As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Jones, president and CEO of H&R Block.
Jeff is leading the global business that inspires financial confidence through its small business, financial, and tax preparation services. These digitally enabled solutions are powered by its human advantage — the expertise and care of more than 120,000 franchisees and associates.
Jones brings nearly 30 years of executive management, innovative leadership and operational excellence to the company, having held key roles at top companies in retail, consumer products, agency, and technology industries.
Prior to H&R Block, Jones was the first president of the global ride sharing business, Uber. He has also served as executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Target, serving as a senior member of the company’s four primary operating groups: core business, strategy and innovation, talent, and risk and reputation. In addition, he has held executive and leadership roles serving iconic brands such as The Coca-Cola Company, Gap, and Leo Burnett.
Jones serves on the board of directors of Advance Auto Parts and is a member of the Compensation and Nominating and Governance committees. He has also advised Brit+Co., The Mayo Clinic and multiple early-stage technology companies, in addition to non-profits including Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, and the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Fuqua Business School.
With a commitment to equality, he is advancing work for justice and opportunity as a member of Fortune’s CEO Initiative, and by pledging to the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, as well as the Catalyst CEO Champions for Change.
Jones has a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Dayton and is a graduate of Fork Union Military Academy.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I think my ‘backstory’ can be summed up as leading and navigating through challenging times. I grew up the son of small business owners. My parents owned restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and video rental stores during my childhood. Then, when I was a junior in high school, they had to file bankruptcy, and we lost everything. It was definitely a challenging time. However, I learned valuable lessons about resiliency and the drive to never give up.
Those life lessons from my childhood served me well throughout my career as I have had the pleasure of working for some of the best brands in the world. I was the Chief Marketing Officer at Gap and later Target. I was the first President at Uber, and today serve as the President and CEO of H&R Block. Consistent from company to company was that during my tenure at each one, they were undergoing transformation or re-establishing their relevancy. In many cases throughout my career, I have helped major brands navigate crisis.
I have always been interested in developing creative ideas along with understanding human psychology and human behaviors. This combination of creative vision and knowing the customer has been the foundation of my career.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Tell us about your company’s vision and purpose.
H&R Block’s purpose is to provide help and inspire confidence in our clients and communities everywhere. When I joined the company three years ago and went on a listening tour meeting our associates, franchisees and clients all across the country, our tax professionals rarely talked to me about taxes. Instead, they shared stories about the long-standing relationships they have with their clients who returned year after year. They got to see their lives evolve as they had babies, lost jobs, bought homes. We’re in the financial confidence business. We don’t just see a tax form. We see the lives and livelihoods represented in all the fields on that form. We have this unique front row seat on American life. That’s why we are so rooted in our purpose. Taxes and financial matters can be intimidating. It’s our job at H&R Block to provide the help so that these topics aren’t scary, and we can help people plan ahead for successful outcomes. The heart of who we are as a company began when we were founded. Henry and Richard Bloch were intentional about creating a company with purpose-based values and a desire to serve the community. That spirit is carried out by everyone at Block today.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
During the pandemic, everyone has been dealing with uncertain times, and it has been quite the journey for all leaders. I remember back in March, when everything seemed uncertain. We were over-using the word “unprecedented” and the phrase “now more than ever.” Back then it was like driving in a dense fog. Then, the fog lifted during the summer to be more like driving during a heavy rainstorm. The path ahead became slightly clearer, and it continues to get clearer every day. During this time, I’ve led my team by staying grounded in our purpose and have encouraged everyone to use our purpose as their north star.
During the pandemic we knew how important refunds were to millions of Americans as people were losing their jobs. We had a responsibility to help people get their money, and even as the pandemic made us modify how we delivered our services, we did everything possible to help our customers.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up is never an option. We knew we had to help our customers. And to us, they were more than customers, they were the people in our community. We were motivated by staying focused on our purpose. It was also important to keep teams motivated by sharing success stories and having the satisfaction that we were helping when we were needed most.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
When things are uncertain and challenging, your team wants to hear from you — and hear from you often. As leaders we can incorrectly assume that we should only send a message to our team when we have something profound to say. But, in times of crisis, teams just want to hear your voice. So, the most critical role is to communicate often, and be transparent and authentic — there is power in humility.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The best way to boost morale is to help the team see their successes, as well as their ability to do something bigger. During the pandemic we did some ‘myth-busting’ as an organization. There were things we thought couldn’t be done pre-pandemic. And, yet, at the beginning of the pandemic, those very same aspects of the business were transformed in days and weeks. It was important to celebrate these successes even as things continued to change at a rapid pace.
Leaders can also boost morale with transparency and candor. People tend to do their best when they know the truth. The role of a leader is to be aware that not everyone can handle the truth, so deliver your message appropriately.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Deliver difficult news with directness and also respect. As I said earlier, people tend to do their best when they know the truth. One of our behaviors at H&R Block is to be straightforward. Usually, being direct and straightforward is the best approach.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When the future is unpredictable, plans become even more important. The world is unpredictable and the only way to make sense of it is to have plans. The key is to be open enough to change plans as warranted. If you don’t have a plan as a starting point, you have nothing to anchor to, no guide.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
At H&R Block, our number one principle that has been guiding us during the pandemic and applies to any turbulent time is to always come back to focusing on the customer. At the peak of shelter-in-place orders, our focus was on the customer. We knew people needed their refunds. Other than the federal stimulus payments, refunds were a main source of extra money for families across the country. Our tax pros felt a responsibility to the people in their communities. They were as essential as the pharmacists helping people get their medications or store clerks keeping the shelves full.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
The five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain times are:
- Be guided by your purpose and your customers. Let your purpose be your north star and keep delivering for your customers. They may need your services even more during a crisis.
- Set the tone for candor and transparency. There is power in being humble and at times admitting you’re feeling the strain of a crisis, too.
- Communicate more often than you think you should. People want to hear from you, and it doesn’t always have to be profound.
- Keep moving forward. Don’t get paralyzed with decision making. Plans are a good starting point but be flexible and change as needed.
- Debrief with your teams all the time to make sure you’re learning and getting better. I believe in being better together. Learn, pivot and keep going.