Walpole Interview

10 Questions. 10 CEOs. Supporting the Next Generation of Leaders: An interview with Jon Graham, Miller Harris

In this new interview series, Diane Metcalfe, Leadership Coach, puts 10 questions to 10 CEOs - many of whom are mentors or speakers on the Walpole Luxury Leaders of Tomorrow programme at London Business School - to discover their journey to getting and succeeding in the role, and any advice they have for the next generation. Here we meet Jon Graham to discover how he scored his first CEO role, and why it's not so lonely at the top when you work in small business..
18th Nov 2021
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Walpole Interview 10 Questions. 10 CEOs. Supporting the Next Generation of Leaders: An interview with Jon Graham, Miller Harris
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1. Did you always want to be a CEO and what drove you?

No. Not all. I come from a business culture that encouraged development and progression. My first job was at Our Price Records as a sales associate, at my induction, I recognised that the Board was made up from people from the shop-floor so it always seemed attainable. It was never mystifying. The support from the upper levels of business was very positive. I guess it was natural progression for me. There was always an internal confidence as my career developed that “I can do that”. I’ve also realised that I’m not a big fan of being told what to do!

2. How did you land your first CEO role?

I spent some time consulting with different brands. I began to recognise how much I knew which built my confidence and through the consulting route I approached a brand that I thought needed my help and it developed from there. I was offered an opportunity and I seized that opportunity. You need a shared vision with the business owners. Without that it will fail. 

3. What did you do to prepare yourself for the role and, in retrospect, what else should or could you have done to prepare better?

Well, now that I had secured the role it was time to prove to my employer (and to myself) that I could do what I said I could do! I did significant amounts of preparation. Preparation is everything for me. I spoke with my mentors to gain insight, they were Board level or C-suite operators, some CEOs, I already had a very well-defined plan as to how I wanted to manage the business as this forms part of the interview process so in very simplistic terms I just needed to implement the plan.  

4. In what way was the role different from what you expected?

I guess I am a “do-er” so concentrating on less doing and more thinking was a challenge for me at first. In fact it’s really the second role where I feel I’m more effective and efficient. The relationship between myself and the owners is fundamental and their support has been a huge part of allowing me to implement the thinking, and to the brand's success.

5. What were your greatest challenges early on?

I entered a business that was struggling and needed a complete culture shift so inevitably there was going to be resistance. Trying to take everyone with me, gain people's trust, and believe in the vision was undoubtedly the hardest thing. Also the speed of change. I think I brashly said I’d turn the business around in 6 months! It took about three years.

6. Did you have any internal challenges you had to overcome?

Of course. There’s always a certain level of anxiety when entering any new role or business. Saying you can do it and doing it are completely separate things. In reality I had no idea, but I re-assured myself that after 26 years across six or seven brands at all levels, I knew as much as anyone else so why not? That breeds a certain self-confidence. 

7. They say that it is lonely at the top. Is this something you experience, and how do you deal with it?

No. I’ve never felt lonely. I work in small businesses so relationships and communication are key. My door is always open professionally or personally. We become a family. Whilst I am the figurehead I can’t do what I do without the support of the Directors I employ. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some of the best young talent out there. At Miller Harris I have the best people I have ever worked with so the levels of support I receive are second to none. Everyone has bought into the vision. 

8. What qualities separate out CEOs from other C-Suite executives?

A clear vision and leadership skills. Being single-minded in the decisions you make and confident in why you have taken them. An expert relationship builder.

9. Which qualities does a CEO need to be successful, specifically in the luxury sector?

Don’t just say you are a luxury business, be the luxury business, in everything you do. Not just the brand and the product but the way you operate. Act in a luxury manner. Think like a luxury customer and don’t compromise on brand values

10. What advice would you give someone who aspires to be, or is, new in a CEO role?

Remember you are a custodian of the brand. Leave a legacy that the next generation can build upon like I was left at Miller Harris. Don’t fear change, make the decision, keep learning and challenge yourself always. 

millerharris.com

Interview by Diane Metcalfe.

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