Executives Unpacked Episode 3: Getting People-Focussed with John Harris

This post was written by: John Clifton

On Episode 3 of The Executives Unpacked Podcast neuco’s co-founder and director Laurie Scott sat down with John Harris, CEO of  LEUK Teleport & Data Centre, which was formerly known as Signalhorn. John brings a wealth of experience to the table, having worked as a CEO within the private equity business for several years. He’s got a proven track record of founding, leading and growing businesses. 

What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned during your career so far?

It’s all about people. People are essential in the businesses that you run. You can have great insights on data, it can tell you what direction to take your business in, but without the people in the business acting as agents for change to take it on that new journey, or invest the time and effort in making your business grow, that data is useless. So very much it’s about the people and the talent pool that you have in the business. Without the focus on that immediately in the business, it’s very difficult to make the business and its opportunities go in the direction you want them to go in.

What do you wish you’d been told earlier?

I think that’s a very difficult question, given how I came to do this role, and get involved in it. I think the thing that I wish I’d been told earlier was to develop my people skills. Develop them to the point that you can get under the skin of the people that you work with, to understand what motivates them and your senior leadership team. On an individual basis, you need to understand their likes, dislikes, how they spend their leisure time, what they do and what makes them tick. If you’re into that, and you can empathise with them on an individual basis, you can get much more out of them. Eventually that has to penetrate deeper into the organisation, and I wish I’d probably understood that more at 24 or 25. That depth of understanding and empathy with the people around you and that understanding of what motivates them or drives them at an individual level has to flow from you as the CFO to your senior leadership team. And from that senior leadership team down into the people that they manage and work with on a day to day basis.

What is the best bit of advice that you’ve been given throughout your career?

I think it’s probably a mixture of advice that I’ve been given and the environment I worked in.  Back in the 1980s, I worked for Salomon Brothers. Somebody there once said to me, ‘they don’t stab you in the back here, they come at you from the front with an axe’. That’s when I learned that you needed to be equally direct back and clear about where you were going, what you were doing. In that environment, Salomon Brothers was a very straightforward place to work. It was the making of me to be absolutely blunt about it. Having clarity of thought, clarity of purpose and clarity of communication with the people you work with was absolutely the making of me.

What type of things sort of constantly keep you awake at night?

I think in my role at LEUK T&C what keeps me awake is the question ‘are we managing to make the change rapidly enough to keep up with our customers demands?’ Even a year ago, some of our customers were interested in Leo, but some of them were difficult to get engagement with. A year on they all want to talk about it, they all want to be engaged with it. The speed at which we’ve got to adjust our conversations with customers is the thing that keeps me awake. Can we move as fast as some of our customers now want to move even though they didn’t want to do that a year ago?

Can you identify a single thread that’s run through your career that’s led to your success?

I think it’s a combination of things. Firstly, the experience of working at Salomon Brothers where they made me focus on people is very clear. What made them very good was actually that the talent pool was very deep. Understanding that people are critical I think makes one successful. How would you be a great leader? The answer is to just employ really great people around you. Equally, I think I was lucky enough to get into an engineering degree. So I was mathematically literate, which is quite useful in looking at numbers and analysing data. I think you have to have some interests outside work so that your profession isn’t a 24 hours a day task. It’s necessary to be able to have some time doing other things that give you moments to be reflective, I think that makes you better professionally.

What’s one bit of advice that you always give to others, or for somebody coming into the industry?

I think as a technologist, fundamentally, I’d have to say embrace change and the future as fast as you can. 

For more behind-the-scenes insights into John Harris’s life, listen to the whole Executives Unpacked Podcast episode here. 

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