Ash Schofield is the CEO of UK mobile network giffgaff, an emerging force within the industry. Schofield spoke to Business Leader about his journey to taking up the role, leadership lessons he picked up along the way, and the importance of learning from mistakes.
Can you explain your role at giffgaff?
I have been at giffgaff for the last eight years, having originally joined as the CMO. Three years ago, I became CEO. Before I joined the company, I headed up the marketing team at Tesco Mobile – a role I had for six years. I was part of the team that helped it scale. I had similar roles at BT Cellnet before that. In summary, I have grown up in telecoms over the last 22 years. As the industry has exponentially grown, my responsibilities within it have grown, all leading me to now being CEO of giffgaff.
Did you always plan to be in the telecoms sector or did it happen organically?
I fell into the industry by accident! I was working for a distribution company, where I was in a role as an analyst. In that capacity, I had to use a specialist bit of software. After that company got bought out, I put my CV out to look for a new job and got an interview with a service provider company called Martin Dawes back in 1999 – and they happened to use the same bit of software. They wanted me to do a similar job for them – and that was it!
Within nine months of being there, I was managing the team. BT Cellnet (now known as 02) had taken over and the market became incredibly dynamic. Hard to believe now, but not everyone had a mobile back then and smartphones didn’t exist yet. It was a wonderful growth industry to be involved with.
Was it at this point you thought you could take on senior leadership roles?
At that point, I was more in a support role, and I learnt about the value of data, the insight it provides on growing a business. My role was to feed that through to senior management. At that time, I noticed a potentially large churn risk, six months down the line. My boss at the time said that I should come to the board and tell them all about it. So, from analysing the data, I was then thrust into the boardroom telling the story of what I had found and what I thought it meant. I couldn’t help myself, and was saying ‘This is what I think we should do about it’. No question, that got me noticed – and I liked the opportunity to influence at the most senior level. That was the first taste of leadership at boardroom level. As I got more confident and established in my role, I got the feeling I wanted to do more than influence – maybe I could decide what to do next? That thought was very exciting.
What happened following that meeting? Were you given the opportunity to take on more of a leadership role?
It certainly acted as a springboard to getting new roles and getting more experience. Then I went for a promotion at 02 to become a head of a department, but didn’t get it. And in some respect – it was probably the best thing that could have happened, as I then moved to Tesco Mobile.
It had huge potential, but had yet to scale. We were a small team when I joined in April 2007. I initially joined to look after the CRM side of the business, but soon took over other roles within marketing and advertising.
Before long, I was in charge of the whole marketing side of the business. That gave me direct access to the senior leadership team in an industry which was heavily marketing-influenced, and I felt I was at the heart of it. Looking back, I’ve always been a bit of a collector, getting into roles, taking on more responsibility and increasing my impact. It’s what I’ve enjoyed doing.
After six successful years at Tesco Mobile, I wanted to step up – I really wanted to be on the board. It was then that I applied for a role at giffgaff, and when I got offered the job in 2013, it was the first time I was really sitting at the top table in a business in a senior role, rather than being a guest.
I never set out with an ambition of being a CEO one day, it was more about being practical and keep developing skills in something that I really enjoy being a part of.
Does acquiring new skills and embracing the passion you had for the industry help when it came to becoming a board member?
Without a shadow of a doubt. I have always been ambitious, but not for the sake of status. I just like to challenge myself to be better and to keep growing.
So, when the former CEO left giffgaff in 2018, I felt compelled to apply for the role. A lot of what giffgaff had become, I had a significant part of building, along with the rest of the management team. I felt my job wasn’t finished and I that I could do that as CEO. I wanted the role, and I wanted to unlock the undoubted potential the company still had to achieve.
How did you adapt to becoming CEO?
giffgaff was founded on the thought of ‘mutuality’ and having a unique relationship with our member-base. So, it was clear to me that we didn’t need an authoritative CEO, we needed more vision and a healthy level of democracy in our decision making. This was the way to unlock the company’s undoubted potential.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Integrity is the baseline of leadership – the desire to do what is right. However, in order to drive growth you have to show a high level of passion for what the company is trying to achieve. Passion and drive are infectious, and it provides a wonderful ripple effect throughout the business. It can permeate throughout the company and build a team’s mentality.
I would like to think I bring some authenticity and honesty – never pretend to be something you are not. You spend a lot of time with the people you work with, so it is ok to let your guard down and to just be yourself.
At the same time, as a leader, you need to have sharp decision-making skills. This is something a coach talked to me about when I took up the CEO role. She said, my life was going to change and that I would have a lot of decisions to make – so don’t build a backlog of decisions to make.
It also helps to be a deep listener. You can sometimes approach something in the wrong way – so you need to seek out the truth. As a CEO, people sometimes tell you what they think you want to hear rather than what you need to know. To make the right decisions you need to have all available information – so I aim to seek out the truth to guide us in the right direction.
What have been the main challenges you’ve faced since becoming CEO?
On your progression into seniority, you have got to retrain yourself, in regards to where you get your ‘nourishment’ from. When you are junior or middle management, you get a lot of nourishment through doing your job. The irony is that the more you do, the more you get, but when you reach the CEO your job is to create the opportunity for others to get that nourishment.
You need to open doors to others. It is not easy to let go sometimes, but it is a good lesson to learn when taking up a senior role. The upside is that, in time, you end up getting more nourishment from unlocking the potential of those around you.
We have a wonderfully diverse and talented team at giffgaff, so to help them build self-belief and take opportunities to acheive more than they thought was possible is incredibly rewarding and in the true spiriit of giffgaff. It has been a key part of my own journey into senior management.
Does learning from mistakes on the journey make you a better leader?
Absolutely – no leader has got to the position they are in without making lots of mistakes along the way. If you haven’t made mistakes, then you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough and you won’t grow as a leader. In some ways, this is why the mobile phone industry has been kind to me. When I began it was in its infancy and was seeing such growth, that everyone was making mistakes. This was a benefit to be a part of an industry growing at such a rapid rate. Learn from mistakes, then get back on a winning streak – and that’s what has happened within the industry.
Do you think it is important for CEOs to have coaches?
Every leader has to find their own path. I like to talk out what is happening and what I believe is the best way to proceed. Speaking to a coach has alway helped me get better clarity and focus on what I do next, and think about what to do next. Personally, I have found them very useful.
What makes a bad leader?
When a leader has the desire to appear strong all of the time and never let their guard down. People are always a lot more engaged if you demonstrate your leadership style through being a well-rounded human being.
The true role of a leader is to create the next generation of leaders. If you go about your business Teflon-coated or with a suit of armour on all the time – it is not real, and people see that. This has never been truer than being a leader through the pandemic – this is why I have spoken to the team daily, to share what is going on with the company and myself. This hasn’t been easy for anyone.
What are the future plans for giffgaff?
We are very excited about how the market is shaping up with 5G on the horizon. The proposed merger between Telefonica and Virgin will stimulate the industry. So, from a giffgaff perspective there is a lot of excitement for what is to come.
I feel there is still a lot we can do in our core space around mobile, but we are always on the lookout for new ways we could grow the business. As CEO, I want to leave a legacy which I can be proud of – and there is still so much more we can achieve at giffgaff.