategies and processes and it has turned normal upside down. And with it it has brought insecurity, confusion, distrust and unease.

Add to this a controversial Presidential election and locally, a number of climate challenges. It’s a lot to handle at any one time but a treble-whammy can easily take its toll.

People are at the heart of many businesses and during Covid as many have had to switch to survival mode, it is easy to lose focus on the people aspect and only centre your attention on the bottom line. In many cases what has set aside those businesses that have been successful is that they have been agile and have been able to see their people as their most valuable resource and have empowered them keeping colleagues engaged, empowered and motivated.

A lot of this comes down to trust. It is the glue that allows organizations to flourish and without it there will be unhappiness and conflict. If trust is low, then people will do only what is required but when the level is high, people will give it their all. A leader must have earned the trust of their people to ensure their commitment and participation. And they must create a culture where it is safe to share, a place which is safe when things are vulnerable.

As a leader it is your responsibility to create the safe environment that fosters resilience in your people and your organization. It begins and ends with your culture, the DNA of your organization — the shared values of behavior, the importance of your people, how decisions are made and how work is carried out.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

An unhappy workforce negatively impacts all aspects of your business — productivity, profitability and employee health and wellbeing. Happiness is a valuable commodity. If only you could bottle it. Making your business a place people want to work should be integral to the culture and purpose. This applies to aesthetics and working practices. Listen to your employees and hear what they say. Look them in the eye and check-in regularly.

You do have to think about recruiting the right people in the first place. The impact of recruiting just one wrong person can be catastrophic to your culture. Think about attitude just as much as aptitude when you are employing new people, it takes a lot to get your culture right and only a tiny mistake for it all to fall apart. If you have a happy workforce, you have happy clients. Our very first member of staff is still with Moneypenny and her wonderful, positive purpose-led attitude perpetuates more positivity and so on… Create a happy workplace and it will be invaluable.

Get it wrong and it can damage your bottom line and growth potential, and it could be the difference between overall business success or failure. Invest in your people, their happiness and you will be repaid ten-fold. And when I say invest, remember the small things matter too. It can be as simple as a message of appreciation for their work, chocolate brownie deliveries or team drinks and yoga classes at lunchtime. It does not have to be on a grand scale, but it does have to be central to your working culture. The way forward for business and leaders is investing in people power, I cannot say that passionately enough.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

#1 Listen

There is a lot to be said for true listening, and learning. Not simply hearing what a client or team member is saying but taking notice and acting on what they are saying. Everyone in business has had difficult decisions to make. Being honest and open is key for a leader as is being authentic and delivering on your promises. The very culture that we have nurtured through empowering teams to make mistakes and by being brave and bold has allowed us to come up with, and deliver, effective solutions. We have identified agility as a key success factor for business in the future, only by empowering, listening and then quickly adapting to your people and the outside world will organisations be able to achieve this.

#2 Communicate with transparency.

With less face-to-face interaction actually discerning how your team is doing can be more difficult. Likewise, they may find it more difficult to gauge how you are feeling, so being open and honest in any organisation is important as well as sharing the good, the bad and the ugly. Tell them how you are feeling and how things are going with regular video calls and updates It is also the key to being an authentic leader and delivering on your promises.

If you have tough decisions to make, be very clear and tell people why. And constantly update and communicate, whether that is in response to revised government guidelines or a simple ‘How are you doing?’. You don’t always have to have the answers, being an effective leader doesn’t mean that, or that you can’t share how you feel. What communicating with transparency does mean is being clear about what you know, what you are planning and what it means for people, in a way that your audience will understand.

#3 Empower your people and take a step back.

Your brilliant business is only brilliant because, as a leader, you surround yourself with brilliant people. That’s my mantra and it is one of the earliest leadership lessons I learned.

If you empower teams to make mistakes, be brave and put aside anything that would hold them back, you are creating the perfect environment for them to come up with powerful ideas that could change the way you do business better. People naturally want to feel empowered so all you have to do is give them the platform. It is about responsibility, trust, listening, purpose and self-improvement. And it can create a more connected culture.

#4 Look after mental wellness.

Being a good leader isn’t just about creating a safe work environment for your teams, it is about creating a safe environment. Full stop. People naturally respond anxiously to uncertainty however well prepared they may feel that they are. Furthermore, with remote working looking like it will be a strategic business opportunity in the future, recreating the office environment and those watercooler moments will be essential.

If you work at Ferrari pace, then you should also have Ferrari brakes. By that I mean, know when to stop and when to have some fun. Last week I co-hosted my team meeting on Zoom with a goat. A little bonkers? Perhaps. But it lightened the mood, made people laugh and was a welcome break.

Without your good mental health, you cannot lead and without your team’s wellbeing they cannot support you.

#5 Be Optimistic.

Effective leaders have a certain and unfaltering optimism. Thinking outside of the box for a unique solution or seeing a new business opportunity in the midst of a crisis, for example, is what makes you an effective leader. But don’t be blinded by the optimism. Yes, your team and your co-leaders need to buy into your path for the business, your belief but it needs to remain realistic, agile and open, acknowledging bumps along the way and learning every step of the way.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Foster a society of understanding and kindness.

Kindness is a universal human requirement, and its significance is overlooked in business and in daily life. It doesn’t cost a penny, but its effect is endless. Share your smile with one person and the ripple effect perpetuates.

One of the most important skills in a great leader’s competency kit is the ability to understand, listen and hear. This applies to all stakeholders, customers, partners, people, and the marketplace. It provides clarity, encourages openness, and develops trust. And as good leaders embrace the recognized benefits of a focus on softer skills, kindness is linked to real people and real leaders. No one is perfect and sharing a tale of a lesson learned is not about vulnerability it is about authenticity. It helps us connect, another crucial human requirement, influencing the behaviour of others and the effect continues. Smile, engage, help, make time, congratulate, appreciate, and slow down. Kindness boosts your own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of others and more than anything, it doesn’t cost a penny.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Authentic and compassionate.

To be a leader people must have the necessary empathy to inspire understanding and knowledge in team members. I can’t stress enough its importance. It opens doors and removes confusion. When people are open, you can be more creative in solving problems in ways that drive productivity and long-term success. As a CEO it is hugely important to surround yourself with brilliant people who are full of ideas that can enhance your skills and knowledge to lead even more effectively. Your people are your strength so trust those that you employ, otherwise, I’d ask why do you employ them?

Being successful at this comes down to respect, making sure that everyone knows why others are on a team and the value that they add. It is also about ensuring that people know how to communicate with others of a different mindset in a positive way and not letting conflict fester. I am reading a fascinating book on this by one of my favourite authors, Matthew Syed (Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking), which, in brief summary is about supercharging your leadership team through this very idea of cognitive diversity.

Outward facing empathy is crucial as well. So many of our clients have been grateful for our adaptability and flexibility in our approach to solutions catering for their requirements as well as payments during this pandemic. It is the right thing for us to do but it also creates loyalty and trust.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It’s actually two people; Ed Reeves and Rachel Clacher, our founders. Their determination and belief in the business was inspiring and amazing. In my early career I came to the conclusion that working for other people wasn’t for me but the very first time I met them I realized that I was wrong.

As one of their first employees, they have given me the respect and flexibility to grow to where I am today. I feel so lucky that I have had people who trusted me without proof. It blew my mind that what they were telling me about their people-centered business model and that it wasn’t just a sales pitch, it was actually true. From day one it felt like a family environment. It was so friendly and enabling and gave me the same freedom and environment as having my own business.

They had, and still have, a brilliant attitude and always put themselves in the shoes of the client, as that is how they had started off themselves. They also really thought out of the box and challenged norms so that problems were turned on their head and solutions were always found.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

At Moneypenny we are all about our people. Without them we wouldn’t be the success we have been so I can’t stress how important that is. We are the biggest employee in our area and have a huge sense of responsibility to the 1,000 employees we have, and the 350 new recruits who have joined us since March, so truly looking after them is a big part of what we do. That extends from creating a happy workplace and safe environment for them to flourish to making sure that they have a festive feast on their table this year.

Corporate Social Responsibility is important for many reasons, not least because we all have a responsibility to think about the impact we have and the contributions we make. Just one example at Moneypenny is We Mind The Gap, a charity created by Moneypenny’s founder Rachel Clacher to offer support and provide opportunities for young women, giving them access to paid work experience as well as life-coaching and mentoring. After six months, 7 out of 10 of our trainees move from being wholly dependent on the state with few choices to make, to full-time work or education with many great choices.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

‘Make life work’ When people ask me how to maintain a positive work and life balance, I have always drawn a big circle in the air and said to people it doesn’t matter how you do it. It is all in your circle and you just need to be flexible and make it work. This has stood me in such good stead over the years.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

The movement for good manners. If everyone treated people with respect, honesty, acceptance and authenticity then the world would be a better place; a safer more pleasant place in which more people would feel free to be themselves and, in turn, realize their potential.