Josh Willows

Global Job Distribution & Performance Specialist, IBM

1. What seemed like an inconsequential decision at the time, but in hindsight turned out to fundamentally reshape your life?

Applying for the accommodation I wanted to live in at university. I hadn’t spent any real-time looking into the different places, the only thing I cared about was being on the south side of the campus. In the end, I simply applied for the cheapest option, purely because I figured that would give me more money for nights out! As luck would have it, when I moved in, the first person I met in the communal kitchen ended up becoming my wife and we have now been together for nearly half our lives, so I can’t think of anyone or anything who has had a bigger impact on me.

2. At what age did you become an adult? What happened, and how did you know?

When I think back there have been numerous times that I thought I had become an “adult” (an example being my first day of Uni which now seems laughable) so I feel like the goalposts are always moving on this one. Answering that question today, it was the day my son was born. Suddenly the world stopped revolving around me and I became responsible for another human being. Almost immediately, that completely changed my motivation and perspective on the world. Truly prioritising another person over yourself; providing and caring for them unconditionally and the sense of responsibility that brings at least makes me feel like I’m an adult.

3. What habit or behaviour or belief have you recently acquired? Why is it now in your life?

Every year I try and give something up for Lent (not for religious reasons I just like the challenge). This year I decided to jump on the bandwagon of a trend I was seeing online, and I made the crazy decision to give up hot showers.

I have to say that starting in February meant this was one of the hardest challenges I have ever done. However, to my surprise, it’s something I started to enjoy in a twisted kind of way, and I’ve decided to continue doing it for 2 reasons.

Firstly, it’s truly horrible, I spend at least 5 minutes every morning when I wake up trying to convince myself it’s ok not to do it, but because of that, completing it gives me a sense of accomplishment to start the day and that creates forward momentum. Secondly, the more I do it, the more I think it’s like a cheat code. After you finish you feel amazing, and it does 10x more to make me alert than my morning coffee.

4. What are the three books that you would unhesitatingly recommend to others? Why?

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of LivingRyan Holiday

This book takes 1-2 mins a day to read (I read it first thing in the morning), and each chapter is a day of the calendar year. You simply read the chapter that corresponds to today’s date for a quick lesson on stoicism. I find it gives me a good reminder of what’s important, how to focus on what I can control and there’s something about reading it every morning that constantly keeps the principles in your mind. There is tonnes of wisdom in here and something I wish I started reading sooner.

The Chimp Paradox Doctor Stephen Peters

This book explains human psychology in such a brilliantly simple way, and I think this is one of the most important books I have ever read. Managing my “chimp” has become something I have really tried to work on and the better I get at it, the better the rest of my life has become.

Happy Mind, Happy Life: 10 Simple Ways to Feel Great Every Day – Dr Rangan Chatterjee

It was a toss-up between this and Atomic Habits (another great book, but I feel like most people of heard of it by now!) I read this quite recently and found it had several insights that were easily actionable, and the sign of a good book is that I’ve actually gone on to implement them. One example is eliminating choice. Studies show that we are happier with the choice we make when there are fewer options available (which isn’t easy in the modern world). Believe it or not, I cancelled almost all my streaming services and I can say this is true. Plus, we have fewer arguments about what to watch now we have more limited options to choose from!

5. What’s one misconception people generally have about you?

I think a lot of people I’ve met across the years see me as extroverted and it would surprise them to know that naturally, I’m quite shy and introverted. To be fair it’s something I didn’t really understand myself until recent years. Probably the reason I can seem extroverted is that I spent years in sales going for a “fake it to you make it approach” with confidence and I think I became pretty accomplished at it.

6. What is the number one thing you would recommend every person in the world to practice from now on in order to increase their happiness and wellbeing?

Go outside more. It doesn’t matter what for – go for a walk, do some gardening, play a sport, basically just do what you enjoy. Generally, when you are outside you spend less time on screens and more time being active which for any of us with a desk job is a good thing, and if all you truly want to do is sit down all day, then at least do it outside and get some vitamin D.

7. In current industry conversation, what is an example of ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’?

Creating a good candidate experience. I’m not saying this is easy to solve because it should be a never-ending chase for perfection, however, I have been in this industry for about a decade and the conversation hasn’t really changed. Too much time is wasted on trying to innovate when the basics get you a long way. Acknowledge applications, signpost to them (tell them how many steps there are, what they are and when they should expect to hear from you) and treat them with empathy. Do that and you’re ahead of most of the market.

8. What is that thing which is OK to ask you about, but which other people are wary to do so?

My wife had a miscarriage last year and I was blown away when I realised how many people are affected by this (more than one in five of all pregnancies in the UK). Talking to other people that had been through it really helped me, so I’m always happy to speak about it and offer support to people who are concerned about it or trying to cope with a loss themselves.

9. What is the best purchase you’ve made recently? Why?

Last year I got air conditioning units installed in both our main bedrooms. I live in a new build house with floor-to-ceiling windows upstairs and honestly, it might as well be a greenhouse in summer.

I really struggled to sleep in previous years and a fan wasn’t doing the job, so I decided to take the plunge on air conditioning, and it was one of the best decisions I have made. I sleep a lot better and with last summer reaching nearly 40 degrees in the UK I thoroughly enjoyed gloating to everyone that I still had my winter duvet on to keep warm. I did receive a lot of abuse back, but I put that down to jealousy.

10. What is your most prized possession? What’s the story behind it?

The only possessions I would say I’m really attached to are my guitars and the one I’m attached to the most is my 2008 Mexican Fender Telecaster. From a monetary perspective, it’s probably the least valuable I own; however, it was my first “serious” electric guitar, and I got it for my 18th birthday. I’ve moved 7 or 8 times since then and it’s probably the one thing that I’ve kept with me the whole time.

I’ve spent a lot of money on guitars since and even though it’s got a few scratches, a few parts replaced etc. there’s something about it that just feels like “home“ to me. If you ever join me on a video call it’s usually in the background just behind my right shoulder.

11. If you were to survive the zombie apocalypse, what role would you play in the new society that would follow?

I feel like I workshopped this far too often when I was really into The Walking Dead! The first thing is, I’m terrible at DIY so building accommodation, perimeters etc. would not be suited to me. I’m also not particularly confrontational so although I feel like I’m quite creative at planning/solutioning I think I would be far from the top of the leadership chain in the harsh new world.

Ultimately, I think my job might be something like a scout as I like the outdoors, I’m comfortable spending time by myself and if it all goes wrong, I’m naturally quite good at long-distance running when I need to be!

12. If you could witness one moment in history which one would it be and why?

I would love to go back to Egypt when the Pyramids were built and just see how (and when) they did it. I’ve spent a lot of time down the rabbit hole on non-mainstream theories on this one and would love to know for sure what happened. Even if it was all just built by slaves and manual labour it would be awesome to see the size and scale of the whole operation.

13. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received? Who gave it and when?

I think it was probably from my dad when I took my first city job. He was big on just doing the basics well. Always turn up on time (aim for early), make sure you don’t leave key tasks unfinished before you leave, learn from every scenario etc… Basically, get a reputation for being dependable and if you do that consistently then the day your train is late, or you have to leave early you would have already built up enough credit in the bank for your boss to understand it’s an exception and not the rule. I think that’s what a lot of bosses look for, particularly when you are early in your career. The more dependable you are, the quicker you build up trust, broaden your responsibilities and expand your experience.

14. Can you give an example of a time when you had to learn the lesson the hard way?

I spent the first 10 years of my career in sales and for the first 5-6 years I learned lessons the hard way more than I can count. Quite early in my career, I used to use a lot of “filler words” when I was pitching products. Phrases like “kind of”, “sort of”, “umm” etc. This isn’t a great habit in sales because if you don’t sound sure about what you’re pitching, why would the customer buy it?

I had a boss that hated this. He would listen in to my calls and every time I used one of those phrases, he would write them on a whiteboard in front of the whole sales team and start tallying how many times I did it next to each one. This would be happening live so it would catch people’s attention and they could see and hear me doing it whilst I was trying to pitch to a prospect – as you can imagine that made me use them even more!

It was pretty humiliating and made me really self-conscious but, in the end, I got a lot better pretty quickly, so I guess you could make a strong argument it worked.

15. What’s the one bad quality you wouldn’t mind in a colleague? Why?

I think I would go for brutal honesty. I mean people who will really give you true, sometimes blunt criticism if they disagree with an approach you have taken. It’s not always great for your ego, but I found I have learned a lot faster from brutal honesty than through more subtle in-direct feedback where you can miss the point. As long as it’s constructive in some way (not just a complete character assassination) I’m ok with that.

16. Have you ever been the weakest member of a team? How did you handle it?

Yes. In my second sales job at I joined a team that was doing really well and everyone was hitting targets other than me. I’d just come from a very “boiler room” sales job which had knocked my confidence and I genuinely thought I just couldn’t sell. For a while, I didn’t really trust myself to make a decision and kept constantly asking my colleagues for advice on every little thing, to the point where I got quite annoying. In the end, I had to bill money, or I knew I would fail my probation. Once I knew I had no other option I doubled down on my work rate, stopped making excuses and managed to hit my target on the last day of the month to keep my job. From there I seemed to gain a lot of confidence and never really looked back. I ended up getting promoted about 6 months after that.

17. When it comes to our work and industry: what scares you most?

I think the fact that TA generally tends to be behind the curve when you compare us to consumer marketing for example. I think the rate of change we are seeing in marketing will only widen the gap. This is a huge opportunity for those in TA can innovate and keep up, but I can see much of the industry getting left further and further behind when it comes to cutting-edge technology and techniques.

18. Do you have a secret tip, tool or trick that’s contributed to your success?

I don’t think it’s a secret, but the best tip I can think of is to really learn how to prioritise (I’m still working on this) and keep things simple. At IBM for example it was tempting for me to try and chase some exciting projects straight away, but it turned out that a lot of the items that could make the biggest impact were the simplest. The simplest items are often the easiest to communicate, set up and track. Once you have worked through the low-hanging fruit and you have your foundations in place, then it’s time to innovate.

19. If you could add a question for the next person to answer, what would it be?

What’s the top 3 resources you use to stay up to date with this industry (books podcasts, newsletters, thought leaders_)?

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

Ben Phillips as I think he has a lot of interesting perspectives, just be prepared to read a lot about cycling and lycra.

Thank you to Josh Willows for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune. Make sure to follow Josh on LinkedIn.

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