Our Managing Director, Jonathan McCallum, recently spoke with Little Black Book on the different styles of leadership, clarity over transparency and not looking at everything in a binary way.

Jonathan joined George P. Johnson UK, over seven years ago as Vice President, Chief Strategy Officer and was promoted in 2021 to Managing Director UK & Nordics. With his experience rooted in strategy, Jonathan leads the agency’s approach to strategy fuelled experience design and underpins the importance of being client-centric. Building on the momentum the agency had seen, in 2022 Jonathan led the UK team to achieve significant growth despite the turbulent industry landscape; opening new offices across the globe, doubling in size and welcoming new global partners. His work spans across GPJ’s client portfolio, overseeing teams like Cisco, IBM, DP World, INEOS, Workday, Envestnet, and Equinor. Jonathan continues to help GPJ evolve and push new boundaries, creating worlds from scratch in physical, as well as digital, spaces; informing and inspiring the solutions that unlock doors and influence the success of our clients.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Jonathan> It was when I was at Ogilvy and took over the sports business practice at the agency. I reflect now on other roles previous to that,  that I thought were leadership that were actually management.

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?

Jonathan> By being aware of the styles of leadership and approaches I respected and the ones I didn’t.

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

Jonathan> Being selected for Ogilvy’s two year Management Development Programme with some of the smartest people I have had the privilege to work with.

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?

Jonathan> It’s not something I particularly strove for, or avoided, but something I thought could happen with progression. When circumstances meant there was an opportunity to fill a void with my experience, capability and vision.

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?

Jonathan> I think anything can be taught and learnt, but there is a limit to where that can take you, before natural talent and disposition for something makes the difference. Leadership is no different, but I don’t think it’s all about personality, that may play a part, but you can focus your behaviours and style to be a more effective leader. 

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

Jonathan> Leadership sometimes takes you away from your core strengths that may have led you to becoming a leader in the first place. Inherently you are leading a group of people who will have different personalities, needs and wants and you have to adapt your style accordingly at the right time. This may distract you from your priorities, or interests, but then you have to trust in the process and vision. Leadership is balancing long-term satisfaction with short-term need.

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?

Jonathan> I try not to look at things in such a binary way. With every success there is always a way to improve and when something hasn’t worked out how you planned, you learn and redress. But to try and answer your question, I’ve learnt in any situation to ask myself is there anything more I can do that would be valuable and worthwhile to positively impact an outcome, before the event, rather than reflecting after. 

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

Jonathan> All of the above, but I’d say clarity over transparency. It’s not always productive or possible to provide all the details at all times, just be clear on the direction and the decisions. Always be authentic and consistent. Careful and considered is a valuable approach too. It doesn’t have to mean slow and indecisive. It makes me think of the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” 

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?

Jonathan> Two spring to mind, although they probably didn’t realise they were mentors to me. Steve Harding and David Fox, both senior leaders at Ogilvy who I learnt a lot from and admire greatly. If I was to merge what I learnt into a singular point it would be, focus on the intersection of the things that are important and the things that you can control. Sorry one more; put great people around you and trust in them.

LBB> It’s been a really challenging few years – and that’s an understatement. How do you lead a team out the other side of a difficult period?

Jonathan> We are on that journey now so it might be premature to answer! I can only answer this question from the perspective of what I would look for from a leader and that would be a clear and agile plan which creates harmony in the goal. You need everyone to pull in the same direction and believe in it.

LBB> What are some ambitions and plans you have for the company and yourself in the coming year? 

Jonathan> It doesn’t sound ‘ambitious’ if I say optimisation, but in the last year we have grown significantly  with many new team members. We need to convert that hard work and momentum into even greater value that’s captured in how we work. The smarter we work the smarter the work we create. 

LBB> What have you noticed as the biggest changes in the industry during your career thus far? And do you have any predictions for future trends or themes? 

Jonathan> It has to be the change in attitude to flexible working and how we balance in office and remote work the pandemic brought about. It’s not a prediction but a focus, I believe there will be more emphasis on big creative ideas that transcend channels, rather than a focus on the channel themselves. A backlash against the echo chamber of fast, creatively shallow communications.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business?

Jonathan> It’s paramount. Culture drives differentiation, collaboration and motivation for success. Otherwise we become a commoditised business, which in our industry is a race to the bottom line.

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

Jonathan> The Little Black Book and my little black book. There are people better than you everywhere, learn from them, what you can when you can.

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