Jeff Jones, President and CEO of H&R Block and 2020 inductee into The CMO Club’s CMO Hall of Fame started his career as an advertising account manager. He went on to serve at the highest levels of business and marketing leadership at companies including Uber, Target, The Coca-Cola Company, Leo Burnett, Gap Inc., and more. We asked him to reflect on his journey and share some lessons he’s learned along the way.
Our first question: What are three themes that have been present throughout your career?
Curiosity, Confronting Challenges, Building Relationships
Curiosity and a constant thirst to learn has always been present for me. I think my parents would tell you the first question I asked as a child was “why?” I grew up in West Virginia with 42 kids in my high school class. My parents were small town entrepreneurs who experienced both great successes and the devastation of bankruptcy. When you grow up in situations like that, life becomes your most important classroom. You learn by listening with your eyes and your ears. You become incredibly aware, observant, and curious about everything. I have always been a student of business and human behavior.
A second theme has been a willingness to step up to the plate when faced with hard problems. I was a better than average baseball player and a solid C- student in high school. I played competitively for a year at Fork Union Military Academy before going to the University of Dayton–an experience that was an absolute life-changer for me. It gave me tremendous discipline and confidence. That prepared me to be very successful academically as an undergrad and for the tough business decisions, I’d have to make throughout my career.
Finally, I’m so very grateful for the network of people that I have learned from and exchanged ideas with throughout my journey. I’ve always been fearless in reaching out and asking for help. I love staying in touch and helping others whenever I can. Relationships are everything. Having people you can count on, who will tell you the truth, who you can call when you’re struggling to make a tough decision is vital.
On Having a Long View
One of the greatest gifts that experience gives you is the recognition that you’re playing the long game. I certainly didn’t always have that perspective. I was impatient and competitive like so many early-career professionals who are more worried about why somebody else is getting the promotion. I have memos I wrote to my first bosses building the case for a $4,000 raise. It’s easy to be focused on how fast you’re advancing but what really matters is what you are learning.
Time helps you gain that vantage point, and it helps you get better at being patient.
I have also been very lucky to work for companies that invest in my personal development. I have a really clear understanding of who I am, my strengths, and my gaps. I know the areas where I need help. I know what I value and where my boundaries are.
Time, experience, and being intentional about understanding yourself help you get better at focusing on the long view. I believe the confidence in leading others and being vulnerable comes from deeply understanding myself.
One of the greatest gifts that experience gives you is the recognition that you’re playing the long game.
What Job Security Really Means
A few years out of college someone said something to me that really changed my mindset about work. His name is Michael Wood, and he was one of my early managers at Leo Burnett. I had been hired “off the street,” meaning I didn’t come through their highly selective campus recruiting programs. I was one of the rare people hired without an MBA. I knew I was at a disadvantage because I wasn’t recruited, but I was so determined to work at Leo Burnett. I was so passionate about advertising and so ready to distinguish myself in other ways. I had literally focused my entire senior year of college on being hired by Leo Burnett.
About three years in, the agency was going through some tough times. I had recently moved back to Chicago after starting with the agency in Detroit. I didn’t have a fancy academic pedigree or legacy connections to shore me up. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. And because of my parents’ bankruptcy, I knew what it felt like to lose everything. I was paranoid about getting laid off.
While Michael probably doesn’t even remember saying this to me, what he said really shaped me. He told me to get over it. He told me everyone gets fired someday and that it’s not a big deal. His message was really this; job security is not about avoiding the latest round of layoffs, it’s about knowing that you’re good enough to get another job. That really changed me and helped me lean into working offensively.
When you work offensively it’s not about working because you need the job, or because you are concerned about getting fired. When you work offensively you’re going to work every single day to be yourself and kick butt. You’re not shy when you see something wrong. Of course, you’re always respectful. You don’t start breaking all the glass. But you play offense. And working offensively is what really gives you job security.
For me, that professional confidence started with what Michael said. It also tapped the competitive spirit that being an athlete gave me. And maybe there was a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because of where I came from.
Working offensively is what really gives you job security. Job security is knowing you’re good enough to get another job.
In nearly every single position I’ve held, there has been some kind of crisis or major uncertainty. In the moment they were all terrifying and challenging, but I now understand and appreciate how lucky I’ve been to have gained these experiences. Not only have they tested me and helped me grow, but we live in a volatile and uncertain world and learning to navigate uncertainty is one of the greatest skills for any leader.
I’m a very self-reflective person. I have a clear statement of personal purpose, which is to enable excellence in others through authenticity and humanity. I credit two key people, Kevin Cashman and Peter Sims, for helping me to gain this clarity. It’s a statement I first wrote many years ago and it continues to ground me today. I try to live by it every single day.
When you face tough times, but you don’t have any way to anchor yourself it’s very easy to find yourself lost. In times of crisis and uncertainty, you need to leverage your foundations to navigate effectively. Even though I didn’t always have that purpose statement written, I have always had words and phrases I kept present that I would use to guide me through some really crazy situations I never imagined I would have to deal with.
I’ve had a lot of practice in navigating uncertainty. These experiences test you and help you grow.
Fulfillment at Each Stage
At my first job, I wrote down three words that would guide every job change: learning, responsibility, impact. From a very early stage I was asking myself: am I learning; am I growing in my responsibilities; am I having a real impact in the world and in my job?
Later in my career, I literally wrote down what I wanted to be doing in my 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. It’s crazy to say it out loud now but my twenties were all about learning. My thirties were about leverage and my forties were about scale. At the time that I wrote the list, I said that my fifties were going to be about teaching.
Over the decades I’ve started to recognize I am teaching every single day. It’s a source of great pride–I’ve had some small part in shaping the professional perspectives and expertise of people I’ve worked with. There are a couple of dozen of them who are now the C-suite leaders at major brands. I’ve worked with so many incredible people. I’m confident in the years ahead there will be many more in those top leadership roles. I’m so glad we’ve shared experiences that helped them grow as professionals. They taught me as much as I taught them. I think when I look back on my career, this will be one of the things that gives me the greatest fulfillment.
Over the decades I’ve started to recognize I am teaching every single day.
When I think about companies and brands I always think about them first through the lens of the people. Being a leader is about building and shaping cultures where people can be themselves and, as I said at Target, where you can create a safe place to do dangerous things.
When you take the helm as an organization navigates transformation, the best place to start is by treasuring the people there. I think it’s very easy for new leaders to join and say “everything before was bad, and now I’m here, and here’s what we’re going to do.” I think that’s a cop-out.
The most important thing I can say to a company in need of transformation is this: we’re going to cherish and change. I talk to the organization about everything I know about this company that we are going to defend and cherish. And I share the things about the company we have to change in order to make sure we’re around for the next generation. To be relevant for any period of time you have to be willing to learn and constantly reinvent yourself. Great leaders acknowledge that there are good people everywhere. They start with people and culture.
To be relevant for any period of time you have to be willing to learn and constantly reinvent yourself.
The Vantage Point Behind the Plate
While I don’t get to do it as much as I would like now, for most of my career I’ve always carried a camera in my briefcase. I would get lost in the cities and towns I visited and take them in through the lens. I loved the creativity of photography, but it was also a way to study human behavior. I love examining behavior and understanding why people conduct themselves the way they do.
As a baseball player, I was a catcher. A great catcher is also a great observer of human —individual and team— behavior. It was an experience I believe shaped me as a leader. As a catcher, I literally enjoyed the vantage of seeing the entire game play out before me. From behind the plate, I had the potential to beautifully choreograph all of the people and executional details into a winning team.
When should I visit the mound to have a calming word with the pitcher? What if I repositioned the outfield just a few more steps to the right? How do I glance at the runner on first base just so he knows I’m paying attention? What do I see from the 3rd base coach from my peripheral vision? When is the right moment to connect with the shortshop without exchanging any words so he knew I was going to throw to second base to pick off the runner who was getting a little bold?
Today, as a public-company CEO, I think constantly about how I bring all of this experience to bear as we build teams and culture, focus on executional details without micromanaging, and remain focused on helping our customers and building relevance for the long term as we ensure value for all of our stakeholders. It’s a role that I feel great honor to have and one in which learning, responsibility, teaching, and having impact are very real every single day.