C-suite career advice: James Westoby, Wunderman Thompson Commerce

What would put you off a candidate? “… We aren’t keen on big egos. It’s the biggest barrier to teamwork and change.”

Wunderman Thompson Commerce

Name: James Westoby

Company: Wunderman Thompson Commerce

Job Title: CEO, Commerce and Technology

Location: London

Day-to-day, James Westoby is responsible for the strategic leadership of Wunderman Thompson Commerce UK, leading a team of more than 600 digital experts to deliver exceptional client service. Before assuming his role, Westoby led the company’s Client Services team as Chief Customer Officer, with responsibility for all UK client relationships and the company’s partnership network. He also served as Head of Client Services from 2012 to 2017. Westoby’s six years at Wunderman Thompson Commerce (formerly Salmon) supporting the likes of Selfridges, Halfords & Ted Baker, combined with 15 years’ industry experience, has armed him with an invaluable expertise and knowledge base across eCommerce.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Activity over achievement is a big trap. This actually originated from basketball coach John Wooden. He was not satisfied with simply having achievement in each activity, but rather he sought to maximise achievement without stifling initiative.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Back in late 2000/early 2001 a recruitment agent sent me for an interview at Enron. Not that she could have predicted the future of course, but the rest, as they say, is history!

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Learn the trade – it’s so easy to want to be ultra ambitious and progress quickly without stopping and thinking about the bigger picture. And sometimes it really shows. You’ll be working for much of your life – so immerse yourself in the business, look after yourself and the rewards will eventually come.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? Not really – when I was at school, the lessons we had around technology weren’t very inspiring. And I don’t know what triggered it, but I became absolutely fascinated by the world of tech – and particularly its relationship with business. That brought me to where I am today.

What was your first job in IT/tech? It was in a start-up ISP just before the dot com bubble burst. The idea was to sell advertising for free minutes online. I look back on those times now as if it might have been a good thing the bubble burst, as broadband turned up only a few months later. I got my first real job a few months later working for a call centre software and IVR business.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? That agile working is so misunderstood. IT/tech is so brilliantly flexible but the misconception is that, IT in particular, can be a little staid and more “traditional”. This couldn’t be further from the truth.  

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? As I alluded to earlier, it’s really about learning the craft first off and making sure the spokes of your “wheel” are all solid. Ask yourself, why you really want to progress. Get as much advice as you can before you commit to it. Talk to friends, family, other C-Suites to get a full view of what’s really required.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? For me, it’s all about the business. I want Wunderman Thompson to be known as the best in our field – we already work with some of the brightest and innovative minds in the business, but it’s all about the journey. It’s not for me to say whether we are the ‘best’ already – but the business has gone from strength-to-strength and it’s down to the brilliant people we have working for us.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? To be completely honest, I do struggle to compartmentalise personal and professional. The unfinishable to-do list means it’s hard to completely switch off even when I’m not at work. But I’m working on it! 

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? There was certainly an element when I first started (which I don’t think is true anymore) that you had to stay at a company for X number of years to build your experience. Which is maybe the mistake I made. In hindsight, I would have moved around a bit more in the early part of my working life.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Both are handy. It’s not necessarily about what you learn, but how you learn. Think of learning a language; you can revise and read all you want in German to learn all the literature and grammar rules, but nothing prepares you for the real thing of studying and working in that country, speaking the language every day.

How important are specific certifications? Standards, frameworks and peer support in teams wins for me.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Accountability is the number one – someone who can genuinely stand up and deliver. I saw a great stat that the vast majority of people on LinkedIn have “strategy” in their bios, but so few have the word “execute”. That tells me that not enough people actually want to be accountable, more so when things don’t work out so well, of course. The second would be taking ownership and grabbing the bull by the horns – you never know what may come of any opportunity unless you invest your whole self into it. And thirdly would be working as part of a wider team. It sounds easy, but it’s becoming harder to find.

What would put you off a candidate? I once interviewed someone who turned up with a rubber ring. I think he was on his way to the airport! We aren’t keen on big egos. It’s the biggest barrier to teamwork and change.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? When candidates say things they think they need to say – my advice would be to just be genuine and be yourself. Of course, it’s easier said than done sometimes, but I try to create an atmosphere that is more relaxed to help bring the candidate’s true self out.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? A mix of the two seems to be necessary now in most industries and career paths but I would add that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Real technologists with genuine business awareness still seems to be the rarest mix.