In January, Clearly PR was delighted to interview Jonathan Lewis, Chief Executive of Capita Plc.
Jonathan spoke with us about the challenges and complexity of leading international teams, the need for organisations to take diversity and inclusion at senior level seriously, and the importance of people in terms of driving business growth and future planning.
Here’s what he had to say.
PMC: During your time working in the likes of North America and the EMEA, what were some of the key challenges that you faced when leading teams across different cultures?
JL: What’s always appealed to me over the 35 years that I’ve worked in the Oil and Gas Industry has been its diversity of culture. While one might argue that this sector doesn’t have the level of gender diversity you would wish for, one of the things you have to be very careful of – and something that I am very sensitive to – is understanding how decisions are made, and how people operate in those different cultures.
You really have to be sensitive to how decisions are made and how people operate, particularly in cultures where consensual decision-making is perhaps more strongly developed.
For instance, there are those where people are very respectful of leadership, to a point where they might not always share what’s on their mind or what’s really going on in a business and what the real opportunity might be to these people. So, it’s important to engage with them to win their trust which will in turn give them the ability to share what they’re really thinking.
PMC: How do you manage the cultural divide within teams that are located in different geographies?
JL: When I ran a global organisation from Houston, Texas, we had a team that was spread across the world and we had a policy, of wherever possible, putting local talent into leadership roles. So, it became an incredibly diverse leadership team.
One of the first things you have to do is define the norms which that team should operate at and initially it’s very important that team comes together physically in a single location and that you work together as a team to define the principles by which you’re going to operate.
Fundamentally, you have to agree what the team is all about, what are you trying to achieve, what your company objectives are and what is the common goal – what’s your North Star? This is so everybody is aligned on what it is you’re trying to do, and if it aligns with what you are trying to do, then the diversity of cultures and diversity of experiences will only benefit the execution of the objectives.
PMC: In a recent interview with Sky News, you talked about trying to create senior leadership roles or board positions which provide greater diversity and inclusion. What was the rationale behind this?
JL: One of the things I noticed when I came back to the UK from a long time in the US was a lack of trust on the part of society in big business. If you look at things like the Edelman Trust Barometer, 47 per cent of people in this country don’t trust big business. As a backdrop to decisions made around responsible business, I had a deep sense that big business needed to mend the relationship between itself and society – and Capita was one vehicle in which we could do that.
In fact, we’ve already achieved some important firsts, including becoming the only FTSE company to have two employee directors on the board. It wasn’t a gimmick – it was just the right thing for Capita to do. It means we have a 34-year-old millennial in our midst who provides us with insight that I guarantee we would not have gained without that individual on the board.
PMC: You recently signed up to paying the ‘real living wage’ as a minimum to your UK employees. What impact do you think that has as had not just in terms of the way the organisation is perceived internally and externally?
JL: We have a great divide between the lowest and the highest paid people in this country. The minimum wage is £7.70 yet the real living wage is £10.30 – that’s a big difference in terms of the quality of life that our employees can have when they go onto that salary. We want to send a very strong message to other companies within our sector and elsewhere who could do the same.
PMC: Your mantra seems to very much be that business is all about people. Can you expand on that?
JL: Until businesses are completely run by bots, and I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, it will always be about people. Ultimately, any business is a cohort of people that that you organise in the form of an operating model to achieve a set of outcomes.
I have held a deep belief for many years that if you have a highly motivated and proud workforce who feel well compensated and rewarded for the things that they do, they will not only believe in the purpose of the company but they will believe in your values and your behaviours.
They’ll also believe in where the leadership team is taking the company which in turn will help you get better outcomes for the clients and end-customers that those very same colleagues serve.
There is also an ethical and moral aspect to being a progressive, purpose-led and responsible business. What we’ve done at Capita, by making sure that everybody is on the same percentage of salary towards their pension contribution, is not the norm – but it will speak to being a responsible business.
Ultimately, it manifests itself in the ability to attract talent. We’ve hired a number of people from some very large American telecom companies in the last six months, who’ve joined us for less compensation than they were previously on. But they’ve have done so because they recognise that we’re taking a new and different path with regards to responsible businesses.
This is particularly true among the younger generation who, I think rightly and appropriately, look holistically at the factors that determine which company they want to work for in the long term. I believe the more attractive we make ourselves, in terms of our responsible business criteria and credentials, the easier it will be to attract and retain the top talent we need.
PMC: Do you see automation as a threat or an opportunity to organisations?
JL: It’s both. We’re on the record as saying that the roles of between two and three per cent of our employee base may disappear in the coming months through the embrace of robotic process automation. Unless plans are in place for how a company will reskill and retrain its employees, automation will soon become a significant employment ‘challenge’.
One of the things I worry about is that the rise of automation and what it means to the ‘future of work’ is not on the political agenda today. Germany and Singapore, for example, have thought diligently about what automation means, particularly in the context of the sort of new skill-sets that people will have to acquire if they’re going to be able to contribute to society. So, there’s going to be a priority for governments, which in fact you see in these other countries, in ensuring that this training is economically viable.
The upside from automation and the changing nature of the workplace is that it’s going to remove lot of the very boring tasks that many people in many roles still perform today. People are going to have the opportunity to do more creative things, which I know ultimately people find more satisfying.
PMC: Throughout your 35-year career, what are the key lessons that you have learned?
JL: What has always motivated me, and what has always got me out of bed in the morning, is the opportunity to make a difference. The challenges of turnaround are not for the faint of heart, but they are extraordinarily satisfying when you pull them off successfully.
In the case of our journey at Capita over the past two years, we have dodged an number of existential bullets and are all now part of a company that has a future and is transforming and turning back onto a growth trajectory. You have to focus on driving decisions and focusing on things like efficiency, productivity and long-term competitive differentiation, and ensuring that you invest in and retain the right talent.
PMC: Of all the lessons that you have learnt, if you could name one lesson you would share and pass down to the next generation of business leaders, what would it be?
JL: I don’t think there is one particular thing: there are a couple of things I would say.
First, I think passion in business is hugely important; and I think if you bring authentic passion to each of your roles it’s amazing what you can achieve.
Second, as you get more senior in organisations, you have to spend an extraordinary amount of time on talent selection – you’re only ever as good as the people you surround yourself with. An investment in talent – and attracting, developing and motivating it – is probably the most effective way of driving a successful business.
Finally, you need to be constantly curious. Be curious about what’s going on in the world and around you. Be curious about how a particular contract or client opportunity is progressing. You will almost develop curiosity as a sixth sense. But then you must also apply it, use it to make sure your organisation is prosecuting its business model effectively, and at times be prepared to do a deep dive to ensure things are working properly.
You need to roll your sleeves up and really getting to understand how well you are – or are not – executing your options. You can learn a huge amount by bringing that level of curiosity to the broader landscape in which you’re operating – while also ensuring that your business creates better outcomes for all its stakeholders.