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Bossing It: Thriving on Responsibility with Greg Jones


Smarts' European CEO, Greg Jones, on some defining moments in his career and being a magpie for leadership inspiration

Bossing It: Thriving on Responsibility with Greg Jones

Greg Jones is the European CEO of Smarts, joining the business in October 2022 to oversee the PR and content agency’s growth in Great Britain and mainland Europe. Prior to Smarts, Greg spent more than six years at Mischief, the consumer PR agency previously owned by Engine. He initially joined as creative director in 2016, before taking on the managing director role in July 2019. During his career, Greg has also been a managing partner at Shine Communications, a creative associate at Splendid, director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment and the co-founder and creative director of PR shop Glass Jar. 

Speaking with LBB, he discusses the moments in his career so far that have shaped him as a leader.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Greg> I’d just joined Shine Communications as a senior account manager (back in 2002) and my boss thrust a new business brief from Polaroid into my hands and wanted me to lead on the response. I stuttered that I didn’t think I was capable and she said – in the nicest possible way – “I wouldn’t have fucking hired you if I didn’t think you were capable”. And she was right – we won the pitch and everything changed from that moment in terms of my career and leadership. 

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Greg> Rachel Bell – founder of Shine – played an instrumental role in helping me determine my leadership style, i.e. trusting in people and helping them to fulfil their potential. But to be honest, I’m still developing my leadership style twenty-odd years after getting my first taste of leadership (and four as either an MD or CEO). I’m something of a magpie – I’ve pick up leadership inspiration from all of my bosses over the years – both in terms of the things I’ve taken with me and the things I’ve left behind. 

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Greg> There are two things that stick in the memory. One – when I allowed a client to negotiate a three-month notice period down to just one month. Second – making a silly decision based on a wish to be liked as a new MD. Both of which – if they’d actually happened – would have been commercially detrimental to the agencies I was working at. And both came from a position of people-pleasing, which is at odds with being a leader. Both were huge learnings and I resolved never again to make a decision based on solely wanting to be liked.  

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Greg> I would describe myself as a something of a reluctant leader – even though I’ve held leadership positions for nearly twenty years now! But the older and more experienced I get, I can see I had leadership qualities from an early age – even if it took others to recognise them before I did. And I fundamentally enjoy being a leader, which is crucial given the stresses and strains that often accompany leadership. I thrive on responsibility – even if I don’t always want it – and I enjoy the act of leading others (must be the ‘eldest child’ syndrome at play!)

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Greg> I think it’s a combination of nature and nurture. I definitely had leadership qualities in me but it certainly needed others to pull (drag!) them out of me at times. And while I’ve benefited from training and coaching, most of my learnings and development as a leader have happened ‘on the job’. There’s zero substitute for experience (good and bad!) 

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Greg> Making difficult decisions, particularly regarding people (having to let people go, telling people they aren’t ready for a promotion etc). I’m very aware of the role that work plays in lots of people’s lives so I’ve never enjoyed those difficult conversations. But I’ve always found preparation, honesty and empathy have served me well in those situations. 

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Greg> Genuinely, no. I’ve definitely made mistakes (many of them!) and I’ve lost my fair share of pitches and clients, but I’ve never felt as though I’ve definitively ‘failed’ whilst in charge. Others may disagree! But, for me, the concept of ‘failure’ feels like a more significant downturn than I’ve experienced in my career to date.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Greg> It’s a balance. I tend to lean more towards openness than secrecy but there is a line to be drawn. Not all information should be shared at all times! But I’ve found that being open – within reason – is great for culture, staff engagement/retention and client relationships. 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Greg> Again, Rachel Bell at Shine was an early – and enduring – mentor, and I still turn to her when I have questions and challenges. She taught me the importance of trusting myself, helping others to realise their potential and knowing when to ‘sh*t or get off the pot’ (in her delightfully colourful language!). But I’ve also collected mentors (whether they’ve realised it or not) throughout my career – alongside a wonderful coach I’ve been working with for the past three years. I don’t technically mentor any aspiring leaders but I like to think I’ve unofficially mentored plenty of people over the years – many of whom have gone on to have hugely successful careers. I try to avoid being the ‘big I am’ in those relationships and don’t pretend I have all of the answers but, rather, share my experiences and encourage them to find their own answers and – ultimately – their own leadership style (as well as delivering difficult truths as and when required) 

LBB> How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through difficult waters?

Greg> Remaining positive. Having a plan. Pivoting where needed. Showing empathy. Being honest (as much as the situation allows). Showing you care. Over-investing in the important areas (staff engagement, client relationships etc). Trying to take the pressure off people. 

LBB> Recently the industry has been confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Greg> This is such an important issue. And so, with the full support of my boss (which is essential for driving any change) – we’ve developed a partnership with Creative Access to launch two internships, built a relationship with People Like Us to support on their various campaigns and invested in a number of training programmes in the DE&I space. We’re by no means perfect, but we are making progress. 

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely?

Greg> Essential. It sounds trite but our people and company culture are truly at the heart of the business. It was one of the main reasons I joined Smarts and it’s one of the main reasons why we inspire such loyalty both among our staff and our clients. And as we continue to grow and expand – we’ve just opened in Amsterdam, for example, to add to our Belfast, London, New York, Los Angeles and Edinburgh offices  – it’s vital that the company culture remains strong and consistent regardless of location. As such we over-invest in company culture initiatives – to great effect. 

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Greg> Taking time to forget I’m a leader! My wife and friends are very good at keeping any potential ego in check and reminding me that what I do isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things (much as I like to think otherwise!) 

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Smarts, Fri, 14 Jul 2023 10:27:00 GMT