John has been with the FT Group for more than 30 years in both editorial and executive positions. Under his stewardship, the FT has expanded its global operation and developed its channels, gaining a wide reputation for boldness and innovation. The FT Group provides a broad range of business information, news and services. It includes the Financial Times, Medley Global Advisors, the publications under FT Specialist, and more. In this interview, John talks about how the speed of trust has helped the FT to thrive in the fast-moving media environment.
On the importance of trust:
‘I think trust is becoming more and more important as we encounter more fake news and low-quality news. This has really shone a spotlight on the value of trust. One of my favourite adverts for the FT is the one with the St. Bernard dog on top of a mountain. There are no words, but the dog has a copy of the FT around his neck:-
‘What it basically shows is that in stormy and turbulent times, trust has died. Trust has always been important throughout our 130 years of the FT. Trust and integrity are part of the accuracy of the brand. Along with our people, it has been our most important asset. But at a time when we are experiencing abuse and corruption of the news, then trust is especially important.’
‘The value of authority, integrity, and accuracy, and the trust that comes with that has always been central to the FT brand, and its culture and ethos. The business model, however, was a little bit more driven by necessity. Advertising was becoming very unpredictable and in long term decline, therefore the decision to refocus the business model much more directly on reader revenue was the right thing to do, and frankly necessary. What then came from that was a lot of rich information and data from our readers and at the time we had not realised just how important that would be to every dimension of the business. Over time we have built very high expertise in data and data analytics which has enabled us to optimise our reader revenue model.’
‘Our first dimension of trust is with our readership: trust that we are accurate and authoritative. That’s essential. Trust within the business side is also key: one of the things that has really been essential through this period of disruption in the media has been that you can’t take too long to respond. If you can’t respond quickly you’ve got a problem, and I have found increasingly that trust enables speed. Nowadays when you look at the business environment whether you’re your banking relationship, whether it’s your regulatory environment, there’s an awful lot of box ticking that goes on, an awful lot of process. In a sense that has been designed to defend against abuse and problems, but it slows everything down and it’s a bad substitute for trust. The acquisition of the FT by Nikkei three years ago was a good example of how trust can bridge gaps in corporate culture to make quick decisions. That’s been a massive advantage for us during the recent period of huge disruption of news media. If you fall out of that circle of trust, it’s difficult to get back in, for good reason. Our responsibility is to have an awareness of the value of trust in business dealings, whether it’s with our business owner or whether it’s to another business partner because it just enables you to move quickly. The key thing is that you have to genuinely operate by the values that you talk about because you’ll get found out when you don’t.’
On building a high trust culture:
‘If you are in an environment where people are rightly employed and paid to challenge, in the right spirit of challenge, journalism ultimately is about testing stories and identifying and getting as close to the truth as you can, That means as an organisation you have to practice what you preach. You have to be transparent. You have to communicate the strategy very clearly. You have to be as open as you can be, obviously there are certain levels of information that you can’t just broadcast, but generally, it’s a pretty open culture. Again, we have a 130-year track record of presenting the news without fear or favour. This is meaningful and attracts people, and keeps people here, but also it keeps our promise. We have to be seen to be operating like that because the people we are dealing with and the people we employ are a very challenging audience.’
On measuring trust:
‘Trust is one of those areas where it’s very difficult to define and to find measures for it. Obviously, you can do surveys. There are surveys more generally about the media sector, what media is trusted and why etc. Within an organisation, it’s difficult to put a single number or rating on trust. It’s more about the articulation and availability of the things that people feel that enable and drive trust. So it is about communicating consistently around a series of information points or metrics. It’s the sense that people feel that if there is an issue, or if there is a question or concern that is raised, that it will be dealt with in a way that is consistent, honest and fair. And also that you are communicating the key elements of what the organisation stands for regularly, for good or ill, and being honest when things aren’t great.’
The Nine Habits of Trust:
From John’s interview, it is apparent that all of the habits are important to the FT and they try to deliver all of them. For a quality news organisation, it is to be expected that integrity really does stand out because the FT is in the business of very important coverage and with a huge degree of influence. Integrity has to be front and centre of what they do and how they do it, how they report it, and how they conduct themselves. Associated with that is being honest (Habit no.4) and being consistent (Habit no.3). That intellectual consistency is absolutely essential because the readers of the FT need to know where they stand with the publication. Benevolence also matters because the culture of a news organisation is fast moving and an understanding by leaders of the stress and pressure involved around the world of news is vital.
One of John’s mentors was Marjorie Scardino, former CEO of Pearson Group who offered him her wise counsel to err on the side of generosity, recognising that we’re all human and we all make mistakes. That is where coaching comes in (Habit no.2). John has carried this forward in his career, realising that you can’t have innovation without benevolence, especially with history changing as fast as it has in the news industry. Innovation requires bravery (Habit no. 8) but it also requires the flipside which is kindness (Habit no.9). As the pace of disruption continues to accelerate in the business world, there is a premium on innovation, on being flexible, and on being generous around experimentation and the occasional failure.
Our thanks to John for his time and for allowing us to share his insights from the interview. For more information on the Trusted Executive Foundation please refer to this short introductory video