Lessons from the C-suite: Jonny Combe

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Surround yourself with people who will tell you you’re wrong

I started out…

Washing neighbours’ cars to earn some extra cash as a ‘wee lad’ in rural Scotland. I then went on to study marketing at the University of Stirling.

I knew this was the right career path for me when…

I joined the BMW Group in 2006 as a fresh-faced marketing graduate and thought: ‘Wow, there is a whole other world out here that I never knew about.’ Working in national advertising for MINI was a long way from washing cars on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way…

Don’t believe your own hype. When things go well there is no shortage of people around to tell you how wonderful you are. The reality is that all of us are only ever a moment away from a fall from grace. Whether in business, politics or sport, it’s not difficult to go from hero to zero.

My proudest achievement…

I take pride in some of my work achievements, but there’s a lot outside of work that’s more important. In 2012 I did an unsupported eight-day cycle ride for charity with a friend from Land’s End to John O’Groats. We encountered challenges along the way that made it both physically and mentally very testing.

My biggest mistake…

I remember being called into the general manager’s office of MINI to explain why the run of DVDs we had printed and sent out (to all MINI retailers) said ‘Launch film – DVD addition’ instead of ‘Launch film – DVD edition’. It wasn’t my proudest moment.

My biggest inspiration…

I’m always inspired by those who give up everything to pursue something they deem more valuable, like Eric Liddell who left a very successful sporting career to become a Christian missionary in China. He acted on his convictions and I respect that.

Keeping me awake at night right now…

As the saying goes: ‘only the paranoid survive.’ Our competitors are out there to eat our lunch every day. They will exploit any competitive advantage. We need to respond in kind, but in a way that holds true to our values even if it’s to the detriment of commercial success.

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be… To remain agile in a VUCA world. There is too much antiquated HR out there. The world has moved on and we need to take a more modern approach suitable for the current work environment.

I need my HR director to…

Make sure we operate in the ‘new world’ of HR, forget command and control, parent/child HR, and recognise that employees have a choice about where they work, and that to keep hold of the best talent we need to ditch the rule book, start from a position of trust, and treat people as adults and individual human beings.

It annoys me when HR…

Doesn’t have a people strategy that aligns with the commercial targets of the business. Laura Lewis, our HR consultant, spends much blood, sweat and tears ensuring these match.

More HRDs would become CEO if…

They had commercial experience. I’ve met a lot of HR professionals who I certainly consider credible successors, if they have the commercial experience.

What I’m reading right now…

Mainly The Gruffalo and The Tickle Monster (I’ve got two young sons). I did recently finish Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which explores whether there is a correlation between successful business executives and psychopathy.

My top leadership tip…

According to Oscar Wilde “a true friend stabs you in the front”. The more senior you become in your career the more people pour honey in your ear. Surround yourself with those who will tell you when you’re wrong, even if it feels uncomfortable for you (and them).

Jonny Combe is UK CEO of PayByPhone

This piece appeared in the September print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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