The Gatehouse Blog

Five questions to Jo Hall

After years working in-house, Jo Hall took a big step last year and decided to start her own consultancy. In this interview, she explains how she’s using her internal communication experience to help small and medium-size businesses address their broader employee engagement challenges.

You recently started your own consultancy. Tell us how you got there…

It was a varied and unconventional route, to be honest! I began my career in pre-clinical academic research and soon moved into project management roles. I loved the psychology and people-centric elements particularly. Back then I didn’t realise I was doing internal communications. But that is exactly what it was in terms of influencing and engaging people and orchestrating organisational change.

Fast forward through a Global Head of Internal Communication role into the opportunity presented by redundancy and here I am today! I’d been thinking about getting out of the big corporate world for a while. I realised my expertise could make a significant difference to help create workplaces where people thrive within a happy, engaging environment. That’s my passion and the motivation behind Afire Consulting.

What specific skills do you utilise most as an independent IC practitioner?

Above all, my listening skills are critical. I’ve learnt to listen without assumptions or prejudice. My coaching background helps. But it is a skill to master with our own biases constantly at work. I’m seeking to listen to understand first, before I let my solution-focused mind set to work. Appreciating a business owner’s perspective and pain points is a vital piece of the work I do. It gives me a baseline measure, a way of mapping progress and measuring the success of our collaboration. And above all, it makes the work I do in defining and implementing the solutions so fulfilling and meaningful.

Being curious and analytical are other skills I tap into frequently. I spend a lot of time being with employees and line managers, trying to gain insights into the complexities and frustrations of their working lives. Invariably, they know what’s going to work, and what isn’t.

Resourcefulness is a skill I am honing as a consultant. I don’t have a knowledgeable, expert colleague sat beside me anymore! So Google, YouTube and ‘Phone-a-friend’ are my lifelines. I do a lot of research and reading on how successful organisations operate to back up my recommendations with tried and trusted ideas and solutions. Great business owners want to learn best and next practices to evolve their own thinking, culture and practices. They are open to change but they also want the evidence to back it up.

“I spend a lot of time being with employees and line managers, trying to gain insights into the complexities and frustrations of their working lives. Invariably, they know what’s going to work, and what isn’t.”

Tell us about your current role…

All under the umbrella of making businesses happier, more successful places to be, I can go from writing an article on wellbeing or happiness in the workplace, to designing a workshop or running a focus group, to discussing and sharing my recommendations with a CEO. I especially love working with smaller businesses and helping them overcome some of their people-related issues and challenges to create positive and engaging working environments. The beauty of being small is they can implement and feel the changes much quicker than in a larger, bureaucratic organisation!

A CEO of a company with around 30 employees approached me to help them look at improving their employee engagement. They had a big problem with staff turnover and were wasting thousands of pounds on recruitment and repeatedly onboarding new staff. I’ve spent the last six months listening to employees to uncover the root causes to their high attrition and working to implement recommended solutions. Walking into their offices today feels so much more positive and vibrant… oh, and their attrition rate is reducing.

Another client had grown quickly, with plans for further diversification and growth. They needed a larger office space and wanted advice on how to manage the change communications. Digging under the surface to understand how best to approach the messaging I revealed a lack of trust between leaders and employees. Not only have I helped them to actively engage and involve their staff in the office move, we’ve worked on a plan to build a solid foundation of trust and transparency across the entire workforce too.

How does consultancy differ from in-house?

There’s a safety net about being employed. I don’t mean that in terms of job security, but more about the support, structure, training and processes you have around you as an employee. You take it for granted – well I did! On your own, there isn’t any of that.

I’ve been consulting for a year now. When I first started out, I spoke to a lot of business owners about the benefits of internal communications and the services I could offer, but they didn’t seem to quite appreciate what I was talking about. How could they not understand why larger corporations invest in and place a value on internal communication?

Thankfully, I had an epiphany after talking to a trusted freelancer friend. She told to me to flip it around. Focus first on the clients’ needs, not on the communication tools or expertise you can offer. She explained it like this: Nobody ever goes to a DIY shop wanting a drill. What they want is a hole in the wall. So, if you spend time understanding what someone needs, your solution (or service offering, in my case) will be fit for purpose. In-house you are hired to fulfil a need that has already been identified. As a consultant, I help businesses define their needs and then work with them on implementing the right solutions for them.

Being my own boss has allowed me to indulge in one of my biggest passions – learning. Staying current – researching, reading and networking – is vitally important as a consultant and I schedule specific time for it. Keeping an ear to the ground and providing clients with insights into trends and new practices helps ensure I’m considered a valuable and trusted advisor. Delivery is of course important, but the advice I provide as a consultant is one of my unique selling points.

“Focus first on the clients’ needs, not on the communication tools or expertise you can offer. She explained it like this: Nobody ever goes to a DIY shop wanting a drill. What they want is a hole in the wall. So, if you spend time understanding what someone needs, your solution (or service offering, in my case) will be fit for purpose”

What challenges come with being a consultant?

When I first started developing my business plan, I realised that loneliness presented a potential threat to my wellbeing. I expected to miss the social contact and support of being in an office environment regularly. So, I actively set out to ensure I stayed connected with people; friends as well as other professionals in my field.

As it turns out though, I’ve found I really appreciate and need time on my own. But perhaps this would have been different if I hadn’t recognised a potential problem and put in place measures to mitigate it.

The financial stuff plays on my mind – knowing how best to manage my money and the peaks and troughs in income. I have an amazing team who advise and support me on accountancy, tax and financial planning. It’s a huge weight off my mind knowing those elements are safely in their expert hands.

Having my own company means I never stop thinking about it. As soon as I’ve agreed one contract, I’m looking for the next. One idea spins into another, into another… my head is full to bursting with opportunities, ideas, questions, worries and plans.

A busy mind can be counterproductive, so I make a conscious effort to do a lot of self-care, because Afire is essentially me. I look after my mental health, ensuring a happy and effective home office environment and every morning I practise yoga and meditate. I set weekly goals that align with my quarterly goals to take me step-by-step towards realising my ambitions.

It’s all about taking away those minor stressors, building my resilience and confidence, playing to my strengths and focusing on the things that really matter. I realised very quickly that my own happiness and wellbeing would be the keys to my success. And I think that’s true for all of us, whether we’re in-house or freelance.

“A busy mind can be counterproductive, so I make a conscious effort to do a lot of self-care, because Afire is essentially me.”

 

Biography: Jo Hall

Jo hall is the founder of Afire Consulting Ltd, which specialises in making businesses happier and more successful through the power of great communication. Afire is the outlet for Jo to share her passion and expertise in internal communication, leadership, wellbeing and culture.

www.afireconsulting.com

@Afire_Jo