It’s all about context: Jon Williams at PwC

Jon Williams

Jon Williams is a Partner at PwC and the Global Leader of their People and Organisation Practice.

Jon has spend the past 30 years applying a background in psychology and economics to help CEOs and leadership teams to  improve their organisational effectiveness. His large, geographically dispersed team (11,000 people across 125 countries) means Jon is generally a big advocate of hands-off leadership and looks to empower his employees to find their own strengths.

This interview goes very broad, as we talk about government policy, education and the future of the workforce.

Some highlights from the video include:

  • Jon’s opinion on the worst piece of common management advice: “I think the issue with management advice is that so much of it is definitive. So many people will tell you this is the right way to lead or this is the right way to run a change program, or this is the right way to run a certain type of organisation.” (Video from 1:25)
  • Jon’s view that you need to find an organisation that’s the right fit for your management style: “I do a lot of work with HR people, HR directors, and they’ll often ask me, ‘If the CEO isn’t really on-board, how do I manage that?’ And my advice is nearly always the same: find a different CEO. You can’t battle things that are out of your control.” (Video from 7:26)
  • The most unexpected workplace changes coming in the next 20 years: “Many organisations are too wrapped up in BAU, too wrapped up in three monthly financial result cycles, too wrapped up in the executive’s own careers and retirement horizon to do that planning process properly, which I think will be unfortunate for them down the track.” (Video from 11:33)
  • Changes to government policy Jon thinks will be most beneficial over the next 20 years: “What’s actually going to determine, I think, each nations success over the next 5, 10, 15 years, is the degree to which the creaking democratic political system are able to cope with a new reality.” (Video from 13:36)

Steve Pell: I’m Steve Pell from Management Disrupted; I’m here with Jon Williams from PwC, Jon thank you for joining us.

Jon Williams: My pleasure.

Steve Pell: Jon could you just start and tell me a little bit about what your role here at PwC involves, what’s your title?

Jon Williams: Ah gosh, title is interesting. I’m Managing Partner of PWCs people business globally, so I’ve got a couple of jobs. I still work with clients. So I still work with leaders, CEOs and leadership teams around organisational effectiveness. And then in my spare time, I run our global People Organisation business, which is about 11,000 people across 125 or 126 countries around the world.

Steve Pell: And what about your career – where have you come from?

Jon Williams: So I’ve never had a proper job, I’ve only ever been a consultant. I studied psychology and economics at university which ended up being quite important for me in terms of my background. And then I spent 20 years working in HR consulting firms, predominantly Hewitt and Associates. I ran Hewitt and Associates in Australia for a while. And then moved to PwC about nine years ago and I’ve been consulting for PwC since then.

Steve Pell: Great, so we’ll have a deep conversation about behavioural economics today.

Jon Williams: Let’s give it a go.

Steve Pell: Let’s jump into some of the depth here, what do you think is the worst piece of common advice on management?

Jon Williams: There are so many, it’s a question of where to start. I think the issue with management advice is that so much of it is definitive. So many people will tell you this is the right way to lead or this is the right way to run a change program, or this is the right way to run a certain type of organisation.

And the world and people are way too subtle and complex for that to be the case, so you can learn pieces from other people, you can learn pieces from what they’ve done, but anything that tries to describe a certain way of doing things or a certain outcome always ends up being tripped up.

Steve Pell: We were talking just before we came on camera about the worst most popular management book written, do you have a view there?

Jon Williams: So I try not to criticise other people’s management books.  I’m less likely to read management books and more likely to read research books. As we’ve discussed I’m certainly a big fan of Danny Kahneman, and the whole behavioural science movement, which I think was genuinely trying to unpick human behaviour and really understand how and why decisions are made, which can then be applied in a management context.

Rather than being a formal, rigid management structure or management approach, it gives you a background insight into human beings. And particularly into how flawed human beings are in their decision-making. We’re appalling at making decisions in most instances, we use the wrong data, we rely too much on certain data, we rely too much on certain people.

So I think being aware of that is probably the best thing you can do to help you make better decisions for yourself and for your organisation.

Steve Pell: What’s the number one way that Kahneman’s research impacts your management style?

Jon Williams: Knowing that I’m deeply flawed. I think for me behavioural economics is all about people knowing that their decision-making style or the decisions that they make are often post-hoc rationalised rather than being genuine at the time. So we’re very good at looking back and going that’s why I did that thing, and it turned out to be the right thing after all.

So understanding that that’s not the case. So to go back 30 years I studied psychology and economics as a double major. In the morning you go to the economics campus or the economics school and there’s straight lines and bar charts. Everything’s logical and rational and you kind of think this is great we’ll have it sorted by lunchtime.

In the afternoon you go to the psychology campus, and everything’s gone haywire, right? People are completely irrational and behaving differently. Trying to blend those two together – the science and rationality with the unpredictability of humans into leading people is, I think a fascinating and lifelong journey and one to which there is no answer.

Steve Pell: Tell me about your approach to management and leading people. Before we do, how many people do you lead across the global practice today?

Jon Williams: So we’ve got about 400 people in Australia and about 11,000 worldwide, so it’s a reasonably big team, but you know, do I lead them? They’re dispersed around the world right so I’m trying to provide a point of focus and a point of strategy to get people to go in a common direction. But then it’s kind of up to them what they choose to do and to be honest that kind of fits with my strategy for leadership.

People would say I’m very hands off. So I think in a firm like PwC, and one of the reasons I joined PwC is we have amazing people. Great people want to come and work here, really smart, really intelligent people. So why would you hire them and then tell them what to do? It makes no sense.

You have to hire them and then give them the opportunity to do what they’re best at, but you have to watch out for signals that they’re struggling. And the signals that they’re struggling aren’t a bad report – signals that they’re struggling are behavioural signals; the way they interact, the way they come to meetings, the way they show up, the way they are more or less confident over time.

You have to look for those signals and then help people through those issues and then trust them to do amazing work with their clients.

Steve Pell: Let’s talk about how you manage yourself.

Jon: Oh badly. That’s an endless struggle right. The one thing I’ve learned that I learnt midway through my career is that I think many of us have a tendency to take on too much, or to assume too much relies on us.

I was at Hewitt and Associates, actually when we founded it in Australia there were three of us here when we started that business as a branch of Hewitt from the US. I ended up running it, and I ended up completely associating myself with the organisation – which nearly killed me.

I became way too invested in the success of the organisation and I took too much on at a reasonably young age. And so I’ve kind of learnt over time not to do that, you’ve got to step away and step back and let others have the limelight, or else you’re going to go mad eventually.

Steve Pell: My next question was to ask about the worst management mistake you’ve ever made, was that it?

Jon Williams: Yeah that probably was it, and there wasn’t a single management mistake. It was over the years you just sort of take on more and more and more, and you can’t step back.

So conversely, the best thing I did was to leave. I left having been there for 10 or 11 years.

Then I literally phoned up two weeks after I left to talk to the accountant about some money that they owed me and got the receptionist. And of course she was a temporary receptionist, and I phoned up and said this is Jon Williams for Yvonne, and she was like, ‘where are you from Jon?’

And I suddenly realised that 10 years there means nothing two weeks later, so that’s a great lesson.

The best thing I did though was I then spent about 18 months not working, took my family to Europe for about six months and just travelled with my kids who were pre-teenage years. And that opportunity to disengage and actually build a relationship again with my family was extraordinary and kind of stood us in good stead for their teenage years.

So that’s my lesson; it’s not all about you, let others shine, and occasionally step away to give yourself some perspective.

Steve Pell: It’s interesting that across these interviews we’ll talk to people who are equally adamant that the way to lead an organisation is hands on the steering wheel or hands off and and let your people drive. We talked earlier about not being deterministic about this, but are there better and worse ways to lead an organisation?

Jon Williams: So I think there are better ways in certain situations and there are better people in certain times. You know almost every start-up you look at goes through  up to about 20 people, the person who came up with the idea is probably the best person to lead the idea.

As you go past that boundary you need someone at least to support that person because a whole bunch of skills become required as the organisation gets larger. As you go past 100 people you might need a new leader altogether.

So the right person isn’t always the right person, and the right style clearly isn’t always the right style. Most leaders struggle to flex their style to different demands. They just do what they do in the way that they do it.

So I think success in career a lot is about luck, a lot is about finding yourself in the right time, and the right position for your particular style, and a little bit is about being as flexible as you can be to the situation that faces you.

Steve Pell: This is interesting – the idea you’re introducing is that a big determinant of career success is finding the right organisation to fit your style of management.

Did you think about that through your career?

Jon Williams: So I wish I had, but no I didn’t. I think most people don’t think, most people just luck into things and make the best of it. And my advice is often, you know I do a lot of work with HR people, HR directors, and they’ll often ask me, “the CEO isn’t really on-board, how do I manage that?” And my advice is nearly always the same – find a different CEO. You can’t battle things that are out of your control.

The same is true for CEOs and boards or CEOs and groups of shareholders, if you’re not seeing eye to eye you’re often better off going and doing something different with your time. And again most of us are too cautious or we’ve got too many school fees or mortgages. There’s a whole bunch of things that control our behaviour. But in general, in the long run, people are going to be more successful and find a place where they just naturally fit.

Steve Pell: When you look at your workforce who work for you, do you have a good feeling when someone’s gone beyond that stage and really understands their own strengths?

Jon Williams: Yeah well, I think you have a good feeling who’s going to be able to do that fairly early on. We hire brilliant graduates, one of the luxuries of being in a firm like PWC or any of the large firms is you get great people coming through the door. And I think you can work out fairly quickly which ones are themselves and genuine and confident enough to be genuine and which ones aren’t, and those are the ones you need kind of to focus on and allow to come through the system.

I’m not a big Gen X, Gen Y, Millennial fan. I’m not a fan in terms of that being a determinant of behaviour or style. I was talking to Linda Gran who we work within the UK recently and her view is that most Gen X, Gen, Y commentary is lazy stereotyping and I suspect she’s right.

So I don’t think there’s a thing about generations that they’re either genuine or not genuine or lazy – it’s just the individuals and they’re all different, but I think you can spot it fairly early on.

Steve Pell: What are some of the keys that would help you spot it?

Jon Williams: So you know the great thing with consulting is you get to spend a lot of time with people across an extended period of time and working pretty hard. It’s hard to fake it the whole time, right?

So you’ve exposed someone for a period of time, and you work on some projects together, and you’re under a bit stress, and you’ve got to do things quickly. You see those that are consistent over time in their behaviour or their responses, and those that vary and jump about, there you go, that’s your number one sign.

Steve Pell: I’ve often said that at the end of a 60-minute interview I can tell whether someone’s internally consistent or not by how many edits we have to pull out of where they’ve said things that contradict themselves.

Jon Williams: We will find out then won’t we. Let me know.

Steve Pell: We talked a minute ago about the way you expect to see changes over the next 20 years, can you tell me about some of the big-picture changes that you expect – perhaps things that aren’t on the front cover of HBR every week?

Jon Williams: Well again if you are talking about the future of work, no one knows the answer right? Genuinely no one knows what’s gonna happen. I go to conferences around the world, and you have people I quite respect talking one after the other with diametrically opposed views – and absolute certainty right.

They can’t all be right or wrong. Someone will end up being right by chance, but not because they are any cleverer it’s just because they chose the right answer, so no one knows what’s going to happen and I certainly don’t.

Steve Pell: I’ve heard you say before, what is the Eisenhower quote?

Jon Williams: Plans are nothing; planning is everything.

Steve Pell: Tell me about that in the context of the future workplace?

Jon: Well again see that goes back to my point if you try and make an absolute deterministic plan today for anything beyond the next six months you’re gonna get tripped up, by change in direction or change in speed or a change in technology. So having a fixed plan makes zero sense. In the same way that we all moved away from five-year business planning strategies a number of years ago, because five years is just way too long.

So having a plan is pointless, going through the process of planning, understanding what you’re trying to achieve, what you’ve currently got and the strategy to get from one to the other is incredibly valuable. Because then if you’ve done the planning, you can respond rapidly to changes. If you haven’t done that then you are on the back foot, every time something changes you’ve got to back a step and start again from scratch.

So yeah the planning thing is fascinating. Many organisations are too wrapped up in BAU, too wrapped up in three monthly financial result cycles, too wrapped up in the executive’s own careers and retirement horizon to do that planning process properly, which I think will be unfortunate for them down the track.

Steve Pell: As I talk to leaders around the country, there’s probably an internal view that Australian leaders are not looking far enough out into future or are too focused on hitting their next reporting cycle. How would you see that given your global perspective?

Jon Williams: So I think it’s easy to criticise Australian leaders, I actually don’t see a huge gap between the calibre here and the calibre elsewhere in the world. People are people wherever you are in the world, now we’re in a little corner of the world down here, but it actually gives us some freedoms as well to do things.

And I think we’re famously fast followers, I think we do that pretty well as a nation. Having spent the last few months in Europe, I don’t see that they are outstripping us in terms of their thinking or their direction. The thing I think will have more impact on organisations and success of countries and societies than leadership capability is going to be where we end up from a political perspective.

What’s actually going to determine, I think, each nation’s success over the next 5, 10, 15 years, is the degree to which the creaking democratic political system is able to cope with a new reality. And obviously we have seen issues with that in the UK and the US which is going to swing back in Europe, and then we have clearly got political issues of instability and uncertainty in Australia.

If we can find a way through those issues, to give organisations a degree of confidence in the underlying structure and a degree of trust in sort of the fabric of the system, then our leaders have got a chance of being successful. If they are fighting against uncertainty and political instability, it’s really hard to lead an organisation.

Steve Pell: Jon if you get specific in terms of one policy from a government that you’d like to see to get us toward a healthier future in 20 years’ time?

Jon Williams: So for me in terms of policy, the single most important thing for the success of any country is going to be education. So it seems to me that we have education systems that are little changed in the last 20 or 30 years.

My son is in the first year of university, so he finished high school last year; his timetable, structure of his classes, the way his exams work administered and run was largely indistinguishable from the way mine were done almost 35 years ago. It’s a long time ago and things haven’t changed that much.

But the world has changed dramatically in that period, so we need to find a way to get beyond the way that we currently examine people, the skills that we look for for examination, the topics that we teach people, the way that they’re taught. All of those things need to be reinvented, and that feels to me like a government intervention of some sort.

Universities need to move away from a model of large campuses with lots of students of the same age coming together to learn stuff at a certain point in their life, because that’s not going to be fit for purpose either.

We need to move away from large formal education, you know people want to learn in small bites, they want to use technology to learn. So all those things I think will only happen if government drives that change.

Steve Pell: Give me the one specific policy that you’d like to see to reinvent education. One specific change?

Jon Williams: So the end of year 12 examinations.

Steve Pell: Get rid of them?

Jon Williams: They have almost no correlation to future successful or future outcomes, and from a social well-being perspective, they put such a massive amount of pressure on next generations and at possibly the most vulnerable time in their lives, that I don’t understand why we do that.

Steve Pell: Yes, hard though.

Jon Williams: Absolutely, yeah absolutely, but you know every country is gonna have to reinvent its world of work over the next 20 years, those that reinvent them rapidly will be more successful, those that stick to the old ways for longer will be less successful and socially less successful to others economically successful.

My fear is that the developed world is attached far more to a whole bunch of ways of doing than the developing world. In the developing world we’ve gone from farming to call centre workers in a generation and people are happy to go, ‘what’s the next thing that their children are going to do?’

In our world, you have got people who will say I’m a lawyer because my dad was a lawyer and my grandad was a lawyer we are lawyers in our family. Well if you don’t need lawyers then that’s a pretty tricky place to be, right?

So, yeah we always know the more you’ve got to lose the more resistant you are to change, and the developed West has got an awful lot to lose. Therefore maybe the West is more resistant to change than the emerging countries and therefore may be at some point leapfrogged.

Steve Pell: It is one of those things that looking back 20 years ago you’d never have predicted.

Jon Williams: Well, looking at 20 years ago Europe was going to be the start of a borderless world where people could move freely and exchange goods freely, and we did move in that direction for a long time.

But again this is one of those things when you look at what’s happening, and what’s going to happen, you’ve got this tremendous collision between massively accelerating technology in terms of its capacity to store data and analyse data at the speed with which you can do it.

But human evolution and behaviour which has taken thousands of years to get to it’s current point and will continue to evolve at the same slow speed. And those two things don’t fit together neatly, and it’s actually getting that collision to work that will be the trick.

So what’s happened is that as technology has brought disruption, people have averted back to much more tribal kind of behaviours, which is what you do thousands of years ago in a cave or in a jungle. So you revert back to your group or your family when you’re threatened.

They’re feeling that existential threat right now, and so they’re reverting and pulling back into themselves. This can be nationalistic, can be party political, can be a whole bunch of things, but that’s the natural reaction that you get. There’s nothing actually new under the sun right, and everything we know about human behaviour is still the same. Navigating that behaviour in a rapidly changing world of technology is the real trick.

Steve Pell: What’s the tip that you give the leaders as you talk to them across the market. How do you navigate this world where you’ve got the collision of behaviour and technology?

Jon Williams: Listen to your kids. Occasionally there is a lot of wisdom in the next generation. So I think you asked it earlier about Australian leaders and leaders in general, I think the danger that we often face is that leaders have learned an awful lot about how they got to where they got to in a previous economic and social model. And they try to continue those behaviours because they’ve been successful in the past, and they may now be completely the wrong behaviours to be demonstrating.

So trying to encourage leaders to just think a little bit about why they do things the way that they do them. And what causes them to behave in that way when those causes might actually not be there anymore, and where they might require a different approach. Everyone’s got to be themselves – but they’ve got to find a way to respond to the current reality – not behave as they responded to a past reality.

Steve Pell: If the pace of change doesn’t keep up internally you don’t keep up with the market?

Jon Williams: Correct, exactly. We know that from neurological studies we get more rigid over time and our patterns of behaviour become much more determined and laid down. So we need to find ways to break that.

Steve Pell: Do you think we get to a post-privacy world, and how does that work in this context?

Jon Williams: Well, privacy goes to trust, so I think people are relaxed about that if you build a high trust environment. If you build a low trust environment then they get very nervous about it.

We’ve asked people whether or not they’d be comfortable wearing devices that track their biorhythms if it helps the company do a better job of managing their health and managing their stress levels. And the answers vary not by generation, not by location, not by age or gender – but by organisation.

So we have a high trust organisation people are much more relaxed about sure that sounds like a good thing to do, low trust organisation people won’t do it.

Steve Pell: Talk to me more about this how rapidly can you change an organisation from a low trust to a high trust environment. Is it even possible?

Jon Williams: So I think I’ve changed my view on this topic and this really goes to culture. We’ve said for years that culture journeys take 5 or 10 years to slowly change the culture of an organisation.

I think we’ve seen in recent time’s examples in both directions where you can change a culture of an organisation in 12 to 18 months if you really choose to. I think part of that is the increasing connectedness of workforces both to each other and to leaders.

So changing a culture is mostly about sending leadership messages from the top and changing systems and processes in the organisation that actually send a different message about what we value in the organisation.

In the past it would take employees in a large organisation years to figure out that was happening, you could change something, and it wasn’t until the next full cycle that people had known that had happened, or until the next town hall that the CEO can visit in 18 months’ time. So the communication and change cycles were very slow, and it took organisations along time to change.

We are getting much better at helping organisations really rapidly shift, and conversely, they can go backwards pretty rapidly as well if things don’t go well.

I wasn’t involved but Microsoft in the US have gone through a very radical cultural shift in about 18-24 months. It started by taking away forced ranking, and that sent a message to people. And the new CEO who got out and really communicated and they’ve changed quite dramatically.

Whereas we’ve seen the downfall of a few tech start-up companies who’ve been exposed as not having the culture in the place that they ought to be and things can go downhill pretty rapidly for those organisations too.

Steve Pell: Jon, we will come back to you to finish. What do you wish you knew on day one of your work career?

Jon Williams: Everything passes. So my first day at work I shouldn’t admit this, was November 1987. So in the UK in London and it was a day after the November ’87 stock market crash. And it was also the day after the once in a hundred year hurricane event that went through the South of England, reduced a place called Seven Oaks to One Oak, because it literally knocked down six of their trees.

And I went to work on that first morning thinking that my entire career was going to be lived out in the shadow of these two momentous events, and I would be struggling for the rest of my life. And of course now hardly anyone remembers the November ’87 stock market crash.

Because we have the early 90s and Y2K and we have the tech wreck and GFC, you know these things come around and the next one will be coming soon. That’s not a prediction – it will be coming at some point – so understanding that everything passes and most fads pass, and in fact, underlying human nature and human behaviour stays pretty much the same. It’s an absolute constant that all of this is built on.

And therefore; don’t panic, don’t overreact, don’t jump on the latest bandwagon, don’t do things because they’re the latest in fashion.

Actually, think about the long-term implications and benefits of everything you do, think about humans as humans and try and understand how and why they respond in the ways that they respond. If I had a bit of the essence of that early in my career you know would it have worked out differently? I’m not sure, but you’d sooner have a better understanding of what was going on.

Steve Pell: Jon thank you so much.

Jon Williams: It’s been a pleasure.

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