Founder stories: An Unleashed Q+A with Jo Dalton, Founder at JD & Co

A black and white photo of Jo, smiling next to a unicorn wall hanging
A black and white photo of Jo, smiling next to a unicorn wall hanging

This month, People + Culture partner Ginni Lisk spoke with Jo Dalton, Founder at JD & Co, Investor, Board Advisor and Great British Entrepreneur Awards judge.

JD&Co is a global Exec Search & Advisory firm supporting Founders, Funders + Leaders of high-growth disruptive tech brands. Read on to hear Jo’s unique reflections on business and human-first leadership during the pandemic, what the hell is going on in the talent landscape right now and find out why ​people and purpose ​really are the key to everything!

GL: It would be great to start by introducing you properly! You wear so many hats, would you mind giving our readers an overview?

JD: Of course! I do wear a lot of hats but really what’s important is w​hy​ I wear them — if there’s one thing that connects everything I do, it’s people and purpose… I dial up my involvement in instances where people, purpose — or even better, both — are at the core.

I founded JD&Co driven by my utter frustration about the lack of ethics and innovative thinking in the world of Executive Search. I believed in a version that put people and purpose at the forefront. I’m a Judge for the Great British Entrepreneur Awards because I’m passionate about the purposeful impact of helping British entrepreneurs.

My investments are also driven by a strong sense of purpose. As relates to the world of fashion; I love fashion but hate fast fashion and I wanted to get more involved in being the change I want to see. For me, that involved mentoring a female founder in setting up a pre-loved fashion business in the circular economy, extending the life cycle of beautiful, well-made items. That mentoring relationship turned into becoming an investor in that business and I love that organic process — from genuine personal passion and aligned sense of purpose to active investment. I’m also an investor and board advisor to Thortful — a marketplace connecting creators, illustrators and witty minds with buyers and customers for greeting cards — like Etsy meets Moonpig. I had a trusted relationship from supporting the founders in a previous business so again, the brilliant people were at the core of my decision to get involved.

It’s the unique combination of the people and a purpose that really resonates. It’s been a successful approach too; last year saw our first acquisition and several new hires at the preloved fashion marketplace (WeAreSott.com; merging SignoftheTimes with Timps) and Thortful have seen a huge uplift in customers during the pandemic… They’ve been making brave decisions and have worked hard to really stay in tune with their audience.

All this hat-wearing means that you must have a pretty unique perspective on how the pandemic has changed things for businesses. What have you found are the recurring themes, particularly when it comes to leadership?

Well, JD&Co is my day job, and to be honest I’m having some really emotional days. I can have a 9 am meeting with a client that is growing rapidly because of the pandemic, with leaders who can’t think straight. In those instances I’m trying to help leaders navigate making huge and serious decisions without all of the context to do so, and where decision making feels like putting sticking plasters over things that are breaking. Two hours later, I’ll speak to a leader in a different sector where businesses are disintegrating and founders’ dreams are being shattered; where high-potential growth stories are becoming zero revenue scenarios overnight. It’s been frenetic.

It must be super tough to absorb so much of that frenetic energy… What kind of advice have you been giving?

I’m a huge advocate for constant decision-making, which has also helped me to maintain a sense of momentum for JD&Co and the team. My view is, let’s just make a decision and if by 2 pm it’s clear that it wasn’t the right one to make, then we’ll go again and make a different one. And that includes making the decision not to make a decision! There is real and genuine relief in authentically owning that; it helps turn a situation of paralysis into a one of focus, even when the focus is to deliberately wait for more data and more information.

Lots of companies with the best intentions are making huge decisions very quickly right now; whether it’s about ditching office space, or circulating reactive (and sometimes not very well thought-through) comms or immediately thinking they’re going to need to be able to have access to lots of or dramatically different talent. The impact of making these decisions at speed is that they’re not taking the human into account.

You touched upon your own leadership there… What have you learned so far as a leader during the pandemic and how have you taken an approach that does consider the human?

I’ve learned so many things! Everyone’s talking about the past 3 months being more like a year and I think that’s been true for me.

I’ve seen some of the team be incredibly resilient, which really makes me proud, though it’s hard seeing your team on a screen and not being able to be there for them. I’ve therefore dug deep to consider my video conferencing leadership skills; things like commanding a virtual room and bringing people in without all the non-verbal cues we know we’re missing out on. Honestly though, I think the most important thing is to just be real. There are good days and bad days, and as a team, I think we’re in a position where we can share the ups and downs… but that’s taken work and a lot of creativity and imagination; I worry that some of the founders and leaders out there really do need to up their game when it comes to that creativity.

For those who get it right, I genuinely believe that we could be looking at a new generation of better, bolder leaders. Leaders are more exposed at the moment than they’ve ever been; they’re either going to have great learning and some real eureka moments from this or it’s going to be the thing that puts them off forever! I think being real, resilient and relevant are really the new normal for leaders now.

How would you describe the mindset or approach of those who are being real, resilient and relevant? What’s the make-up of those who will be part of the new generation of better leaders?

When I was starting JD&Co, it was all about “being able to navigate and lead a complex global matrix” (yawn) …those days are over. Leaders now have to care about and possess genuine, authentic human-ness and cultural awareness; which has been brought to the forefront not only as a result of the Pandemic but also the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. It’s easy to agree that silence is violence but how do you find the confidence to have a voice and be opinionated? Yes there is a lot of really heavy stuff going on at the moment and resisting the urge to tune out is hard but it’s about moral bars, about taking a stance and about having standards. Not doing so is what pisses me off most; we could all make mistakes but it’s not enough anymore for businesses not to be brave and speak up in the name of humanity; of people and purpose.

As well as your thoughts on great leadership at the moment, I wanted to ask you the question that I suppose I’ve been most nervous about asking — because I assume you’re getting asked it a lot! Would you mind sharing what that talent landscape looks like at the moment?

Well… I have been through three recessions and what you realise as an experienced leader is that you have muscle memory; I knew instinctively what immediately as a business owner I needed to do, across JD&Co, the businesses we support and the ones I’m invested in.

It’s certainly the case that talented people in significant numbers have been displaced by this. I’m talking to probably two or three people every day who have been furloughed or made redundant, and that’s been the case for 10 weeks. But, I think the key is to go back to the theme of being real, resilient and relevant. Relevance is so important right now.

People working in a similar leadership role need to recognise, as I have, that without exception there will be at least one person in your team — and probably many more — who is struggling, has a sense of fear and anxiety about the uncertainty of all of this and specifically about how it impacts them as someone employed in the talent space. You need to take much more care of them. I’ve constantly communicated with my team. I take the role of cheerleader when it’s been appropriate, but I’m also working hard to be extra alert in 1:1’s and to do extra check-ins. I don’t think that “I’m fine” is enough of a response when I’m asking one of my team how they’re doing. I’ve got to know everyone’s partners, children, pets and even houseplants on screen! It’s not about being nosey, it’s about caring about individuals’ spaces and recognising that extra duty of care.

It’s a real heartbreaker for me to read peoples’ stories and see headline statements on LinkedIn where so many are defining their careers by the industry or sector they’re in. If your sector experience isn’t as relevant right now, it absolutely does not and should not mean that you, the human being with a wealth of knowledge, skill, experience and perspective are also not relevant. It’s important to stay agile; I talked earlier about being an advocate for constant decision-making, and an agile approach is so important. JD&Co isn’t a tech company but I’ve run JD&Co since the beginning with Jira boards, squads and pods of people and constant iteration. That’s the way people should run their careers… I think! Honestly, the concept of having a 5-year plan for your career these days, really does make me laugh! Instead invest the time and energy you’d have put into planning your next 5 years to think about how you can effectively have impact using the things all businesses need; critical thinking, emotional intelligence, great communication, agility and authenticity. I’d like to try and encourage people to be reflective and really start thinking about their personal brands. When I’m able to support people with this kind of coaching, and I see the lightbulb moments of “I am still relevant!” as corny or cheesy as it may sound, that’s what makes it all worthwhile for me.

I wanted to touch on the theme of recruitment — and specifically, recruiters. I can’t think of many scaling businesses that can grow quickly enough without needing the support of recruitment partners and I know that the vast majority of our readership will currently be managing those relationships. What’s your opinion on the recruitment industry right now?

I’m told that I don’t shout about this enough and that I should tell this story more, so I’m glad that you asked! Honestly? In my opinion, I left the recruitment industry 12 years ago.

Previously, I was the only female in a management team at a global search firm; I’ve seen the kind of behaviours that the recruitment industry is often synonymous with; going after the shiny client contracts that unlock a volume of potential roles to fill. I learned so much that led to me wanting to set up JD&Co. To be very honest, a while back in my career I just wasn’t proud of what I did and I wanted to change that, and also forge a new, better way of working in this space.

JD&CO is fundamentally different. Our consultants are not on commission and have a zero sales environment. I’m so so proud of all the work that has come purely from referral and recommendations over the past eight years. JD&Co have spent no money on marketing and we have still gained over 30,000 organic followers on Linkedin.

We only work with people we genuinely get on with, with clients we want to be a cheerleader for and on projects that get us out of bed… it all comes back to people and purpose!! My advice is to find partners who share your values, and care about your people and your purpose.

I’d like to wrap up by asking you what makes you most hopeful at the moment? What are you most excited about?

Initially, I was conflicted about what to share here because as a human during lockdown I have loved elements of it! I’ve taken so much more notice of nature and our environment, I’ve cooked from scratch most days, I’ve been able to see and look after my father, and drop care packages to him which is so rewarding. However, all this positive stuff is happening while, work-wise I’m seeing some real struggles, with some companies falling around me. In the worst cases, there is real destruction and devastation.

What I’ve taken from that is a genuine sense of hope that we’re slowing down, we’re being more thoughtful, that we’re connecting on a deeper level with colleagues and we’re being more human as leaders. I recently shared a post where I was talking about not needing those fantastical ‘unicorns’ everyone has been trying so hard to build and invest in, and instead needing ‘camels’; businesses that can tred a longer, harder path. We need businesses that make money but that don’t sacrifice catering for people and purpose by prioritising growth at all costs.

I’m excited about a couple of things; firstly the pursuit of a nicer, braver society, and secondly, things trending towards more flexible working; the results of both being increased diversity at work. I’m excited to be able to help great leaders build bold, resilient and ‘high performing’ leadership teams made up of people who could be quite literally anywhere in the world!

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