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An interview with Joe Gordon, Head of First Direct

After completing his degree, Joe started his career by stacking carrots in Sainsbury's. Fast forward a number of jobs later, at the age of 33, he became one of the youngest people ever to have made it to the top of the UK banking industry. We caught up with him to find out how he did it... 


What does an average day involve for you?

There is no average day and this is one of the main reasons I wanted to take on the role in the first place. First Direct is a fast-paced, pioneering place to work, where we’re always looking to deliver the best service and products to our customers.
As I see it, I’m here to work for the people in First Direct who work for our customers. I’m looking to create an environment of continuous improvement and this means making sure we put the authority where the information is. It means we’re always open to new ideas and new ways of doing things and this is why there’s no average day.

Describe your journey to your current position. What are your qualifications?

I have a degree in Business Management from Lancaster University, and this helped me realise I wanted to work in customer service. After uni I spent 10 years in the UK retail customer service industry, starting at Sainsbury's as a management trainee, working closely with the head of Sainsbury’s convenience stores, before moving to BT to work on fast-track scheme and gaining invaluable experience across most of the business. This also helped confirm to me the roles I enjoy most are the customer service operational roles. Prior to joining First Direct, I was the UK Head of Contact Centres for Retail Banking and Wealth Management in HSBC UK. Now I’m Head of First Direct; I see this primarily as a customer service job — banking isn’t always but should be all about serving customers.

Did you always want to work in banking?

I don’t know many people who’ve always wanted to work in banking, but as I said earlier I’ve always felt passionate about delivering great customer service and I believe banking — if done right — should be a customer service industry. Ask anyone in any industry which brands deliver good customer service and First Direct is usually in the top three (if not the top). It’s easy to say you focus on customers but it’s much harder to actually deliver this, and this was why I really wanted this job. I want First Direct to be seen as the best business for customer services — bank or otherwise.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

The first thing is the people. I genuinely believe my role should be about helping our people to do the best for our customers. They’re the ones speaking to the customers and seeing how they use our tech to carry out their banking so it stands to reason their views on what will work for customers should be centre stage. I take great satisfaction in giving people the authority to do the right thing and make a positive difference to our customers and the bank. Plus I like having fun, and we are pretty good at that at First Direct!

Any downsides?

I’d say the amount of governance is not the most fun part of the role. But the thing that would make a real difference to my working day would be fewer emails. Unfortunately, it’s often unavoidable but it can be so much faster to pick up the phone or even better to talk to people face to face.

What’s been the biggest hurdle in your career?

Probably the mental step to quickly understanding that you are not there to execute anyone else’s plan but deliver your own. In the early days of my career, I wrestled to find my purpose and direction while being a ‘good corporate citizen’. However, the more I thought about the ultimate aims of the businesses I worked for, the more I realised I could add value to that aim while aligning to my principals and values. Delivering that win-win, where I felt I was able to do things which were good for the people, good for the customers, and therefore good for the business. Sometimes you need to show the business that from the inside out.

What do you owe your success to?

It’s a cliché, but hard work and good timing. I believe you won’t win every time, but if you put the time and effort in and are able to take people with you then you’ll succeed. I’ve always been conscious my wins are always team wins and you can achieve anything if you don’t care who gets the credit. Success is usually a shared endeavour, so if we do well then we all do well. 
I also believe people don’t want leaders in the same vein as they used to, times have changed. Leaders don’t need to know everything but you need to know they have your back; they don’t need big offices and can be more productive sitting with everybody helping to get things done. People want leaders that both build confidence but also are above all human and relatable.

How do you deal with such responsibility, it must be stressful?

It is a big responsibility but again, it’s a shared responsibility, it’s not just me — I work with a committed and experienced team. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented people over the years and I genuinely believe in trusting people to do their specialist roles. Put the authority where the expertise is. Plus I don’t spend time dwelling on the responsibility but rather the opportunity — 'what one thing can I do today/ this week that will help?'

What advice would you give to a graduate who wants to work in finance?

I’m a fundamental believer in the fact that you need to keep the focus on your customers if you want to succeed. Retail finance is the same as many other industries – the tech, the products; they’re only any good if they’re what people want. If you’re passionate about the end customer then it could be the career for you. I’d say if you do go straight into finance then get some experience in speaking to customers first-hand, and trust what the people who deal with customers everyday are telling you. Finally, don’t take yourself or life too seriously, remember to have fun at work and work with people you like and admire, life’s too short.