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Bossing It: Unlocking Potential with Jon Goulding



CEO and founder of Atomic London, Jon discusses strong leaders, growing up fast and the loneliness of leadership

Bossing It: Unlocking Potential with Jon Goulding

Jon Goulding is the CEO and founder of independent creative agency, Atomic London. Previously, Jon has worked for a number of different big agency network roles, the most recent prior to Atomic as the COO at DDB, responsible for the operations of the whole DDB UK group. Not just responsible for manager two leading creative agency networks, he also set up and led as chief executive, the international, multi-channel production company Gutenberg Networks as part of a global network build for Omnicom. Jon has since set up Atomic, frustrated at the rigid structures that hinder big network groups. In seven years Jon has turned Atomic into one of the leading independent agencies in the UK and boasts global and local clients such as Homebase, Papa John’s, Star Alliance, Peperami and Hasbro.


What was your first experience of leadership?

Jon> It’s hard to remember a specific moment. But it was probably at the age of about 12 when I was a scout patrol leader (yes I know, dib dib, dob dob, I’ve heard them all before). Back then you could do lots more daring things than you can now, as health and safety wasn’t really a thing back in the 80’s. I was given 6 kids to lead on an overnight expedition and told to make sure I got them safely back to their parents without one of them hurting themselves or killing themselves. It felt like a big responsibility at the time. Scouting has got a lot of stick over the years, but the likes of Bear Grylls, Richard Branson and David Beckham went through it and they turned out to be quite good leaders, so I’m a big advocate for it. My experience was that it taught you amazing amount of leadership skills from a young age, mainly through difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations. There’s no better way to grow up fast and learn about what you’ve got inside you than when the chips are down and it’s on you to find a way to get everyone in your team through the situation safely.

How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Jon> I think from a fairly young age I was surrounded by some really strong but really strict leaders. Those that led with an iron fist and often scared you in to following them or behaving in a certain way. It was fairly oppressive being around them and probably prevented me developing and becoming the person I thought I could be earlier on in my life. But when I moved schools I found a headmaster that had this amazing ability to be both inspiring, supportive and encouraging but offset with the right amount of discipline, rigour and a bit of fear which was probably a good thing. He changed my whole outlook on life as the kids he looked after became so much better under his watch. It was probably then that I realised that the old fashioned fear factory approach to leadership wasn’t what I wanted to be part of or to become myself.

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

Jon> When I was a middle manager, I worked in a creative agency that had gone from being at the top of its game to suddenly imploding both creatively and financially in a really short space of time. It taught me a stark lesson that in creative agencies, the energy and enthusiasm and passion is so powerful when things are going in the right direction. Pitch wins seem easy, award winning work seems commonplace. But when leadership starts to fail, agencies don’t just become average for a while. All the energy of the talent that used to be spent on client work and wins externally, starts to become negative energy spent internally. That can result in historically great agencies literally starting to eat themselves alive if you’re not careful. It teaches you that leadership is a fragile thing and poor leadership shouldn’t be tolerated for long, for the sake of everyone that works there. 

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?

Jon> I think deep down I always wanted to be a leader in some shape or form. Someone described me once as having an ‘unhealthy need for over-responsibility’. I always wanted to be the first to lead a team when I was a kid, when I trained in Muay Thai, I wanted to not just be at the top grade but to also become the instructor. And then in work life I wanted to be the youngest account director and make MD by 30. Some might look at that and say it’s being overly careerist and impatient. But in reality it was much more about feeling I can be at my best when I have a great team of people around me and where I can help get the best out of them. In turn I knew that was what would get the best out of me.

But the reality is I would never have made it and progressed if it weren’t for key individuals that supported me, gave me responsibility beyond my years, supported me and encouraged me. You need someone more experienced than you to help to drive you and guide you. Being a leader is not about being the person who doesn’t need leadership support themselves. If anything they need more, but that’s where non-execs and mentors really come in to their own.


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?

Jon> I think a lot of it is nurtured but as a start point you have to have a certain amount of self-confidence. Leadership is in a large part about being able to put yourself last, not be the person in the limelight or claiming the glory. You have to take responsibility for the bad and not take the glory for the good. That takes a fair amount of self-confidence. But self confidence is not something you’re born with, it’s how everyone around you in your formative years helps nurture that in you. The support from your parents and a stable and happy home. A sense that doing your best is good enough and that winning isn’t the be all and end all. 

But leadership skills can be learnt by anyone, and I’m a great believer that one single person in your life can help unlock your potential. And whilst that often happens in your formative years (and it’s rarely your parent by the way), it can happen at any point in your career. And it’s certainly never too late to discover your inner leader.

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

Jon> It’s an overused saying but leadership is definitely a lonely position at times. For me probably the hardest part of it is having the mental strength not to just manage your own highs and lows that inevitably come with running an agency, but having the mental strength to carry everyone else through their highs and lows. It means putting yourself last a lot of the time whether it be sacrifice of your time or your emotional bandwidth. It’s true to say that whenever things are going well, the CEO is the one who should not take the credit and if it’s going badly, it’s definitely and rightly your fault and your responsibility. So at times you have to try and teach yourself to not be too hard on yourself. Give yourself a break, make time to feed and water yourself (metaphorically) so you can be strong enough for everyone else again when the time comes. 

Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Jon> When you’re running your own business, failing is an absolute part of the journey. I fail probably every week at something. But you have to learn to embrace it as a fact or cost of the journey to where you’re going. If you don’t acknowledge that and deal with it, you’ll never make it. 

But the biggest failure that I think is common in all companies but particularly founder owned companies, is not making the toughest decisions quickly enough. Sometimes it’s just because you’re learning to run a company for the first time and sometimes it’s just because you know how much other people at every level of the organisation have often sacrificed to be part of the journey and making changes that might affect them negatively is hard to manage. With that in mind, I honestly believe like most CEOs, you could achieve the same goals in half the time, if you had your time again. 

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

Jon> Personally, I think there’s a real balancing act to play. Overall I believe in sharing as much as you possibly can, certainly with your leadership team and to a greater or lesser extent with the whole agency team. But there are some things that you as the CEO are paid to manage and deal with on behalf of team members that would otherwise find it unsettling. There are lots of issue and situations that occur in an agency that could cause panic, poor decision making, morale issues if they were ‘overly shared’ when in fact they are more often than not just the lumps and bumps of running a business. The leaders of the business should know when a bump isn’t a mountain and they’re paid accordingly because of their experience in never getting too carried away with either the negatives or the positives. 

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?

Jon> I have a number of mentors as opposed to one in particular as they all help give me different perspectives and expertise in certain areas where I can’t ever be as knowledgeable or experienced as them. From headhunters to other CEOs and Chairpersons of other types of companies. I think at any senior level it’s important to not just have one person you turn to as you can start to emulate them and you should always try to emulate yourself in the best possible way.

I mentor other people coming through the agency world through the NABs mentoring programme. It’s a brilliant programme and I recommend anyone to use it. My belief generally is that everyone is brilliant at something, it’s just about trying to uncover what it is and then helping them find a role that gets the best out of their natural talents. My overall take on mentoring is therefore to try as hard as possible to uncover what that is and help guide people to the right sorts of places to find a job that will really fit their natural strengths. I truly believe there is the perfect shaped job for everyone out there. It’s just that most people don’t go out there and find it. They’re often stuck just not being happy in a role or a company that isn’t quite right for them.

It’s been a really challenging year – and that’s an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Jon> Yes no doubt it’s been a tough year. Probably the toughest one I’ve had to manage. Not just because of Covid but also dealing with restructuring and making changes in the agency to make it stronger on the other side. As they say, you should never waste a crisis to make changes you probably should have made a long time ago. 

But actually Leadership in my view is only really put to the test when things aren’t going your way. Anyone can swim in calm waters. Yes some leadership on what direction you should swim in is important, but true leadership is only really under the spotlight when the chips are down. That’s when a lot of leaders find out that they’re really only managers with a bigger job title. I’ll let my team feedback on how well I managed to deal with the choppy waters of Covid but there’s no better time to discover your true leadership skills than in a year like the one we just had. 

This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Jon> The industry as you say is far behind where it should have been or needs to be. And I’m the first to say our agency was not where it needed to be by a long distance. But from the very moment we realised how bad it was, we made a massive commitment to making change and have a wholesale look at everything that we did as a business and where improvements had to be made. We’ve already made some big inroads and we’re even leading an independent agency group initiative to bring in more diverse talent at a grass roots level and on a consistent year on year basis. That’s ultimately how you solve a long-term problem, with long term sustainable change right from the start of people’s careers.

How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Jon> Like all people based, service businesses, culture is almost everything. Without it you’re not a company or certainly one that won’t last very long. It’s been tough to keep the culture going but it’s testament to the strength of our culture going in to Covid how well we’ve stayed together as a team. And there have been individuals in times of adversity that have really stood up and taken responsibility to maintain and build the culture on behalf of all of us. Like any strong culture, it has to come from the team and not something you can impose top down. The guys I have total respect for are those who have started a new role in the agency since Covid. Starting a new job is hard enough but doing it when you don’t get to meet your colleagues face to face, build relationships or get a sense of place about the company you’ve joined is even tougher. 

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

Jon> Without doubt the best thing I was exposed to was Omnicom’s senior management programme in partnership with Harvard Business School. It was a real eye opener and a privilege to get so many weeks of training from the best business experts in the world. For that reason I read as many things from Harvard Business school as possible. Their short books and articles are great and easy to digest and remember.

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Atomic London, Tue, 29 Jun 2021 10:02:58 GMT