A conversation with Brian Jones – Chairman Alwalton Hall

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LM:

My Brother, Thank you so much for contributing to the success of this leadership platform 

BJ: 

It’s my privilege, my Brother.  You’re my hero and leadership’s my pet subject, so how could I possibly say no!

LM:

We met over 5 years ago at the Harvard Business School, in Boston, USA. What were your thoughts and expectations about Harvard and what were your actual experiences? 

BJ: 

I’m not sure what my expectations were before I got there other than I was excited and apprehensive.  I had a sense that I was going to be exposed to massive information overload and learn an array of tools and techniques to make me more effective.  As it turned out, whilst there definitely was information overload and an array of tools and techniques, and they have made me more effective, the overwhelming experience was entirely about people – and there were 3 main parts:  

  • Getting to meet, know, and share with people in our cohort whom I’d never otherwise meet, many of whom are now friends for life, and to learn with them, eat with them, drink with them, share experiences and exchange ideas with them, and connect with them on a truly deep level was life-changing
  • Exposure to the people behind the business and leadership stories that were behind the case studies was also fascinating – to hear their stories and in some cases meet them face to face because of Harvard’s “pulling power”, literally humanised the whole thing and was a great source of insights and understanding
  • Getting to meet and know some of the best teachers in the world – how cool was that!  Mike Porter, Clay Christensen, Frances Frei, Marc Bertoneche, Dick Vietor… to name just a few – the list is like a hall of fame!  Their ability to navigate us through the mountain of material we had to cover was incredible. It’s kind of cool to be able to speak about these people from personal experience

Overall I thought Harvard was magical as a place and as an experience.  I often find myself thinking about our time there and smiling as familiar faces pop into my mind.  Pure joy!

LM:

We always hear about Harvard’s much vaunted case study methodology- can you describe it for us and how it broadens knowledge? 

BJ: 

Well, each one is an extremely thoroughly researched snapshot of a situation facing an entity (could be a business, organisation, or even a country) at a point in time, with the backdrop, context, and even the history explained.  You have to read and reflect on that situation and put yourself in the place of the people at the heart of it . Then you are invited to answer certain questions about that situation or what you would do if you were in the middle of it.  The professor then “unpacks” the case study in class and you’re invited to debate it with him/her and your classmates. He/she makes sure you cover the ground you’re intended to cover and understand the application of any tools that might be involved.  You’re also encouraged to relate it to any similar situation in your own past or present experience.

That might have sounded a bit “process”, so I’d like to add that they are very well written and draw you into the story that was facing the management teams involved.  They in effect “beam” you into their situation and invite you to make decisions based on what you’re learning. There’s no right or wrong answer and the debate that follows the “unpacking” of the case studies is where the best insights emerge.  I think they’re an excellent way to learn

LM:

What makes the Harvard Business School Faculty special, what are some of the most memorable moments you had in class? 

BJ: 

They’re the top of the tree.  Tenured professors at Harvard carry a personal prestige that is the envy of the world and they don’t get there by accident.  They’re super-bright, lively, great communicators, and in most cases extremely nice people.

Most of my most memorable moments took place outside class, but in class I remember the profound impact of hearing Ann Mulcahy describe the human elements of her tortured decision to accept the role as CEO of Xerox, when she’d never been a CEO before.  I also have multiple memories of Das Naryandas teasing classmates in one way or another, Marc Bertoneche actually making Finance funny, and of course whenever my buddy Jim Clawson answered a question it was like listening to poetry with a Texan drawl. Magical!

LM:

You spent the bulk of your time at Harvard with a Living Group, tell us more about this concept and the learnings from your experiences?

BJ: 

It became a family.  We were pretty lucky I think in that our group became very close very quickly.  I met Paul and Jim first, and then Fernando, Nandu, Linda, David, Sirzat, and the lovely Tets shortly after that.  Everyone supported each other form day one, no one tried to throw their weight about, and we all really got on well.  We figured out how to share out the case study burden pretty quickly and we drank a lot. And I mean a lot! There were some intense moments I remember too.  I remember going to the ANZAC day service with David, loads of laughs with Jim, who is also one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, and Nandu’s mischief, Linda telling us all off for opening the wine too early in the evening, and Sirzat’s interest in local nightlife as well as his wonderful generosity of spirit.  I could talk about all of them for hours and we still have our own WhatsApp group and try to join each other on conference calls every few weeks. It really is like a family, and they are all brilliant, clever, and fabulous people. The great thing too is we always seem to pick up just where we left off as though we’d just been together yesterday.  And of course, there was the bombing and the way that made that bond even tighter. Later on we added 3 wonderful “adopted” members in Joanne, Lyndon, and Ricardo.

LM:

What are the things that you took away from Harvard in your personal and professional life? 

BJ: 

Professionally, it made me realise that it’s all about the people.  Peter Drucker – I think Nick mentioned him in an earlier conversation – said that in the 1950s and we’ve all heard it, but for me Harvard brought that fully to life and now I know it to be true.  Tools and techniques that I learned are also very helpful and I use them regularly to de-construct problems and hopefully to make better decisions. Also for me it de-mystified some of the language that many business leaders use and which for me had been a bit of a barrier, particularly in finance.

Personally, well like I said earlier, it was life changing.

LM:

The Boston Massacre had a huge impact on us as students, can you describe that day and the massive manhunt for the suspects?

BJ: 

It was quite surreal really.  The day itself was shocking and everyone was quite subdued.  I remember making calls into home and to my office to assure them I was okay and I remember it was one of the few times our living group actually watched TV.  The manhunt day was even more bizarre. I remember heading over to the gym and being turned back as the school went on lockdown, hearing later that the bombers were close by and about the poor policeman shot at MIT, virtually next door.  I can’t say I ever felt in any danger but there was real tension in the air.

LM:

What did this do to your class and how did you and some leaders in the class do to respond to this tragic event? 

BJ: 

It would be wrong to characterise an atrocity as a good thing, but in terms of the class it was profound in the way it brought out the best in people.  It was utterly amazing. Various folk organised charity runs, a charity concert, and it all led to an incredible coming together of our group in a compassionate cause that translated into real hard cash for the One Fund – I’m told it was around $170K that we raised.  As my friend Pru Parkinson says, it was also amazing to see how may talents this group of high-achievers has – from art, to athletics, to music, and many other things besides. It’s no accident I think that the our class was characterised by the word “compassion” at the graduation ceremony.

For me, it prompted a reluctant, but ultimately joyful return to song writing and performing, initially playing and singing at the fund-raiser and then through pulling Vietors Flush together with Christophe, Paul, Yves, and Jonas, for the best gig ever in the history of the world (or so I’m told!) to the most supportive audience in the world, and finally playing and singing at the graduation dinner.  I also got a huge thrill out of the way our whole class adopted my “Let It Be AMP” song, and would start singing the chorus to me when they saw me. It still happens at our reunions and it still gives me a buzz.

LM:

You coined a term for your class of being the “Special AMP”, what made your class unique and special?

BJ: 

Well in my song, which as you know was set to the tune of “Let It Be”, I actually said we were the “Perfect AMP.”  Partly it was about me trying to communicate how I felt about our cohort, but I also wanted people to be able to sing it proudly.  The song’s pretty humorous but the chorus is also meant to be a bit of an anthem. We were and are a special and unique group but I don’t mean that arrogantly or in a way that compares us to other groups – I think you can be proud, grateful, and humble at the same time.  I know there is always the odd outlier who doesn’t want to embrace the values and the experience of a bigger group, but virtually everyone in our cohort committed to the experience and to each other in a spectacular way. Then, when faced with the horrors of the bombing, the way we came together and actually DID something about it was extraordinary.

LM:

Tell us a bit about your businesses and your current projects? 

BJ:

Well I left corporate life a couple of years ago to pursue some private business interests and to get more involved in the regional business community near where I live.  The first thing is that my amazing wife Maggie, and I converted our Georgian mansion, Alwalton Hall, into a day spa and it’s going from strength to strength! I now know more about beauty treatments than any man should know, but it’s a great business as it really exists to make people feel much better – rested, pampered, and loved.  It’s gone so well that we’re just in the process of acquiring another site – this time it’s a luxury salon in Cambridge – and we have ambitions to grow from there. We have an amazing chef and we’re looking into giving him a broader platform too. Maggie is a great leader and she’s leading and running that business tirelessly. I’m amazingly proud of her.  I take more of a Chairman role, helping set strategy, doing the M&A, and I’m quite hands-on, but she’s the face and soul of the business.

On the other side I’m doing a lot of business advisory and consulting work through my other business, Atlantic Cedar, and chairing some interesting SME businesses.  I’m working with former classmates and former colleagues in creating a network of over-qualified advisors that SMEs wouldn’t otherwise have access to. And I’m also launching a series of master classes aimed at independent businesses, hosted at the Hall in collaboration with the Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, whose board I serve on.

Lots going on and it’s very exciting!

LM:

How do you keep your staff motivated and inspired to achieve the goals you want them to achieve? 

BJ: 

For me, regardless of the context, it’s primarily about leadership – and for me that means being authentic, engaging personally, communicating the mission, and managing performance constructively and fairly.  This creates a culture where our values are properly expressed. In the beauty industry, many of the therapists are not well paid or well treated, and have little job security. In our business they are all employed and on proper contracts, we invest in their ongoing training and development, we monitor RSI points to avoid them getting injured or fatigues, and we help them develop.  As a result our talent attraction and retention is miles better than industry norms and, guess what, our clients have a far better experience as a result.

LM:

You have a fascinating methodology on Leadership, what does it entail, how are you spreading your message on it? 

BJ: 

It’s really a self-help tool constructed as a 9-box grid.  The top row is about you – what are your values, how do your behaviours enact your values, and how do you engage with people?  The middle row is about the task – how do you set goals as a leader so you stretch people but don’t break them, how do you communicate the mission, and how do you manage performance?  The bottom row is about talent – how do you inspire people to join you, how do you help people grow, and how do you inspire loyalty? These things, it seems to me, are the fundamentals of inspiring people’s “followship.”  After all, as a leader you can’t make people follow you, you can only inspire them to do so. You can make them obey you if you’re the boss, but that’s not the same. Real success comes when people want to follow you and want to do their best for you and the organisation.

I’ve been sharing it at various workshops and master classes and I’m half way through turning it into a short book.  That in turn has led to some businesses picking it up and using it to guide their leadership development programs and I also work specifically with some of my consulting clients’ leadership teams.  It’s tremendously satisfying to see the “light bulb” go on as people’s self-awareness grows.

Interestingly, Pru Parkinson is working on an insert to my framework which is designed to prevent leaders losing their way and starting to abuse their power.  I think that’s really important, especially now, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with.

LM:

What are some of the Leadership challenges facing corporates in the UK and in Europe? 

BJ: 

Clearly there’s an increasingly febrile political backdrop and a drift towards identity politics, which in my view is actually dividing people and is not what it pretends to be.  Into that atmosphere we’re hearing a lot of angry, strident points of view and some genuinely bad behaviour. Add to that the impact of the fourth industrial revolution as AI and all things digital disrupt traditional businesses and the workplace overall and the need for clear-headed, compassionate leadership is greater I believe than it has been for decades.

I’m amazed also at how many people think that leaders are some kind of wild-eyed extroverted table-thumpers.  Whoever said there was Central Casting for leaders? It’s nonsense.

I’m concerned, but ever hopeful that thoughtful people will prevail and that we’ve come far enough to do the right things as well as do things right.

LM:

Recent corporate scandals have dented the image of the business and corporate sectors, how can corporate and business leaders regain society’s trust? 

BJ: 

By embracing some humility and stop acting so damned entitled.  Just because someone has a big job or is paid a lot of money doesn’t mean that they’re somehow entitled to special treatment  or better than anyone else. And it certainly doesn’t give them the licence to treat people badly or to break the law. I think that kind of behaviour is exactly why people feel disenfranchised.  

And I’m afraid to say it, but as the Economist put it just this week, “Culture is dominated by preening elites who not only think they are cleverer than the average person but also that they are more virtuous.”

Since it’s always healthy to look to oneself in these matters, I think it’s important that those of us in the “Perfect AMP” continue to remember how fortunate and privileged we are, and that we don’t have a monopoly on truth, culture, or intellect.  We should continue to act with the compassion that characterises us, endlessly curious, and conscious that it can all come tumbling down. If we’re ever tempted to look down on people whose achievements or social status are not the same as ours, we should remember John Bradford’s words, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

LM:

How can we instil ethics and values to young leaders to ensure they are not caught up in corporate greed and scandals? 

BJ: 

By paying attention to these things right from the beginning and by ensuring that we foster a culture of good behaviour, supported by strong ethical values and practices.  In my former company, Smiths Group, both as the Group’s Chief Commercial Officer and previously as President of Smiths Detection, I was frequently faced with “opportunities” to secure business in certain markets through less than ethical means.  Often this would have meant providing incentives or inducements to so-called intermediaries who were in fact typically officials seeking bribes. I’m pleased to say that our ethical policy was cast iron and in all cases they were rejected. More than that, when I turned away from such opportunities I had the unequivocal support of the board.  I fear for young leaders in environments where the culture is less robust and so I think every executive should be asking questions of their business regarding how strongly the principles of ethical practice are emphasised and enforced.

LM:

There are calls for greater diversity in the workplace and in leadership structures, how do you think leaders can promote greater diversity? 

BJ: 

I said earlier that I have real difficulty with the upswing in identity politics – it forces people to identify themselves based on skin colour, gender, age, sexual orientation, educational background, religious persuasion, and now even the kind of food they like to eat.  For me that’s actually having the opposite effect to the one intended – which is to create more awareness and inclusion. As my daughter quite profoundly told me the other day, “there’s only one race, Dad – the human race.” Now whilst that kind of “colour blindness” is what we all want to see I don’t deny that it’s still nowhere near prevalent.

In business I think we need to begin with the assertion that diversity is actually good for business.  In my experience, for example, a mix of gender, nationality (at least), and age range on a board prevents unconscious bias, inspires creativity, and creates more balanced decision making.  That said, rather than viewing inclusiveness just as a social crusade, which it is of course, we should do it in the interests of good business. That for me somehow takes the edge off the potential for tribalism and factionalism.  Once we get the top of companies better balanced and demonstrably more successful, then it’s not too difficult to set the cultural tone in a way that spreads like wildfire through the rest of the business.

I think the other thing we need to do is make sure there are real consequences to bad behaviour – abuse of power in any form, discrimination, harassment in any form etc.  I heard recently of a company where a male member of staff allegedly sexually harassed a younger female employee, who subsequently left. The male member of staff was not censured because he was deemed to be “more valuable to the business” than his victim.  I don’t know what really happened but if it was like that then it makes my blood boil! How can that kind of abuse EVER be valuable in a business?

LM:

How has your business embraced the great technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? 

BJ: 

In the beauty business it’s very much about tailoring.  Some of the technologies and applications we’ve adopted allow us to tailor treatments and product regimes very specifically these days and that simply allows us to ensure much better outcomes.  It includes facial and colour mapping, identification of skin tone and type, and many things besides. The use of micro-current machines to deliver non-surgical face lifts that simply work by toning facial muscles and promoting the body’s own collagen production are revolutionary and very popular with our clients.  J-Lo uses the same technology as we do, though in her case she has her own machines! We invest continually in technology to support what we do, but always in the interests of better outcomes.

In the consulting business I’m seeing this mainly in terms of how it affects my clients.  

One of the companies I work with is focused firmly on the people solutions required when workforces and functions are displaced.  In every industrial revolution we’ve seen people adapt, new business models emerge, and greater quality of life eventually established.  However, this time round it’s happening extremely quickly and I think it’s vital that we focus on how in particular it is effecting middle management professionals in functions, who perhaps don’t have the manual skills for a trade nor the business development skills to sell their professional knowledge.  There are ways of addressing this and it’s a fascinating area. I realise I didn’t answer with regard to the technology itself, but that’s sort of my point!

LM:

How do you keep a balance between your busy life and your family? 

BJ: 

Having my wife as my business partner is a big help, though the danger is that we can be in the same building all day and not speak to each other all day.  The upside, however, is that we’re usually there for each other, and accessible. We also make sure we keep Sunday just for us or for visiting friends and family, and we make sure we have at least 2 short holidays and a number of weekend breaks a year.  Basically, the biggest thing is to make sure that when we’re together we’re fully engaged and not being distracted. As an old friend of mine is fond of saying, “Wherever you are, BE THERE.”

The family is all grown up but we stay in close contact.  We have a family WhatsApp group and we speak regularly too.  Our eldest daughter works in the spa business so we see her every day, and the others pass through quite often.  My son and I also have a weekly call just so we don’t drift as he travels more than I do these days.

For me it’s primarily about communication.  You don’t have to be physically together any more to stay part of each other’s lives.  It’s a discipline though, and easy to lose if you’re not careful.

LM:

Do you think that we are doing enough to protect the environment for our children? What more can we do as individuals and corporates to work towards a better future? 

BJ: 

I don’t think you can ever do enough.  A recent game-changer in the UK was the “Blue Planet” series by David Attenborough which shocked everyone into becoming aware of the effects of plastics on the ocean in particular.  Government has introduced measures to reduce plastics and is continuing to do that and clearly we should applaud that.

As with most things I think it’s back to taking individual ownership and responsibility.  Here at the Hall we re-cycle everything, we grow our own produce, and our chef uses what we grow ahead of any “packaged” alternatives.  He also sources everything else from local producers and buys fresh. On skin and hair products we use almost entirely natural products and we’re finding our clients are migrating away from the more conventional products towards the environmentally friendly ones, including those with bio-degradable packaging.

So I think it’s something where we have to keep awareness levels high and where each of us contributes somehow.  Government sometimes gets confused between being eco-friendly and seeing opportunities to hike up taxes in a virtue-signalling manner, but if it gets the job done, so be it.

LM:

What advice would you give young leaders about the importance of learning and development during their career? 

BJ: 

Remember two things.  Firstly, never stop being curious.  Secondly, remember that every interaction is an opportunity to learn or an opportunity to teach, and the best ones are a combination of the two.  

Just don’t stop learning.

LM:

Prof Clay Christiansen challenged us to think about “How will you measure your life?” How are you thinking about those things that will shape your legacy in your personal and professional? 

BJ: 

For me it’s about the concept of a “good death.”  It sounds a bit morbid but actually it’s the reverse.  If I were on my death bed what would I want to look back on?  You get the idea.

Well for me I’d want to be surrounded by the people I love and be able to look in their eyes and to feel the warmth of that connection.  I’d want to be able to look back knowing I had done my very best for all of them and made a positive impact on the world through the people I’ve met, worked with, or simply come to know.  I’d want to be able to look back on countless precious memories, particularly with my wife, and know I have truly lived. Finally, I would want to have come to terms with my failures and taken joy in my successes, and to leave the world behind knowing I had made a positive contribution, no matter how small and insignificant.

LM:

What would you tell your 17-year-old self? 

BJ: 

Take it easy!  You have time!!!!

LM:

Thank you so much My Brother for sharing your experience and expertise across a wide range of issues, I’m sure my readers will benefit from your insights. 

BJ: 

It’s been my pleasure and my privilege.  And you’re still my hero!

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