Schwan began his career as an emerging technology engineer, and in 2001, founded digital innovation firm Solstice. After 16 years at the helm, he joined St Ives as its first Chief Digital Officer, and earlier this year, was appointed CEO, becoming one of the youngest CEOs on the London Stock Exchange at the age of 41.
Econsultancy spoke to him about a day in his life, the behaviours and beliefs that matter most in a leadership role, the company’s goals, and his advice for anyone wanting to make a career in digital.
(And as always, check out the Econsultancy Jobs Board if you’re in the market for a new digital role).
Econsultancy: Please describe your job: What do you do?
J Schwan: I’m the CEO of Kin + Carta. We help companies invent, operate and market new digital products and services. We’re a new company, born out of the legacy of the St Ives Group.
As the head of a publicly traded company, I get to do a lot of different things, but most of my time is focused on enabling others in key areas like employee experience, company strategy and investor relations.
E: Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
JS: With 1,500 employees across four continents, I have a lot of people to report to! My primary job is to provide our employees with an environment to do their best work and create as many opportunities as I can to accelerate their career journey.
I like to think of our organisation as an upside-down pyramid, where the most important individuals in the organisation, at the top of the pyramid, are our newest employees.
Our veterans are there to make those new entrants successful. Our leaders are there to coach our veterans into becoming leaders, and my responsibility is to do everything I can to ensure our leaders gain the experience and have the support to do my job someday. When you’re growing as quickly as we are, this mindset is incredibly important in order to scale successfully.
E: What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
JS: Skills can always be learned; I think behaviours and beliefs are what matter in a leadership role. We have three core values at Kin + Carta: Connection, Courage and Compassion.
Connection between our employees, Compassion for our clients – many of whom are transforming themselves in this new digital age – and the Courage to do what’s right over what’s easy. I make it a point to practice and exhibit these values every day, and coaching others to have the confidence to do the same.
E: Tell us about a typical working day…
JS: My day starts early, usually with a run, to get in the right headspace. I have breakfast with my kids and then catch the train into work. I try to get through any emails and Slack messages on the train so I can spend the day focused on the conversations I need to have and the people I am there to serve.
My diary is usually filled with a series of back-to-back 30 minute conversations with employees, clients and investors. It’s sometimes tiring but also exhilarating.
I reserve the end of the day to set the stage for the next. We reserve blocks of time every month for reflection and strategic planning as a team. I spend the evenings with my wife and kids helping with homework, and playing sports and video games with them.
E: What do you love about your job? What sucks?
JS: We have introduced a new operating model, called The Connective, that allows our nine specialist brands to work inter-dependently with one another to deliver transformation to our clients, while also working together to shape the future of Kin + Carta.
It’s a new organisational structure that has never been implemented before. It’s hard work figuring it out, but it’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been a part of, as I’ve watched countless connections form across the globe, and I’ve learned so much from so many others in the process. It’s incredibly energising.
In terms of what sucks? I guess it has yet to hit me. I think we need better coffee in the office. We’ll have to get to work on that. Maybe I drink too much coffee.
E: What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
JS: We have a few Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). By 2025 we want to be the world’s first billion-dollar Connective; to be recognized as the most connected, compassionate and courageous organization on the planet; to be an internationally recognised best place to work.
KPIs to track those include employee Net Promoter Scores, client experience KPIs, and of course, growth. Growth is incredibly important if we are going to give all of our employees the accelerated career paths that they deserve.
We’re also currently working on how to effectively measure our positive impact from a corporate social responsibility (people and planet) standpoint. I think this will be incredibly important for us to get right as we continue to scale in the years to come.
E: What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
JS: We’re a people business, and to me, the most important tools are the ones that facilitate real-time communication and empower people to make real-time decisions.
The first technology we implemented across the Connective when I first joined in January was Slack for messaging and Zoom for video. It’s amazing what connecting 1,500 brains and faces can do.
Our business has evolved more rapidly in the last nine months than it has in the many years prior by just giving everyone an easy outlet to communicate, collaborate and create.
E: How did you become such a young CEO, and where might you go from here?
JS: Ha, some days I don’t feel young, that’s for sure! I came into the group four years ago after building Solstice for 15 years and selling it to St Ives in 2015. Solstice – and now more broadly Kin + Carta – is part of my DNA.
I plan to spend the rest of my career helping all of our people find and realise their greatest potential. There is nowhere else I would rather be.
E: Which recent work have you admired?
JS: It’s hard not to reference some of the great work our folks have done over the last year.
AmazeRealise’s Takumi campaign for Lexus was beautiful and impactful. TAB’s work on M&S’s mobile Pay and Go experience is really slick. Solstice’s work building North America’s largest food distributor’s B2B Ordering site in nine months was impressive, but taking them from a process of four releases a year to 11 times a day was even more impressive.
We have a channel on Slack outlining all the great work happening across the Connective and it’s my favourite channel to follow. Tons of exciting work happening.
E: Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career in digital?
JS: I tell folks to first understand that the door is open to all backgrounds and disciplines. Digital is not a marketing function, it’s not a technology function, it’s a people function. It’s how we communicate and interact as a species. In order to create truly compelling experiences, we need all of humanity’s great disciplines working together to shape the future.
I love hearing from people in digital who come from unconventional backgrounds. Diversity is what makes this industry great. We definitely need to continue promoting that as a community.
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