Having led the LINX for 18 years, John is soon to stand down from one of the worlds’ leading internet exchange point operators. Operating as a mutual organisation, John has steered the business to achieve significant international growth and innovation. With one of the most engaged workforces we have seen, we ask him about his career and views on leadership.
What are you most proud of professionally?
Leading LINX for nearly 19 years. The average life expectancy of a CEO in telecomms is somewhat shorter than that! During that time we have grown between eight and nine fold in terms of members, several orders of magnitude of traffic, opened exchanges on three continents, and I could go on….
Who is the leader who most influenced your early career?
A man called Richard McLaughlin. He joined BSI Quality Assurance as managing director, and he was my direct boss. He was the first leader that I really looked up to, the first that I really came to respect, the first to give me a proper “bollocking” that actually got through my thick skull and actually made me think and change my approach. He is still a good friend, after more than 30 years.
Subutai was an Uriankhai general, and the primary military strategist of Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan. He directed more than 20 campaigns in which he conquered 32 nations and won 65 pitched battles, during which he conquered or overran more territory than any other commander in history (source: wikipedia)
He is actually even more fascinating than his superlative wikipedia entry – someone from a humble background (he wasn’t even a Mongol, yet rose to the most senior appointed position in their armies) and was one of the greatest military strategists of all time.
In today’s VUCA world, what do you see as the biggest challenge for leaders?
Finding a balance in your focus. The natural tension of your internal focus (Team, Strategy, Processes, Finances etc.) versus your external focus ( customers, markets, competitors, opportunities etc.). There is no shortage of data, but finding the time, energy and discipline to examine it, understand it and stay in touch with developments is challenging in an ever more connected world.
How do you continue learning when you’re ‘top of the pile’?
Attitude. If you give up on learning, or think you are too senior to continue learning, you should probably stop being a leader. There is always more to learn, and will always be.
What are the 3 most important things (values or behaviours) you look for when hiring? And why?
Number one is ‘spark’. I like people with a big, burning spark inside them, from where they draw their passion and motivation. Without that, they are probably never going to really impress you.
Second and third (equally) are intelligence (coupled with a willingness to keep learning and adapting) and a difficult to define sense of humanity – meaning that they like working with other people in a way that is generally reciprocated.
What is more important – acquiring talent or retaining talent?
Obviously one precedes the other, and hiring the right talent should make it easier to keep them, but there are lots of factors at work here, and not all of them will be under your control. When someone decides to move on, and you would really like them to stay, you must make the effort – but you must also realise and accept that retaining them when their heart is not in it, never really works out for either party. In those circumstances, help them move on to their next challenge, but be clear with them that they would be welcome back, and that you want to stay professionally and/or personally connected (whichever applies).
Conversation with John Souter, November 2019
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