In conversation with…John Sills

We met John ages ago over a breakfast event at Wolesy and have stayed in touch ever since. He’s now a Managing Partner at The Foundation, the customer-led growth company where he helps to make things better for customers.

If you’re passionate about CX, you should check out John’s newsletter and Instagram account where he showcases the best and worst examples of customer experiences.

What was your first-ever job?

I worked on a Market stall in Essex when I was 14 for £1 an hour, selling haberdashery. I say ‘selling’ – my job was more to spend three hours unloading the van then, as soon as the last box was out, spend three hours loading them back on again. But it helped me realise how much I enjoyed working with customers, trying to make their experience or their day a little bit better. 

Who would you most love to share a coffee with / go for a drink with?

I’m famously (in the office, at least) a non-hot drink drinker (they just take too long to make, don’t they?) so it would be water or whisky for me. This will sound pretentious, but I’d like to go for a drink with someone who lives a completely different life to me. I find it slightly brain-twisting that other humans are alive at exactly the same time as I am on this planet, yet could be having an entirely different life experience (e.g. the indigenous people of the rainforest in brazil). If they’re not available then an MI6 spy who has to tell me everything they know.

Highlight of your career (so far?)

Launching HSBC’s first mobile app in 60 days, start to finish, was pretty cool. We got a small team together, avoided pretty much every committee that would slow us down, and got it out to customers who were desperate for it. Within weeks it became the most used banking app in the UK with millions of people using it every day. That’s hard to beat in terms of fun, adrenaline, and impact. Saying that, I probably get the most pleasure out of running our immersive innovation workshops with customers working alongside executives, it’s always revealing and a brilliant experience for everyone involved.

Nature or nurture?

Both. You can’t deny nature, but you can shape it and choose how you react to and build on it.

Best advice you ever heard or received?

Advice is what you ask for when you already know the answer but are too afraid to admit it. Also ‘you’ve got to laugh at the world’ which was the motto of my 101-year-old Nan.

What talent do you yearn for? 

I think it would be great to be really musical. I’d love to be able to really play the piano or the guitar. Should have listened to my Mum when she told me I’d regret not practising them both more as a kid.  

What is your favourite brand and why? 

Am I allowed to say Arsenal? If not, I’ll go for Riverford, who deliver us a veg box packed with food I’ve never heard of each week. A genuinely human company, now mostly employee-owned. Guy Singh-Watson, the founder, is an example to all leaders. He’s honest and open with his colleagues and customers and does what’s right for both, not what the market or popular opinion demands. 

What book do you most recommend to others? 

Tough one. It really depends on the context. Prisoners of Geography is the best non-fiction book I’ve read for understanding the world. The Inner Game of Tennis for coaching. A Technique for Producing Ideas for creativity. Fiction-wise, probably Birdsong, Ready Player One, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I actually wrote a list to help me remember when people ask me – check it out here

What last impressed you at work? 

I’ve generally been impressed and amazed by how the team here have switched from running in-person workshops (a thing we’re famous for) to delivering everything online and keeping the quality high. Within two weeks of the first lockdown, the team ran a full day zoom session for one of our clients, with 35 attendees in five continents and 15 real customers joining halfway through. A logistical nightmare but they pulled it off. Remarkably everyone still had their camera on at the end, too. 

Which lesson has been the hardest to learn? What failure did you learn the most from? 

Pay attention to the things and people that matter the most. It’s so easy in life to get swept up in emails, PowerPoints, and everything else we’re told is important. But as you get older you realise just how precious – and limited – time is, and that you should spend as much of your time as possible doing the things you love with the people you love spending time with. When all is said and done that’s all there really is to life. There’s no prize at the end for reading every article on the internet or proving someone wrong on Twitter. 

What do you want to do when you retire? 

The thought of retiring, of suddenly stopping, scares the life out of me. So I’d like to keep doing a mix of things, but within that build in far more time for writing. I’m hoping to have my first book out next year and writing it has given me the bug. And travel of course, but everyone says that, don’t they? 

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