Building Successful Businesses podcast: Joanna Swash

We’re delighted to share the first episode of Season 2 of ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses” in which we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. In Episode 1 we chat to Joanna Swash, CEO of Moneypenny, the leading outsourced communications company, about entering the US market, her journey from chip shop to CEO, and what the return to ‘normal’ means for company culture (and yes, this was recorded in November and is why it’s important to never presume a return to normal!) 

Listen to Episode 1: 

Available on Apple Podcasts:


Fiona: Welcome back to the second season of ECI’s podcast “Building Successful Businesses,” where we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of their success and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. A lot has changed since Season One ended in the summer. Life feels a lot more “normal” now. And crucially, I now need to remember to introduce myself as Fiona Moore and not Fiona Evans, post getting married. It’s very easy to forget! I’m delighted to be welcoming Joanna Swash for our first episode. Joanna is CEO of Moneypenny, the leading outsourced communications company. And if you don’t know her, or follow her on LinkedIn, she’s a real champion for company culture, and leading with purpose and authenticity. Joanna, welcome. I’m so happy to have you on.

Joanna: Thank you very much Fiona Moore, and congratulations to you.

Fiona: Thank you. I think at some point, I’m gonna have to stop mentioning it. But I reckon I’ve got another few months legs maybe…

Joanna: Make the most of it while you can.

Fiona: But from one exciting development to another, I know a big development for Moneypenny this year was your move into the U.S. joining forces with VoiceNation and Ninja Number, and opening new headquarters in Atlanta. Obviously, quite a big change. How’s it going? And is there any advice you’d give to other companies thinking about cracking the U.S. market?

Joanna: Well, first of all, I’d remind everybody it’s a really difficult task to do in the middle of a pandemic. I know we mentioned this last time we spoke, but we got on that plane at the end of February 2020, thinking we’d be back. And we weren’t, were we, for a very long time. So, hugely exciting at the moment that U.S. travel has opened up again. And it’s funny, isn’t it really, when you stop and think about it, what we’ve managed to do without being able to get 99% of our key people backwards and forwards, it’s really been astonishing.

I would have said, in a normal environment, send people that you can’t afford to send. You need to send your best performers. Those are the people that you need to make sure are there in the new business. It’s so much easier to backfill the gaps that they inevitably leave at home. And there are quite a few of you that can keep an eye on that gap and make sure it’s been filled by other people, but only your best people can go and take your culture, your business, your business models, your process, your approach and your leadership style, which is so important, over to a new entity, particularly overseas. So that’s a key one for me.

Don’t underestimate how cultures can be different. You know, there are some things that we would do at Moneypenny in the UK – take the pub, for example. A pub is a key part of who we are here. Dog & Bone, open every Thursday and Friday, everybody loves to go, £1 a drink, it’s perfect. You go and try and deliver that in the States, and everybody just turns green. So, you can have a tiny little drinks cupboard that opens up occasionally. But it’s just the tiny little things that we do that actually you really need to think about whether that’s appropriate for the local market. And also, do your homework. What motivates people over in America, for example, is very different to what motivates people in North Wales. So, yeah, do your homework and make sure you understand the local market.

Fiona: And do you think that’s been made more difficult with everything being remote? Obviously, you can’t travel over, but do you think that people are now better at having frequent conversations and jumping on a video call, and actually, that understanding those differences has become a bit easier?

Joanna: I think, yes, is the answer to all the above. I think that, you know, there’s amazing relationships that have been established remotely, incredible. And we should all be really proud, generally, in our business communities, how well that’s gone. But you can’t, very often, replace the rewards that you get from meeting face-to-face. What I envisage now is that people will travel less and I’m aiming for them to go for a longer period of time. So maybe somebody in the past would have done four days in the office and at lunch being home again. Now I will be saying, “Come on, go and do a week and a half. Go and do two business weeks, and then come back and travel less often.” I think that the day-to-day stuff will get done over Zoom or Teams or whatever. And then it’s those relationship-building moments, doing your job whilst based in another office, somewhere else I think will be incredibly important. So, business travel costs will come down, I foresee. Time spent on Teams will probably remain just as it is now. And it’s about making the most of the time that we do have together.

Fiona: Yeah. There’s nothing quite like face-to-face.

Joanna: Right.

Fiona: So, if I go all the way back from now, back to your first job, what was your first ever job, and what did you learn from it?

Joanna: So, my first ever job was washing up in a chip shop cafe. There was no glamour involved there. We’re discounting the usual £5, like, babysitting jobs, so my first paid job was £1.50 an hour. And I had a badge that said, “Trainee, Joanna.” And I was devastated that I had a badge from a chip shop that said I was a trainee. But you know what that taught me, it’s the importance of a smile. I never forget, I told this story before, there was a lady. It was a very, very busy day. I must have had a kind of, “I’m stressed” face on. It was my second week in this restaurant. And I plunk the fish and chips down, and she touched my arm. She said, “Gee, dear. Does it hurt to smile?” And I have never ever forgotten that. And she’s so right that no matter what you’ve got going on today, you’ve got to be the swan on the surface, haven’t you? Pedaling away under the surface, that’s fine, but everybody just needs to see smiley, happy, let’s just get the job done. So, that was really important. Plus, the fact, there was no hierarchy. You have to roll your sleeves up, get your hands in the dirty greasy water, and just get stuff done.

Fiona: And what was the transition from chip shop to Moneypenny? What was that journey like?

Joanna: So, well, if we’re really going to go back in time, Fiona, let’s talk about typewriter ribbons because I sold them for a little while. I did tons of export documentation for typewriter ribbons, learned how to do a very loose version of my signature over time, which morphed then into laser printer cartridges, which really was the basis for me having my own small business that failed. But you know what, we all need to learn: we embrace failure. It is a journey on the road to success, isn’t it? We should remember every day, that failure is good.
So yeah, I had my own small business. And I mean, I’ve been at Moneypenny now 16, 17 years. My eldest, Alex, who, as we record this today, is doing his driving test today. So, fingers crossed.

Fiona: Fingers crossed.

Joanna: I’m trying to relax. He was six months old when I started at Moneypenny. So, you know, it’s been a long journey here. So, from salesperson to CEO, you know, via a salubrious start washing dishes in a chip shop.

Fiona: And since that time, so you joined in 2005, and ECI has been invested since 2018. Have you seen the business transform during your time there?

Joanna: I think what really interests me about Moneypenny is that it actually changes every six months. Every six months, it’s a different business to either lead or work in. And that keeps us all on the top of our game. It keeps us all operating in an environment of…we don’t always know what we’re doing. Let’s face that. And surely that’s the mark of a scaling business, isn’t it? If you’re not taking risks every day, if you’re not out of your comfort zone every day, then you know, from my perspective, you’re not trying hard enough. So, we’ve seen it scale. There was…I don’t know, 20 PAs. I was the first salesperson back in 2005.

So, you know, we’ve seen it scale, we’ve seen it grow, we’ve seen ECI come in, investing in 2018. We’ve now got a £15 million, 100,000 square foot headquarters in Wrexham. We’ve got significant revenue coming from the States. Over 1,000 employees, we’re actually hiring 200 more at the moment, such is the growth of the business. But all the way along, what’s been important as we’ve scaled is that we had to stick to our founding principles. It’s that, if you’ve got happy people, you will have happy clients. So, recruit for attitude, recruit for the smiles, let’s go back to the chip shop story. And if you can keep your people happy, then your clients will be happy as a result.

Fiona: And obviously, as you’ve worked up through Moneypenny and learnt those lessons yourself, is there anyone who’s given you that valuable advice or sort of any other valuable advice during your career?

Joanna: Well, I will take advice from wherever I can get it. And I will always ask somebody what can I do differently? But there are two key people that stick in my mind, Ed and Rachel, brother and sister founders of Moneypenny have been incredible support for me as I’ve grown as a… I don’t know, business leader, etc. They’ve always been there for me. I’ve been able to be honest and open. I’ve been able to share my concerns, my fears, my…there were moments where you think, “I can’t do that,” you know, they’ll be there with an elbow going, “Of course you can, crack on.” And so, they’ve been incredible.

In the pandemic, I reached out to one business leader I’ve never spoken to, every week, and said, “Let’s share dirty laundry. What have you found? What went wrong for you? How did you fix it?” And I always think you learn more from other people’s mistakes. So, I will take advice all over the place. And I think that if you can be in a room and learn one new thing that you didn’t know before, then that room is worth being in. But you will never learn if you always aim to be the smartest person in the room. So, put me in a room that’s full of incredible people, where I literally am the thickest person in the room. And I think that’s actually the right place to be. Because you will come away and you will learn lots of golden nuggets that you can take back to your own business.

Fiona: And I think that sharing dirty laundry point is really important as well. I think the more honest and open you can be and transparent and share your own problems as well as your own successes, the more you get out of those conversations.

Joanna: Absolutely. And even today, I had a conversation with Mark Keeley at ECI, and I’m saying, “I’ve got this particular issue, Mark, please can you find me somebody in the portfolio that’s experienced this in the past, so that I can understand what route they took, what the downfalls may be.” That’s just to learn where other people have got it wrong so we can bypass that and just get to success as fast as possible. And that is a real benefit of being part of a group of businesses, in whatever sense, that trust each other – you can share what’s going wrong and you can ask them for help and advice to go and take away.

Fiona: And I think one of the things, whenever I’ve read any of your LinkedIn posts or listened to on the radio, BBC Wales, I know you’ve been on there a fair bit – 

Joanna: If you’re up at 5:00 in the morning, you might catch “Wake Up to Money,” but it takes an early bird, that one.

Fiona: Yeah, there’s some early starts there! But one of the things that really comes across is, you’re clearly really passionate about people. What’s driven that passion? How do you think it impacts how Moneypenny operates as a business?

Joanna: From a Moneypenny perspective, it was one of our absolute founding principles, the founding principle, is that if you can look after people, happy people make happy clients. And you can only look after people and keep them happy if you try and understand them. If you treat them as an individual, they’re not a workforce, they’re a group of individuals that make that decision every morning to get up, put on their A-game and come to work to do a good job. You can’t rely that that’s always going to be the case. You’ve got to treat people well so that you’ve got that peace of mind that you’re always going to have a happy, engaged workforce. And at any point, that model could break.

So, I think as leaders, we’ve always got to make sure that we are doing the best for our people and that we’re putting them first. And for me, it’s about authenticity, potentially an overused word at the moment. Open-style, compassionate leadership, empowering people, trust, we do overuse these words, but it’s so true. You can’t just talk about it, though. You have to live and breathe these values every single day. And ultimately, if you surround yourself with brilliant people, even as a business leader, I want to sit in a management meeting and think, I don’t know what you know. You’re amazing, you know, look what…you’re making the magic happen over here in sales or in marketing or in IT. And all our job is to be an aggregator of incredible talent, whether it’s our PAs and receptionists doing phone calls and live chats, whether it’s the leadership team and all the support teams. Our job is to be the glue and then let all these incredible people feel engaged, have the correct resources, have clarity of messaging goals, and let them go and do an incredible job.

Fiona: And do you think that delegation and trust is something that business leaders, in general, find easy? And is it something that you yourself have always found easy?

Joanna: I’ve actually always found it easy. And I’ve always been that kind of person. And I think that’s because I think, how have I been treated in the past? And Ed and Rachel, you know, right from the word go, they left me to it. They said, “Here’s the resources that you have” – and they had clarity of message – “Here’s where we’re trying to get to. Here’s our target market. Here’s what we know about your role, but you’re the expert. So, go and make it yours.” And I think all I’ve done is to take that approach and scale it up, and pass that along to other people. So, yeah, I just think that’s a big part of who I am really.

Fiona: And trust and company culture. I know it’s been really tested in the last 18, 19 months. And lots of companies actually seem to have thrived under that adversity and their culture came to the fore. But some also seem to be struggling with the return to work, and what that now means for their culture. You’re an advocate for hybrid working. How do you think CEOs can embrace that future of work, but not lose out on that workplace culture they’re more familiar with?

Joanna: I think you have to take a good, honest, brave look at your business, right now. We took the decision, and it was a brave decision that…we’ve grown so much in a pandemic. We had new starters that never met their team leaders. We have team leaders who’ve been working at home for 18 months. You always end up with this two-track culture. And when culture is so important to us, you know, we need to go back to our DNA. And how do you do that? The only way you can do that is pulling your community back together, even if it’s on a bit of a temporary basis. And so, from the 11th of October, we said, “Right, here are the business reasons, we need to be more productive, we need to be more efficient, we need to get our culture back on track, we need to recreate these family relationships that you’ve all experienced in work because we know what the benefits are of those from our clients’ perspective, we need you all back in the office, please.” And I totally understand, you know, there are people that can’t do that from a health perspective.

But we’ve got about 20, 25 people now who are still shielding, and they’re still home, but everybody else – as we speak – is right back in the office. And I’ve said that hybrid is absolutely the future, even from an office space perspective, as we keep growing, then it’s got to be the future. But right now, hybrid will start in Q1 2022. But we now have a building that’s more or less full with people who have rediscovered that sense of community. And boy, it feels really, really nice. It’s so nice to be back to normal if you like. And I think we needed that moment of getting everybody back in, realign expectations, realign the culture, and just get everybody knowing each other again. I think it’s been hugely beneficial. But I do think there are a lot of CEOs that haven’t actually had that approach to the detriment of workplace performance, I think in some cases.

Fiona: And I suppose one of the clear things is that it’s important to talk to people and explain, like you said, the reasons to come back in, the reasons why it might be beneficial to stay at home, and how that actually impacts on the business. That focus on transparency and authenticity, I suppose means you’re fairly exposed as an individual as well. And is there anything that that’s taught you about yourself, or that business success has taught you about yourself as an individual, rather than as a CEO?

Joanna: You’ve got to practice what you preach, you know, and there’s no point saying, “I’m transparent, please come and tell me what you think.” If somebody comes into your office sits down and says, “I really don’t like what you do with X, Y, and Z,” you’ve got to be able to take it, and you’ve got to be able to say, “I’m really sorry, you feel like that.” And either explain, “This is why it is or how it is. I’m sorry, it comes across that you don’t like it,” or, “Good point. Let’s see if we can change it.” So, yeah, you have to live and breathe your values, and not just, you know, reel off a whole pile of words, that you say you’re honest and transparent and trustworthy, and not actually live and breathe it. I use Workplace a lot, the platform by Facebook. And I’m honest and open on that. I do videos most weeks, some weeks just fly, don’t they, and you don’t get round to it. But most weeks, there’s a video on Workplace. People can comment on whatever they like. So, yeah, people need to know one version of you, don’t they? We shouldn’t be different people at home as we are in the office. I think those days of leadership style are dead and buried. We are one version, this is the real me, what you see is what you get, like it or not.

Fiona: And also, I think people like the personality of whoever is leading, and they want to see it. And I think often CEOs or maybe corporations in general try and be very safe so that no one is too unhappy or, sort of, you know, too overexcited. And it’s very run of the mill. But actually, that’s not how we like to interact with people. And I think people like seeing, like you mentioned, the Workplace videos, they like seeing who actually are you? Who is the person running this business and can I talk to them? What are they like?

Joanna: Yes, that’s right. And you know, you will get some people that say, “God, I can’t believe she’s done a video and not brushed her hair first.” You know? Not everybody’s going to like how you come across. But come on, as you know, this is me. I’ve got a couple of pygmy goats at home as well. So, they feature quite regularly in the pandemic videos. But…

Fiona: Yeah, that’s the side of someone’s personality I’d like to see – the pygmy goats.

Joanna: Yeah.

Fiona: So, last question for me. Is there any advice you’d give to business owners at the start of their journey?

Joanna: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are good. Failure is good. And empower those around you to make mistakes. And for them to…number one, fess up to them, because you want to create an environment where people feel safe and secure. They don’t feel as if they’re gonna have anything thrown at them for failure or making a mistake, but that we all learn from them. A scalable business needs to have confident people in it, who are not afraid to push the boat out to try things they’ve not tried before, and to be able to come back to you as a leader and say, “I’ve tried X, it didn’t work,” or “I tried Y, and it did, and look what the results are.” So, I would absolutely say that it’s critical that you allow and empower people to go make mistakes. I also think you need to take a good solid look at yourself and think, who are you, what’s your purpose, what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses, accept them, and build a team around you that can fill in some of the gaps.

I think that’s what Ed and Rachel did incredibly at Moneypenny. They knew what they were good at. And they knew where they needed support. And I think that that’s a really powerful way of building a business. And I’ve said this before, surround yourself with brilliant people. Be the thickest person in the room, go and hire people who are so much better than you, and then take them on the journey.

Fiona: Great. Well, Joanna, thanks so much for joining me today and kicking off our second season in such style. Loads of really fantastic advice that feels relevant to all sorts of businesses. And it’s great to hear from such a champion for culture and people, and it’s clear to see how that translates to the team and growth of Moneypenny. Thank you.

Joanna: Fiona, thanks for you and the team. Thanks a lot. 

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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