Having interviewed hundreds of CEOs as a journalist, James Ashton started to notice some patterns. He got curious. In this fast-changing world, where leadership is more challenging than ever, what kinds of leaders have emerged and how do they respond to those challenges?
A fascinating conversation about leadership itself, but also a practical glimpse into how a professional journalist organises and structures ideas to create a powerful book.
James’s site: https://www.jamesashton.co/
Leading with James Ashton podcast: https://www.leadingpod.com/
James on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mrjamesashton
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Business Book Awards 2021: https://www.businessbookawards.co.uk/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21
The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks
My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000
Alison Jones: I’m here today with James Ashton, who was city editor and executive editor at the London Evening Standard and the Independent, and before that city editor at the Sunday Times and chief city correspondent at the Daily Mail. And during that period he covered some of the biggest economic and corporate stories of recent times.
Today he writes regularly on business, leadership, technology and investment, and his podcast, Leading with James Ashton, features bosses from the worlds of business, charity, the arts and sport. He’s the author of two books – FTSE: the inside story of the deals, dramas and politics that revolutionized financial markets, which was written with Mark Makepeace, and also The Nine Types of Leader: How the leaders of tomorrow can learn from the leaders of today, which is out in January, 2021. So welcome to the show, James.
James Ashton: Thanks so much, Alison. It’s great to be talking to you today.
Alison Jones: Oh, it’s really good to have you here. I always have a slight level of anxiety when I’m talking to a podcaster. So, you know, they’ll be just saying, Oh, her podcast technique isn’t quite like mine.
James Ashton: Well, I have an anxiety as well, because I’m not asking any questions today.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s much easier asking the questions, isn’t it?
James Ashton: I don’t know. We’ll find out.
Alison Jones: Well, that’s made me feel better.
So I have just finished The Nine Types of Leader, which is great fun. I really enjoyed your archetype approach. And what’s really obvious is that this book has emerged from very, very many conversations with business leaders.
So at what point in those conversations, did you go, Do you know what? There’s a few types here.
James Ashton: It’s interesting, because it’s almost like, thank you for reading it, it’s almost like piecing together Happy Families really. There were obvious types that we all know, and that I’ve dealt with over many years. The Founder, for example, we all know Founders, we talk about Founders and as a country, we’re meant to encourage more startups and scale-up companies that can feed the economy of the future.
And it was other ones that I was quite curious about, because I think these groupings come about either through training or through the situations they find themselves in, or even in some instances through birth. So I have the Scions in there as well, the people who kind of inherit from the previous generation and run the family business, if you like, in their way.
So I think it was probably getting into something like, when I’m looking at CVs, when I’m interviewing for a newspaper, for the full page profile interview, I always sort of look through and see, where have they been, where they’re come from. And there’s a lot of companies that come up time and again. So there’s a McKinsey or there’s say PWC, and it was the Procter and Gamble route that I was really, really interested in. Proctor and Gamble, one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world, lots of brands in there , shampoos and soap powders and so on. And time and again, there were CEOs I was interviewing from all sorts of sectors who’d had this training at Proctor and Gamble, and I was curious as to what it was that Procter and Gamble had done, pretty much during the nineties, that had created so many CEOs of companies that we know such as BT, Sky , Ralph Lauren, Levi-Strauss and so on.
And I was quite interested… it’s a sort of club that they formed. And I suppose some of it came from there, I wasn’t necessarily looking at a book at that stage, but I was curious about those patterns and trends that you find.
Alison Jones: And that’s a great journalistic quality, isn’t it, curiosity? It’s a very good place to write a book from. I think.
James Ashton: Yes. Well, I hope so. And I think, I was curious to find out more about them and then also really to see what there was there that could create a book. Because I’ve worked for myself for a few years and there’s various, as well as carrying on the freelance journalism, there were other projects that I’d done , speaking or advisory and so on. And books had already come to me. I had done a project with a business leader, I’d been approached to do something and it’s very long story, but that hasn’t seen the light of day yet. But it got me thinking, well, you know, I need to do my own book here. I think there’s, what can I contribute? What do I know from all these years in business journalism? And an old boss, an old editor of mine said to me once, write what you know, which I think is a wonderful thing I keep in my mind all the time. And then I was looking around for ideas and thinking back to some of these patterns I’d seen in the interviews I’d done, I thought, well, I know CEOs pretty well, you know, I’ve interviewed several hundred, I’ve met a lot more, so what can I contribute here? And I thought, well, the question I keep getting asked is what are they like? What is Richard Branson like? What’s the Bank of England governor like? And so on. And I thought, well, why don’t I explore the work I’ve done and see if there are more of these kind of clubs and themes, like the Procter and Gamble theme? And I think that’s where… it kind of ran on from there.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s fascinating. Isn’t it? Because ‘what are they like’ is one of those questions… oh, well, on one level they’re just people. And on the other level, yes, they have this archetypal quality about them. They share a pattern with others.
How long did it take you to distill it down to nine? And was there a bit of a fight over, you know, presumably you could subdivide this forever, but you know, how easy was it to actually distill it down to the final list?
James Ashton: I think it took a little while, it wasn’t just a couple of days job because I think these ideas need to percolate a little bit. So I jotted down, and there were obviously other projects and things that I’ve kept, I liken the way I worked to spinning plates. So there’s other plates I was spinning, while mulling this over…
Alison Jones: Which is very creative, isn’t it, of course, because that feeds into your thinking…
James Ashton: Yeah, I think so. And so I could have gone on for more possibly, but I think I got to a body of nine and I thought this pretty much covers the waterfront as I see it, so I can stick with that. And then it was a case of how to populate those chapters, because the structure, if you have this taxonomy or this group of archetypes, then actually the thing that can be a challenge, which is chapter structure, is almost done for you.
So there really was a question of how do I now populate these chapters? What do I need to say about each of these types?
Alison Jones: And that’s a nice mix of telling individual stories, giving exemplars of each type, isn’t it? And also sort of pulling out the abstract qualities. I liked as well, you don’t do so much for each chapter, presumably because the book was pretty much put away before COVID hit, but you’ve got at the end that sense of how the pandemic has changed things, has impacted on leadership styles and types.
Just talk us through a little bit about how that happened. And when you became aware that you were going to have to add something to this book.
James Ashton: Well, I was writing this through spring and into summer. So there was a feeling that the world had changed and lockdown was happening and, you know, businesses had suffered and people were suffering too. And I talked to a lot of CEOs during that time and they were quite cautious about saying everything has changed forever.
They weren’t being blasé about it, but they said, well, some of this will go back to what starts to look a bit more normal again. And I think also there was a caution of the people advising me – so at the publisher and my agent – that not everything, although it felt like COVID was everything and, you know, the last year we’ve had, it certainly has felt like that, that not every book coming out in the aftermath needed to be totally about COVID and its impact.
That said, you’re right, I did want to put something in. So the last, I think I called it the epilogue, really touches on what COVID has done and will do to leadership. And I think my conclusion on that was that COVID will accelerate a lot of the trends as it has done with our lives in general.
So we’re probably ordering a lot more food to the door than we used to. We’re probably FaceTiming Grandma more than we used to. And I think in leadership there’s a few factors. One of them is returning things to the profit imperative. I think there’s a lot of talk about all the other factors that CEOs and leaders have to take into account these days, which they do.
But I think going through 2021 and beyond we’ll have this very, very tough time for businesses and the economy. And I think the leaders who will be rewarded are the ones that can grind out the profit over the next couple of years. I think the second point, which is kind of counter to that one is the social contract.
We talk about ESG, the money flowing into environmental and socially focused companies. But I think companies getting bailed out in the way that banks were 10, 12 years ago is a reminder that none of these companies and none of these leaders exist in a vacuum, they are part of society, they’ve been helped out. They have to help out others.
And then the third point I came to on COVID was it’s almost like a meditation on, what is a modern corporation? How does a modern leader function? If you haven’t got everyone getting the train into your shiny headquarters every day, if you’re not sat in the corner office upstairs and everyone else’s is there with you, then how as a leader do you operate? How do you communicate? How do you actually… because you’ve got young people working at home, that’s not always a great situation to be working in, how do you make sure your people are all right? So I think that’s quite a skill that leaders need to think of as well.
Alison Jones: And I’m sure that every leader reading this book will be going, Hmm. Which of these….? I mean, that’s why we do it, isn’t it? This is a kind of, you know, a really souped-up leadership version of the personality test that we just can’t help doing in the magazines and I was looking at that going, I want to be Human.
And I’m guessing that, I mean, you put it last, it feels aspirational, it feels of the moment. It also feels as though a lot of what you’re saying in the implications of COVID, point to that as being perhaps a more sustainable way forward than for example, Alpha, which is another one of the leadership types that you have.
James Ashton: Well, I think Alphas do have a place and I can come on to that if you like. But I think with Humans, I mean, of course every leader is Human. And many, the problem is….
Alison Jones: It is an interesting choice of word, isn’t it?
James Ashton: And actually it was a title I played around with what the title should be for that. There was always that ninth type, which was going to look to the future, when I combined a lot of the things that had been in the rest of the book.
I think all CEOs are Human. Some of them think they are superhuman. And I think the ones as I defined in the chapter the human ones are really the ones where, they’ve come out of the ivory tower. They’re not quite apologizing for leadership, because someone does need to make the call at the end of the day, but I think they make a good fist of being all things to everyone, if you like. Really embracing this wide palette of stakeholders that they must now, whether that’s environmental concerns, you know, the community, the staff, the supplier, and so on, but they’re also very digital and they also listen which I think is an underrated skill.
They’re not sort of speaking from the pulpit. ‘We will do it this way. We’ll do it my way.’ They’ve actually listened and learned and acted. And I think they are, you know, living in this era of Glassdoor and so on, when it’s very, very easy through social media to critique the company you work for, to critique the CEO at the top of your business. I think they’re very mindful about being on the metaphorical shop floor if you like.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s certainly how I read it. It is fascinating.
And I want to talk to you about the writing as well, the writing process. Because for a journalist, you know, writing is meat and drink, it’s what you do. It’s not going to be hard to grind out some words. How did you find the transition between writing short pieces fast for a newspaper to the longer, slower, just more structured approach of a book?
What did you enjoy about that? Or what did you find difficult?
James Ashton: Well, I have tried to keep up the journalism as well. So there is still those shorter pieces that I’ve written, there’s half a dozen CEO interviews last year, numerous columns and so on. And I view that as kind of the feed stock for what might be , you know, bigger projects and books and so on going forward.
So I think it’s great to be able to keep doing that. And actually, Alison, I love it. I love that meeting and analyzing the CV. What are the questions? How do I get the best out of someone over 45 minutes? With the book, I think the biggest change is it’s quite a lonely existence, and you are still operating to a deadline. But that deadline is you know, some weeks or months, hence. So I think you have to keep having a word with yourself and saying, look, you know you can’t do this in the last few weeks. You have to just sit down and make yourself write it.
And, you know, some days are better than others. I mean, you know, it’s a real mental challenge, I think, to do that.
Alison Jones: I love that idea of sitting down and having a word with yourself because that’s, yes, we all need to do that every now and again, don’t we?
I remember chatting to Tim Harford as well, who obviously writes books, writes journalistic articles, produces the radio programmes. And he said he got a real kick out of those different timescales, different levels of urgency, different ways of working and thinking which I found really interesting.
I’m guessing it’s similar for you?
James Ashton: I think so, I mean, there have been times when in the last year, when I’ve stepped away from the books or, maybe even something was filed and and some of the journalism I did and it felt only briefly like light relief because it’s still very you know, you have to be plugged in and it has to be good, but there’s almost a lightheadedness to writing 1200 words instead of 60,000 or whatever. But I think the way the transition, if you like, moving from journalist to author, I think you have to break it down to make it manageable. So if I think that 9 types is 60,000 words and each of those 9 types probably I wrote 6,000 words per chapter, I mean that for me is three of the Sunday Times focus pieces, the big feature in the Sunday Times business section. So if I start to think about it like that, then it’s less daunting. I think there’s a question about how you make something flow across 6,000 as opposed to 1,500 or something and that needed a bit more thought.
But as I said, the structure of this was quite easy in a way. So I alighted on nine types, and so there were nine chapters. I needed several thousand words for scene-setting at the top, who are these CEOs? How do they get into the position where they are leading something? Because they don’t just arrive there overnight. There’s many years of work and slog and experience before that.
And then I can talk a little bit about the research if that’s helpful?
Alison Jones: Oh, yes, absolutely, please do, because I’m always fascinated how people go about that.
James Ashton: Well, I mean, there are lots of leadership books. So this has never set out to rival or mirror those academic treatments of leadership. This was always journalism-led and I thought that all these interviews, CEO interviews, were good source material.
So I went back over what I done in developing these nine types, these sort of happy families card sets, if you like. And then so I grouped a lot of those together, and then I thought, well, and actually looked back at notes and because when you’re only writing 1,300 words and you’ve spoken to someone for an hour or so, there’s quite a lot left on the cutting room floor that can be revisited and so on.
So there was that to begin with, grouping those together across the nine chapters. And then I thought, because I wanted to go deeper into some of these specifics about leadership, I went back to some of the people I’d interviewed before. So a good example is Moya Greene who was running the Royal Mail for many years.
I have this chapter called Fixers, so these are the CEO s and, depending on anyone’s vintage, I think these are the Red Adair of business. They’re the firefighters who will go in, it’s high risk, high reward. A company is on its knees, it’s about to collapse. This is the person who says, you know, hold my coat, they run in and they somehow turn things around. So Royal Mail was you know, a hugely important company to the UK. It certainly has been over the last year. It’s connected, kept everyone connected with deliveries and so on.
And it was balance sheet insolvent. It was in real trouble, it was an albatross around the neck and Moya, who’d run Canada Post, had done a similar job over there, was brought to the UK. And so we went quite deep into that story of what she did to put the Royal Mail onto a decent footing so that it could be put on the stock market in 2013.
And so that was about the decisions she took, but also the decisions she took to take the job. It was quite interesting about her motivations and how she manages personal risk, if you like. She needed certain things to happen for her to be able to take that job. And I think, so that was interesting, it’s not the sort of stuff you can go into for a newspaper interview. So I revisited that with her. I talked to Gavin Patterson again, who I know, and he’d been the CEO of BT, he’s gone into Salesforce now in a senior role and he was one of these Procter and Gamble alumni. So tell me the story. How was it that you were selling shampoo one minute and then you’re running BT, one of the biggest companies in the country? So, that was good.
And then the third – I think of each chapter as layering up – the third element was , what else do I need? What are the fresh interviews that will broaden out some of these ideas, and also help me to internationalize the book a bit, because obviously if I’ve worked for Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and so on, a lot of these CEOs are going to be UK based. So how can I look beyond these shores? So people like Ajay Banga at MasterCard who I put in the Campaigners chapter, they’re very good at bringing profit with purpose, which everyone’s talking about at the moment, or some CEOs have done it well and his campaign which they called financial inclusion, so bringing the unbanked into the global money system is quite an interesting story. Obviously, there is self-interest there because MasterCard is in that world. But it’s still interesting how he makes that a mission for the whole company to get behind.
And another good one, I spent a lot of time with Jean-Francois Decaux who runs now the outdoor advertising company, the big billboards along the side of the motorways and the bus shelters and so on. And he, along with his brother took over their company from their father, so he is in my Scion chapter. So how does it work that you take up the reins from your father? When does he give you your head? When are you working for him and when you’re working for yourself? And then at what point do you stray from that legacy and do it your own way? So that was quite an interesting conversation. So those I think are the three layers of the research and how I thought, how do I populate these chapters?
Alison Jones: That’s really interesting to hear how you did it. And also the really kind of pragmatic thing about actually, if this is going to be a book, is going to sell internationally, how do I expand what I’ve got in a way that serves the cause of the book? That’s really interesting.
How did your podcast relate to the research that you were doing and well, just life generally, really?
James Ashton: Well, so I started the podcast in April 2019, which is called Leading. And what I do there is typically it’s me, plus two CEOs from different organizations, and I get them to compare notes about how they lead their organizations, how their careers have developed, aspects of communication, strategy, mentorship, and then what they say to the next generation.
So, in a way, I knew I wanted to write the book and I know that books take a long time to go from idea onto the page, to the full length, through the publication process and out into the shops. So in a way, the podcast was a shortcut to the book. I thought if you write what you know, if I’m going to come out and do things around the CEO, then I can get some of this moving with the podcast a little sooner. And also I was very interested in trying a new medium. And yes, I think that there are there’s upsides and downsides to self-employment and one of the upsides is you can do what you want in some respects, So, that was where that came from. And so I’m 60 CEOs in now.
Alison Jones: ‘I’ve got through 60 CEOs, there’s still a few to do…’ How are you finding it? What do you love about it? Is it what you wanted, what you expected?
James Ashton: Yes, I enjoy it. I think, well, the first thing is it’ s provided more content and more ideas for the the nine types book. There are some of those types that I rounded out with the conversation. So notably there’s extra Deloitte in there , PWC and I brought in some of the charity leaders as well. With the podcast I wanted to, you know, so often we think leadership stops at the FTSE 100, but I was conscious, because I’d written… some of the interviews I’ve done for the Independent, where I was given the challenge to do a big Monday interview in the Independent a few years ago, it wasn’t particularly business focused, but it had to resonate and often resonate outside of the M25.
So that took me into the world of charity and arts and so on. And I was just curious, not something I could have really tested out so much in newspapers, but to test out the theory in the podcast was well, what’s the senior partner at Deloitte got to say to the woman that’s running Teenage Cancer Trust? And actually it turned out to be quite a lot because they have the same sorts of challenges.
A recent interviewee on my podcast was Javed Khan at Barnardos. And they had a terrible year in 2020, as all of the charities did . He told me they were down 50 million of revenue and he was taking 20 million of costs out. And their network of 700 retail stores had spent half the year closed.
And I thought, well, you’re a charity boss, but you’re sounding very, very much like a business leader here. And of course, they are, they’re leading huge enterprises and having to be very, very commercial in order to generate the income, to support their stated cause. So that’s been a nice area to experiment in and yes, I think podcasting is this very lively world that leads to lots of other conversations.
And I think we think everyone’s in it now. And I think there are something like a million podcasts going at the moment, but I still feel if we look at where UK and Europe is versus the US there is still a lot more growth to go for. So it’s nice to have my feet in the water. Like you, Alison.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. Yes and I love doing the podcast and it generates so many ideas and connections. So it was really interesting to hear that take as well. I like the idea of two CEOs comparing notes from different spaces as well. That’s really interesting. I’m going to ask you as well for a first-time writer.
So clearly, you know, you’ve swum in this sea of writing and thinking about leadership for a long time. If somebody is coming to their first book, what’s the key bit of advice that you would give them?
James Ashton: I think it’s something that was a challenge for me, less so with Nine Types, but with other projects, I think it’s to think about structure as soon as you can. Don’t think about structure to the extent that it kills the idea, but I think as soon as you’ve pondered the idea for a little while, you have to start thinking about not just what the idea is, but how the story is told.
I think writing just for writing sake can be very freeing, but I think you’ve got to keep it within, what is each chapter going to say? That that was something I had to focus on.
Alison Jones: Yes. And it’s really important when you get to that bigger scale, isn’t it? Yes. Great advice. Would you care to recommend a business book for us, something that’s had an impact on you and you think people would benefit from reading.
James Ashton: I am going to mention two, if that’s all right. Does that break the rules or is that okay?
Alison Jones: Well, there are no rules here, James. Crack on.
James Ashton: Okay. I think there’s two. I love a good story and a good narrative. And this idea that you could be taken into the room, and there’s no reason why business book can’t be as entertaining and insightful as any other sort of book. So I think Oliver Shah’s Damaged Goods, the story of Phillip Green and BHS and Arcadia, is really great, it’s told in Technicolor. And ditto, I think The Bank That Lived a Little which is Phillip Augur, it’s the story of Barclays over 30 years, it’s really the story of Barclay’s identity crisis over 30 years. And it’s I mean, it’s lovely too, if I can say they are lovely, yes.
I think it’s, you listen to them or you read them and you think, well I think about some of the mechanics and some of it was really joyful, how both of them were put together.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I haven’t read either of those. It’s really fascinating and not at all surprising that you come up with the more biographical style of book. I mean, of a person and a business, I guess. So that’s really interesting and I can totally see that in how you’ve approached your book as well.
Really interesting. Thank you for that. And if people want to find out more about you James, more about the books and more about the podcast. Where should they go?
James Ashton: Everything about me is at jamesashton.co or there’s a separate website for the podcast which is leadingpod.com.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Absolutely fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for your time today and for being so generous at lifting the hood and showing us how you did it.
James Ashton: Thank you Alison, it’s been really interesting. Thank you.